Shopping for a Windows-Based Field Tablet?

Shopping for a Windows-Based Field Tablet?
Last Update – 2016-02-13
Shopping for a Windows-Based Field Tablet?
Some things you should know!
Del W. Despain
University of Arizona - Arizona Cooperative Rangeland Monitoring Program
Compared to just a couple of years ago, there are myriad options available when shopping for a field
tablet. Choices include everything from a widening array of expensive ruggedized tablets to relatively
inexpensive personal tablets which can also be used in the field. Let’s start with some things you should
be aware of when shopping for a tablet to use in the field.
Excluding smart phones, there are basically three categories of tablets and hand-held devices being
manufactured that you might consider for use in the field:
1) Handheld field devices based on Microsoft Windows Embedded Handheld or Windows Mobile
operating systems. Examples include the Trimble Juno, Juniper Systems devices and so forth.
These devices will not run VGS or other standard Windows applications and are excluded from
this discussion.
2) Tablets based on “ARM” processors including iPads, Android tablets and Windows 8RT tablets.
While these tablets are relatively inexpensive and ubiquitous, they have the following
disadvantages as field tablets of which to be aware:
a. ARM based tablets (including those based on Windows RT) do not run standard
Windows applications. Therefore, they will not run current versions of VGS or many
other common Windows-based software tools typically used in the field by land
management agencies and others.
b. Some of these tablets do not include a USB or other port so important for backing up
data in the field when a cell tower or Wi-Fi signal is not available.
c. Almost all of these tablets have integrated batteries that cannot be replaced in the field.
When the batteries are depleted, the tablet must be plugged in to a power source and
recharged before use can continue. While battery life is very good in these tablets, this
still may present problems in the field, especially when overnight pack trips are
involved.
d. In general, visibility of these tablets has been very poor in direct sunlight. However, as
with cell phones, this is changing and there are a few models which do reasonably well
in the sun.
3) Windows 7/8/10 tablets. These tablets are based on more powerful processors that support
Windows 7, 8 or 10 operating systems (not including Windows RT) and will run any software
that your laptop or desktop will run such as VGS, ArcGIS and full versions of Microsoft Office
applications including Access and Excel. This is the category of tablets with which we are
concerned here as they offer the most flexible solution for most field needs at this time. Also,
with the release of new low-power processors that will still run demanding Windows
applications, they are finally becoming thinner and lighter with longer battery life to make them
more attractive for field use. Nearly all manufacturers have released new tablets in this
category within the past year or two. Choices available now include convertibles and dual-mode
laptops and tablets. There are many new fully-rugged and semi-rugged models as well as the
standard office variety.
“Ruggedness”
Before we get into details, let’s talk a moment about “ruggedness”. Tablets and laptops are marketed in
basically three categories: 1) fully rugged, 2) semi-rugged - sometimes called “business rugged”, and 3)
non-rugged. Rugged and semi-rugged models are generally targeted at law enforcement, utility
companies, warehouse applications, hospitals and the military. These models are designed to meet
minimum standards for various conditions such as temperature, dust, moisture and shock. Nonruggedized varieties are targeted at the standard office or home user. Units from any of these
categories may be used in the field, but in general you will find the following differences to consider:
“Ruggedized” models:
Pros:
a) More resistant to damage from being dropped. I personally have dropped one out
of a truck onto pavement without any issues. Of course the displays will break if
dropped directly onto a rock, but many have bumped-out corners and other
protections that help reduce the likelihood of a direct hit.
b) Displays are specifically designed for use in direct sunlight (see cautions below).
c) Components are rated for use in colder or hotter temperatures than a typical tablet
or laptop. Some even have built-in heaters for use in extreme cold conditions if you
have such a need.
d) Resistant to dust and moisture. I have used these tablets in the rain without
consequences. For fisheries biologists and others, there are even submersible units
available for when you fall navigating a creek.
e) Generally have longer and more generous warranties.
Cons:
a) Expensive!
b) Heavier and thicker than run-of-the-mill units, though this has improved greatly.
Non-ruggedized models
Pros:
a) Thinner and lighter.
b) Less expensive.
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c) Longer battery life.
Cons:
a) Generally harder to see the displays in the sun
b) Many lack certain essentials discussed later – such as replaceable batteries and USB
ports.
c) Often don’t include a satellite-capable GPS (usually require cell-tower signals with a
broadband service subscription).
d) Inexpensive rugged cases are available for many models, though this increases the
size and weight which negates the thinner/lighter advantage. Also, screen
protectors permanently attached to many of these cases are not replaceable.
Shopping Specifications
Here are things to look for or to consider when shopping for a Windows-based field tablet:
Processors
This may seem an unnecessary detail, but at a coarse level it is actually an important one to consider.
Most Windows based tablets and laptops are based on Intel processors, but look for newer models
which are built around the latest “Atom” class processors (often referred to as Atom 2 processors –
earlier versions are slow), “Haswell” class processors or the newer Skylake/Core-M/6th Generation
processors. These are the newest generation processors from Intel which provide for longer battery life.
I point this out because there are still many models out there for sale that have been around awhile and
are based on older technology. They are not bad units (I am still using them), but they run hotter and
have a shorter battery life than the newest designs. VGS works adequately with the above processors,
but if you are going to work with processing-intensive applications such as mapping and GIS software,
avoid the Atom processors which are a bit slower. It is up to you what speed of processor you go for,
but in general, the faster the processor the shorter the battery life. Again, do not get a unit with an
ARM processor if you plan to use standard Windows applications.
Operating Systems
Windows 7, 8 or Windows 10. Avoid Windows RT if you plan to use standard Windows applications.
Windows XP SP2 is also fine with VGS version 3.2, but currently not VGS version 4. Also, you can’t buy
XP SP2 with a new computer and it is no longer supported by Microsoft.
Displays
There are three important considerations regarding the display:
1) Sunlight visibility. Look for models with a minimum “NIT” rating of 500 or higher. NIT ratings
are a bit like MPG ratings for cars - they are not consistent and everyone measures a bit
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differently. In general you may be disappointed with anything rated at less than 400-500 NITs.
The higher the rating the better. It is difficult to find information on NIT ratings for nonruggedized models, so you may need to find one you can take outside to see how it performs. In
fact, my advice is always “try before you buy” even for ruggedized models! In my experience,
you can’t trust the marketing material. Just because it says “sunlight” or “daylight” viewable,
don’t believe it until you or someone you trust has tried it. Be aware that for the dimmer
displays, you will have to turn up the screen brightness to the maximum which reduces battery
life. The best displays are those that incorporate both back-lighting and “transflective”
properties which use ambient light to enhance visibility. The best I have seen is the screen on
the Panasonic CF-19 rated at up to 6000 NIT in direct sunlight.
2) Dual-mode screen. Tablet displays have either one or two mechanisms for input. One is touch
(called capacitive displays) and the other is an “active” stylus (called digitizing displays). You are
probably going to want both. Touch-only computers may have a stylus also, but the stylus is not
“active” which means nothing happens until you touch the screen with the stylus just the same
as if you are using your finger (iPads function this way). I have found touch-only screens and
styluses to be difficult to use for some aspects of data entry and especially cumbersome for
mapping purposes. For Windows 8 and above, you will want a touch or multi-touch screen in
order to take advantage of the touch capabilities of the operating system. Therefore, my advice
is that you get a “dual-mode” screen that includes both an “active” stylus (sometimes referred
to as a “digitizing” stylus or screen) and touch (preferably “multi-touch”) capabilities. Touch is
not as important for Windows 7 but the digitizing stylus is important. Some ruggedized tablet
touch screens include a special ability to work with gloves which may or may not be a
consideration depending on how and when you will be using the tablets.
3) Size and resolution. Full Windows based tablets are available with 5” displays and larger. Any
size will do, as long as you get a dual mode screen as described above. For current versions of
VGS, you may find you need to use the stylus on a small screen until you actually get to the data
entry forms where touch is adequate. On 10” screens and up, people are using either touch or a
stylus depending on their preference, though touch is still not great for some aspects of VGS. A
minimum screen resolution of 1064 x 768 is now required for VGS. Newer tablets are coming
out with HD screens (1920 x 1080 or higher) which are great for mapping and photo
applications. Most users actually prefer to use VGS at standard resolution settings in order to
keep the data-entry elements larger on the screen.
Batteries
It is recommended that you get a unit with a replaceable battery for field use. It is never fun to run out
of battery power in the field. It is especially frustrating when you only have a few points or quadrats left
to sample. Also, the expected lifetime of batteries used under the hot or cold conditions we typically
expose them to in the field is reduced. Replacing an integrated battery that has gone bad is usually
difficult if not impossible and removing the back of these tablets will usually void the warranty. Virtually
all ruggedized tablets have replaceable batteries, but standard inexpensive tablets with a replaceable
battery are far and few between. Some ruggedized models have “hot-swappable” batteries which
means the main battery can be replaced without powering down the computer. This is a really nice
feature in the field.
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Miscellaneous
1) USB port. Backing up data is most easily accomplished in the field via a USB port. While not a
requirement, a tablet with a USB port (either standard or micro) is highly recommended. Be
aware that many of the thinnest tablets do not include a USB port. There are adapters and
“dual-mode” flash drives that allow you to plug into a micro USB port for backups, but the micro
USB port must have OTG (“On-The-Go”) capability. If you are considering a tablet with only a
micro USB port, make sure it has OTG capabilities.
2) Solid-state storage. Though not required, a solid-state drive (SDD) is nice primarily because it
enhances battery life and is generally more reliable. Most of the thinnest tablets do not have
options for anything but a solid-state drive. One disadvantage is that SS drives are a bit more
expensive, though this is rapidly changing.
3) All other features required or beneficial for VGS (such as a speaker) are virtually standard on all
tablets and so are ignored here, though some other things to consider are covered under
accessories below.
Accessories
The following accessories may be considered:
1) Field case and harness. Protective cases are useful for their utility for carrying and working with
the tablets as much as the additional protection they provide. This is especially true of the
heavier ruggedized tablets for which a case you can hook to a harness is almost always required.
Even the lightest tablets can become literally painful over time to carry around without a
harness to relieve some of the weight, especially if you are working alone with no opportunity to
sit and record with the tablet resting in your lap. For larger tablets, a hands-free 4-point harness
is recommended, but even a two-point shoulder harness is helpful. For small or light-weight
tablets, a hand strap that attaches to the back of the case or tablet is recommended.
2) Extra batteries. I always go for the longest-life batteries available, though they are usually
heavier and/or bulkier than the standard batteries offered for a tablet.
3) External battery chargers. Get external battery chargers – one for a wall outlet and one for
vehicles. Some brands offer a single charger that works for both. Some docking stations include
battery charging as well. The thin, light office tablets often are charged through the USB port
same as most cell phones, but charging this way in a vehicle is usually slow unless you have an
inverter.
4) GPS. A GPS may be useful or necessary depending on your needs. VGS supports several built-in
GPS units and GPS devices connected via USB, but at this time a GPS is only for recording
individual coordinates which may also be entered manually from readings taken from an
external GPS. Be aware that some internal GPS units that are included with standard tablets
require broadband cellular service. Consider what you will use the GPS for and the accuracy
needed when deciding if a built-in GPS is necessary.
5) Screen protectors. I recommend using screen protectors. They can either increase or decrease
reflectivity of the screen depending on the tablet and the kind of protector, so look for
protectors made for use in the sun. Change them often as they easily become scratched or
damaged over time which reduces visibility. Protectors may reduce touch sensitivity slightly.
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Protectors integrated with rugged cases are usually not changeable which can be a problem
over time, though some cases are not that much more expensive than screen protectors.
6) Extra stylus. An extra stylus is especially important if you don’t have a touch screen. It is easy to
lose a stylus in the field (I prefer not to have my stylus tethered to the tablet or anything else),
so have an extra handy. Get one that is comfortable to use. In general, active styluses based on
the same technology are interchangeable among tablet brands (see tablet specs for the
technology used). Keep a few extra tips around too as they get rough with time and will begin
to scratch the screen protectors (you can also buff the tips with very fine sandpaper).
7) Backpack/carrying case. A backpack or other carrying case is recommended because: a) it
provides a way to carry everything while hiking to a study site, and b) it keeps the computer with
all of the accessories together, organized and ready to go to the field. I personally prefer a
computer backpack over a regular day pack – not because the padding is needed as much as
they tend to stay standing upright when you set them on the ground for easier access to the
contents.
8) Camera. Built-in cameras are commonly available, but consider the quality, focal length, light
capacity and so forth of a built-in camera to make sure it truly meets your needs.
Summary
Despite the lengthy foregoing discussion, it all boils down to the following short checklist of the most
critical requirements when shopping for a tablet for VGS or other Windows field applications:
1)
2)
3)
4)
5)
Windows 7, 8 or 10 (NOT Windows RT or Windows Mobile)
Visible in direct sunlight
Digitizing/active type display and stylus
Replaceable battery
USB Port
Happy Shopping!
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Information About Specific Models
As of the date of this document, below are some specific models with which VGS users have shared their
experience or that appear to be a good match and for which we are looking for feedback. Many models
come in different configurations with regard to displays and so forth, so when purchasing check the
specifications to make sure the specific configuration you select meets minimum requirements as
outlined above.
Ruggedized Tablets

Panasonic
o CF-20 – Laptop with detachable tablet
 Pros:
 Use as tablet or laptop
 Detachable tablet
 Considerably longer battery life than the CF-19
 Much lighter and thinner than CF-19
 Hot-swappable battery capability
 Cons:
 Expensive
o CF-19 – Convertible (use in either laptop or tablet mode, but tablet does not detach)
 Pros:
 Great display in the sun – best we have found.
 Swappable hard drive
 On Federal BPA approved list
 Includes a keyboard
 Cons:
 Bulky/heavy (especially with field case)
 Moderate battery life
 Expensive
o
FZ-G1 (Recommended)
 Pros:
 Thin and light for a ruggedized tablet
 High resolution display
 Decent battery life (go for the larger battery option)
 Cons:
 Battery is not hot-swappable
o
FZ-M1 (Please provide feedback)
 Smaller than FZ-G1, but otherwise similar
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
XPlore Technologies
o Bobcat (Recommended)
 Users have recommended this unit
o XSlateB10 (Please provide feedback)
o
o


o
XC6 Series - The current version of the long-available iX104C series
 No longer recommend because there are lighter, thinner options now available,
but a cheap used one would still be a viable option.
 Pros:
 Proven reliability (proven under hot conditions)
 Hot-swappable battery
 Cons:
 Bulky/heavy (especially with manufacturer supplied field case, though a
lightweight more compact field case is available through a third party).
 Relatively poor battery life
 Replacement batteries are expensive.
 Expensive
o
Latitude 12 Rugged (Please provide feedback)
 Priced similar to the Panasonic FZ-G1
Dell
Getac
o F110


o

Motion J12 (Motion computing was purchased by Xplore Technologies)
 Pros:
 Suitable option if need a large screen
 Cons:
 Heavy and big enough to need a harness, but a good case/harness
combination hasn’t been found.
CL920 (Please provide feedback)
Ok, but we like the Panasonic FZ-G1 better
Pros:
 Dual batteries. However, batteries are small and overall battery life is
not that much better than other ruggedized tablets. Having dual
batteries does mean that batteries may be replaced without first
shutting down or even going to sleep mode which is advantageous
 Cons:
 Not that great in the sun. There are better models out there.
 Port covers are a little awkward in use.
Other Getac models are available but we have no experience with them and have not
received feedback about them.
Trimble
o Kenai (please provide feedback)
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o
Yuma 2
 The original Yuma tablet was not recommended, but this version appears to be
suitable though we no experience with it. We suggest that the Kenai would be a
better choice among the Trimble offerings.
For more information about specific ruggedized models, configurations and availability of ruggedized
models, a good contact is:
Linda Flaherty (Western Region Sales Manager)
Group Mobile
5590 W. Chandler Blvd. Ste. 3
Chandler, AZ 85226
866-784-4338 x204 (toll free) 480-705-6100 x204
lindaf@groupmobile.com
Non-Ruggedized Tablets

Dell
o
o
Latitude 10 (Recommended)
 No longer manufactured, but if you can find a used one, these have proven to
be very good in the field and are preferred over their replacement – the Venue
11.
Pros:
 Battery easily replaceable.
 Good battery life, especially with larger battery option.
 Decent in the sun.
 Good stylus system unlike on the Venue 11.
Venue 11 Pro 5000 or 7000 series
 Pros:
 Relatively thin and light.
 Replaceable battery (but see note below).
 Standard USB port.
 Inexpensive (starts at $429 or so).
 Good battery life for the 5000 series with Atom processor – somewhat
less for the 7000 series with Core-M processor.
 Active stylus available, but see Cons…
 Third-party rugged cases available from Targus and Gumdrop.
 Cons:
 Visibility in sunlight requires maximum brightness.
 5000 series uses an Atom processor, so not recommended for high
intensity applications such as GIS/mapping software.
 While the battery is user-replaceable, unfortunately it requires a little
more dexterity and care than did the Latitude 10 which the Venue 11
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
replaces. The back of the tablet must be removed, and though it is
made to be easily removed by the user, there are multiple snap points
that require attention and care should be taken not to get dust inside
the tablet while it is open. Also unlike the Latitude 10, a longer-life
battery is not available and so a battery won’t last as long, though it still
generally lasts for a day in the field.
Uses a Synaptic active stylus. The active stylus works ok for simple clickbased data entry in VGS, but when entering notes, the Synaptic writing
technology seems to be more fickle than Wacom technology used on
many tablets. Also, unlike a Wacom stylus, the Synaptic stylus requires
a battery and the battery life is not great (remove the stylus battery
when not in use). We have seen a couple of new tablets that didn’t
work at all with the stylus and had to be exchanged.
o Caution: We have recently found that as the Venue tablets get
hot during use in the sun, the stylus begins to behave erratically.
At over 95-100 degrees outside temperature with a clear sky,
the stylus quits working altogether. Touch and use of a
capacitive stylus continues to function however.
o


Venue 8 Pro
 Similar to the Venue 11 5000, but smaller (8 inch display) and battery is not
replaceable.
 Pros:
 Small (8 inch display) and lightweight.
 Very inexpensive (starts at $249 or less).
 Has a micro USB port only, but it is OTG capable so that you can use
“dual-mode” flash drives and adapters.
 Battery life is good to moderate. Active stylus available, but caveats are
same as for the Venue 11.
 Third-party rugged case available.
 Cons:
 Small (8 inch display) which can also be a negative depending on both
the user and the use.
 With only an 8 inch display, the text will be uncomfortably small for
some users. Some users may also have trouble with the precision
necessary for touch, but users comfortable with a smart phone should
have little trouble.
 Visibility in sunlight requires maximum brightness.
 Battery is not replaceable.
 See notes and caution about the stylus for the Venue 11.
Microsoft
o Surface Pro 3 or 4
 Avoid the non-Pro models or early models.
Samsung
o TabPro S series
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Others…
o
o
There are many brands and models available – the best advice is “try before you buy”.
Be aware of the following:
 Visibility in the sun is highly variable.
 Most do not have replaceable batteries.
 Few support a digitizing stylus.
 If only a micro USB port is provided, make sure it is OTG capable.
Please provide feedback for any models that you try out or end up using so we can pass
on the information here.
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