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In-Car Computers

Time was that the only computer in a patrol car was the Casio calculator inside the duty bag of the driver. Now just a decade later, computers are so common in patrol cars that some have more than one.

David Griffith 2017 Headshot

Time was that the only computer in a patrol car was the Casio calculator inside the duty bag of the driver. Now just a decade later, computers are so common in patrol cars that some have more than one.

There's a computer inside the engine that monitors the fuel injection, there's probably still a Casio calculator inside the officer's duty bag (maybe even the same one he had back in the '90s), and there's a computer mounted inside the car that can be used to receive and transmit information, write reports, and perform dozens of other functions.

Today, the most common patrol computer is a laptop that's designed for use in and out of the car. But it's not an ordinary laptop. The stress of patrol duty would turn an ordinary laptop, even the latest high-end Macs or PCs, into really expensive doorstops.

A patrol car is a vicious environment for a computer. First of all, cars produce a lot of vibration when they are revving down the road or even just idling. You and I hardly notice this vibration because we're used to it and because our bodies are considerably more robust than high-tech electronic equipment, but the constant vibration of an operating patrol car can shake loose the chips in an ordinary laptop.

Vibration is one major concern for patrol car computers. Another, more important, concern is the treatment the computer will receive by its using officer. Cops can be really hard on computers. They can spill coffee on the keyboards, accidentally rap the display screens with a hard object, or drop their machines.

The solution for agencies that want to operate computers in the torture chambers known as patrol units is to buy ruggedized systems. These computers have been cooked, frozen, bashed, dropped, shaken, covered with dust, and splashed with liquids, to prove they can take the punishment.

The following is a quick look at some of the leading manufacturers of ruggedized computers for public safety applications and some of their most popular models.


El Monte, Calif.-based Amrel makes a variety of computers for public safety operations, including the Rocky Unlimited ruggedized notebook, the Rocky Mobile on-board system, and the Rocky Tablet.

The company's most popular current model is the Rocky Unlimited RT7-1 ruggedized notebook. It's both a powerful and tough laptop that can be used in or out of patrol vehicles. The Rocky Unlimited RT7-1 complies with MIL-STD 810F and boasts an Intel Pentium M processor with SpeedStep technology and a 2MB Level II cache. Storage is handled by a 40GB removable hard drive; an 80GB drive is available as an option. The computer can accept up to 2GB of RAM and comes standard with 512MB of RAM. Its display is a 13.3-inch TFT LCD screen.


Data911 makes a variety of video and computer equipment for use in public safety vehicles. On the computer side, the Alameda, Calif.-based company specializes in on-board systems and tough, highly visible displays.

The Data911 display product line includes three different screen sizes-15 inches, 12 inches, 8.4 inches-that are sunlight visible and can be easily adjusted for any lighting condition. Each of these touchscreen displays is scratch resistant and offers high-resolution digital image quality.

Some of the most interesting products that Data911 makes are keyboards and displays that can be used with other manufacturers' laptop systems. The company says that some agencies decide that they really don't want laptop systems after making the investment. Data911's displays and keyboards let those agencies turn their existing laptops into fixed on-board computer systems.


On-board computers are the public safety specialty of Winchester, Va.-based Datalux. The company also makes cart-mountable computers for hospitals.

Datalux's most popular law enforcement computer is the Tracer. The Tracer is an all-in-one system that can be installed and removed by unplugging a single connection. Its sealed case dissipates heat through pipes so there is no fan noise, and a thermal protection feature shuts down the system when it is left idle in a sun-baked car.

The Tracer is ruggedized to MIL-STD 810F. Processor power ranges from a 1.4-GHz Pentium M with a 2MB cache to a 1.3-GHz Celeron M with a 512KB cache. System memory starts at 256MB of RAM and can be expanded to 1GB. Data storage is handled by a 20GB hard drive.

The Tracer's high-resolution touchscreen display is enhanced with three anti-reflective films for excellent sunlight visibility. It can also be dimmed at night.[PAGEBREAK]


Lake Forest, Calif.-based Getac makes a variety of ruggedized computers for public safety and military applications. All are certified to comply with MIL-STD 810F.

The latest model in the Getac line is the M220 Ruggedized Notebook. Boasting a 14.1-inch TFT XGA LCD touchscreen, the M220 excels in visibility and screen real estate. The CPU is an Intel 1.6-GHz Dothan LV processor with a 400-MHz FSB. Storage options start with a standard 80GB hard drive, and the system memory starts at 512KB of RAM.


A subsidiary of General Dynamics, Spokane, Wash.-based Itronix makes a full line of ruggedized notebooks and tablet PCs. As you might expect from its parentage, Itronix gets a lot of sales from the military, but its public safety division is also strong.

Itronix's latest ruggedized notebook is the GoBook XR-1, a lightweight (6.8 pounds) but tough mobile computer that features the latest in CPU and memory components. The GoBook XR-1 boasts a next-generation mobile dual-core Intel Core Duo 1.83-GHz processor with an FSB of 667 MHz. A 40GB hard drive is standard, but the computer can accommodate an 80GB drive. The GoBook XR-1 meets MIL-STD 810F for durability and performance.

JLT Mobile Computers

As the name implies, Sweden's JLT Mobile Computers makes mobile computers and nothing else. The company's product line includes a variety of on-board computer systems for both cars and motorcycles.

The JLT12041 is a rugged (MIL-STD 810F) fixed-mount computer for patrol vehicles. There are two versions available. The high-end model offers an Intel 1.4-GHz Pentium M CPU and 1GB of RAM. But the real star of the system is the display. It's a 12.1-inch 1000NIT SVGA touchscreen that's designed for use in bright sunshine and is also dimmable for night operations. In contrast, the basic JLT12041 is very, well...basic. It's got a 400-MHz processor, 128MB of RAM, and 420NIT display.

A smaller version, the JLT100021, is available for motorcycles. Like the JLT12041, this system is available in a high-end version and a basic version.


Germany's Kontron is one of the world's top manufacturers of on-board computer systems and ruggedized laptops. The company's two primary law enforcement products are the Envoy_II three-piece mobile data computing system and the Rugged Note ruggedized laptop.

The Envoy_II is an on-board computer system that offers low power consumption and MIL-STD 810F toughness. It's powered by a 1.7-GHz Intel Pentium M processor and features 512MB of system storage, expandable to 1GB. Data storage is handled by a 40GB hard drive that comes standard. Storage capacity is expandable to 80GB.

Kontron's Rugged Note is one of the lightest ruggedized notebooks on the market, weighing just under six pounds. The Rugged Note features a 1.1-GHz Intel Pentium M processor with a 1MB cache. System storage is handled by 256MB of RAM, and the hard drive slot can support a 60GB drive.

L3 Communications

Last decade's shakeout in the aerospace/defense industry helped create L3 communications. The company includes divisions that were once part of Raytheon, part of Lockheed-Martin, part of General Electric, and other major defense contractors. In the public safety sector, L3 is best know for its infrared surveillance devices and its mobile communications and computers.

L3's MobileVu Computers on-board systems feature trunk-mountable processors and bright, easy-to-read touchscreen displays. The MobileVu display is a 12.1-inch 1500NIT color matrix LCD that's great in sunlight and dimmable for night viewing.


Japan's Panasonic is perhaps the world's leader in supplying ruggedized laptop computers for military and law enforcement applications. If you see a laptop inside a police car, odds are that it will be a Toughbook. The Toughbook is the laptop computer most often used by American law enforcement.

The latest versions of the Toughbook are the Toughbook-18 and the Toughbook-29. The 29 is your basic Toughbook. It has a relatively thick, sturdy frame that's lightweight (7.9 pounds) and a reinforced 13.1-inch touchscreen display. Processing in the 29 is handled by a 1.60-GHz Intel Pentium M CPU with a 2MB Level II cache. The basic memory package is 60GB with 256KB of RAM. Upgrades are available.

Panasonic's Toughbook-18 is a very versatile ruggedized laptop that can be converted into a Tablet PC. When the computer is open, the user can flip the display so that it becomes a flat writing surface. You sacrifice a little screen real estate for this versatility-the 18's touchscreen display is only 10.4 inches-but if you need both a laptop and a tablet, the 18 bears a look. The CPU is a 1.2-GHz Pentium M processor with a 2MB Level II cache. Standard memory is 512MB of RAM expandable to 1.5GB and standard storage is a 60GB hard drive.

Both the Toughbook-29 and the Toughbook-18 meet MIL-STD 810F survivability requirements.

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