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Digital Task Management




30 December 2014

Buyer’s guide 2014

Handheld computers, smartphones and tablets

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The m.logistics guide to hardware for mobile operations

Handheld computers are central to almost everything we cover in m.logistics – so every year we feel it’s essential for us to take a long hard look at these increasingly clever and versatile devices, and keep you up to date with how they are evolving.

There’s certainly a lot happening in this field. The past two years have seen significant consolidation among manufacturers of rugged computing devices. For instance, Honeywell AIDC has acquired LXE and Intermec, as well as voice-directed logistics specialist Vocollect. 

Having bought Psion, Motorola Solutions (or rather, its rugged handheld business) has now itself been taken over by Zetes, best know for its mobile printing range. This move is seen as bringing the economies of scale and volume sales required to compete against the trend to deploy consumer devices in operations they were not designed for. 

Whilst consumer devices are certainly making inroads into markets traditionally held by the more compact rugged devices, the market for large industrial handheld computers has been less affected by this trend towards consumerisation. 

This is partly because such devices tend to have a longer life-cycle, and fit into a well-established pattern of business processes. In the industrial handheld sector, key factors dominating market preference include rugged specifications, scanning ergonomics and battery capacity. 

By contrast, in the rugged compact and tablet computer sectors, manufacturers are facing strong challenges from suppliers of consumer devices. Moreover, this is not just a case of passive migration prompted by user choice; the smartphone and consumer tablet manufacturers are beginning to look enviously at the enterprise market and its requirements, and to tailor solutions that add appeal here, while fending off the more obvious objections (lack of robustness, limited scanning capabilities and so on).

Meanwhile, the market as a whole is growing fast as organisations discover that more of their business processes that can be mobilised, from retail back- and front-of-store activities to data capture by delivery drivers and service engineers. This diversity is in turn fuelling a proliferation in device choice. 

In the compact device sector, one manufacturer’s rugged PDA is another’s enterprise digital assistant, rugged smartphone or small tablet. Whatever the name, key buyer criteria appear to be that the device should be small enough to slip in a pocket, fit in one hand and weigh under 250g (and preferably closer to 200g). We’ve included small 5in tablets in this category as well.

In our tablet guide, we’ve focused on 7in, 10in 12in tablets for logistics and field service operations. We’ve left out the ultra-rugged tablets and larger laptops deigned for specialised operations such as military and emergency service. 


Total cost of ownership

Well understood in the industrial handheld sector, the debates about total cost of ownership and fitness for purpose have become even more relevant as users have turned to consumer smartphones and tablets instead. In response to this trend, manufacturers of rugged compact devices are now targeting this sector with lower-cost devices designed for a three-year refresh cycle rather than the five years of larger devices – and with much of the user appeal of a smartphone. 

Compromises on IP rating (ingress protection against dust and water) and drop-spec ratings are possible in some environments; but push that too far, and the result will be higher downtime and repair costs. 

A typical rugged spec for devices in this sector is IP54 for dust and water ingress and a 1.2 metre or 1.5 metre drop rating, but some models are rated as high as IP67 and some survive 1.8 metre drops. Check if the drop test is to a soft surface or to concrete (which mimics a fall on to a car park floor, for example.) 

Device management 

We cover device management in depth in a separate feature in this issue of m.logistics (see page xx). Many suppliers of mobile devices now have pre-installed device management firmware for monitoring battery status, usage, scans per hour, docking and other activities. Battery-health monitoring, for example, can prevent mid-shift failures, and also the too-early replacement of batteries. 


User of multinational workers and temporary workers and shorter order fulfilment times are among the trends helping speed up the deployment of voice-directed mobile systems, especially for picking activities within the four walls. Voice delivers faster and more accurate pick, and its high-tech image appeals to workers. There’s a safety benefit, too; eyes are focused on looking ahead, not at the screen. 

The use of voice-activation technology is also growing in delivery and field service operations. Text-to-voice conversion allows communication with drivers on the move whilst eliminating the distraction of text messaging. Some task-based apps now accept voice confirmation that a task has been done in place of a tap in an on-screen box. 


Processors and memory

Faster processors and larger memory can have an adverse impact on cost, but under-specifying can hamper productivity. Multi-core processors are popular in compact devices and tablets where users may be running more than one app at once – GPS location plus a ePOD delivery app, for example.

 Many in-premise applications are not memory-hungry and do not need to store much data, so industrial devices typically have 256Mb RAM, and ROM between 256MB and 1GB RAM. 


Almost all handheld devices and tablets run on lithium-ion batteries, which together with smart battery management and multi-processor architecture have extended battery life to as much as 20 hours. However, there can be wide variation in performance, which can sometimes depend on the applications that are running. 

Large handheld and compact device batteries are designed to last a full shift between recharges, eliminating the need for in-vehicle chargers. Some compacts and most tablets have a hot-swappable battery, with a back-up battery that allows you to change batteries without losing data. 

Rugged smartphones may not last a full shift, but usually use standard phone charger. This eliminates the need for an in-vehicle dock, but not the risk of running out of charge mid-shift because the worker forgot to plug the device into the charger.


Screen sizes range from 2.8in up to 5in in the compact and small tablet sector, and up to 20in in tablets. User experience with consumer smartphones is helping to create demand for larger screens on handhelds used in the business world. So while a 2.8in or 3.5in screen size is typical, the latest generation often lose front navigation keys to accommodate larger screens – typically up to 4.3in.

 For outdoor operations, buyers need to pay attention to sunlight-readability (the Nits rating) and viewing angle. Tough, scratch-resistant Corning Gorilla glass is widely used, but some manufacturers now incorporate bonded screens that are as scratch-resistant as glass but more flexible, enhancing resistance to drop damage. 

Touch screens can be resistive or capacitive. Some devices incorporate the capacitive touch screen technology found on smartphones for touch entry and navigation. Other manufacturers have opted for resistive technology; this is responsive to touch when the finger is wet or gloved, but in the past has been less responsive than capacitive to bare fingers. 

The latest generation of resistive screens now have finger-touch input as well as stylus. The number of wires is an important contributor to responsiveness, so do check. If you have ever struggled to enter data on a slow-to-respond smartphone screen, you’ll appreciate how important the responsiveness of touch screens is for productivity. 

Operating systems

The consumerisation of IT has resulted in a plethora of operating systems on devices. There are also subtle differences between versions of what might appear to be the same OS, which can lead to in-service compatibility issues. 

Industrial handheld computers typically run Microsoft Windows Mobile 6.0 or 6.5 or Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5 (all with the same heritage) or CE 5.0 or 6.0 (likewise of similar heritage). 

Android is now more widely available for rugged compact devices and tablets – partly a reaction to competition from consumer devices where the OS proliferates, and partly evidence of the makers’ desire to save on cost. But not all manufacturers offer an Android model. 

Rugged compact devices running Windows usually use Embedded Handheld 6.5 or CE 6.0, but some run Windows Mobile phone versions. Those running Android come in various versions; some compact devices are sold with older 2.0 (Gingerbread) versions of Android, which lack enterprise-friendly features such as MDM functionality and enhanced security. 

The appeal of Android is its open nature, but that very openness can lead to in-service problems. Manufacturers do tweak Android OS to enhance it for their devices. However, the more frequent a device is refreshed, the higher the risk that an app that ran happily on an older model won’t on the new one. This applies more to consumer devices which have more frequent model updates (some consumer devices have a six-month refresh rate). 

Data capture technologies

The latest imagers and scanners are designed to improve productivity, being less sensitive than in the past to motion and able to capture a barcode without precise positioning of the device. Users often now get confirmation of an accepted scan. 

Integrated voice-recognition capability allows rugged devices to be multi-tasked, enhancing productivity and reducing the number of devices that have to be managed. 

One of the key differentiators among compact devices and smartphones is what scanning technology they offer. Rugged and semi-rugged devices tend to have a dedicated scan engine for barcode scanning, while consumer devices are much more likely to rely on a camera (these range in resolution from 2 to 8 megapixels), using an appropriate app to perform as a 1D laser or 2D imager. The camera option is slower, so is not really suitable for operations involving a lot of scanning. 

However, you can get adapters now to convert consumer devices for full laser scanning.


WLAN (wireless local area network, of Wi-Fi) radios now include 802.11 a/b/g and /n. Not all devices support the latest “n" category (designed for handling intensive traffic). Bluetooth is now popular for pairing with other devices, including headsets and printers. 

The other key component here is wireless wide-area networking or WWAN (a.k.a. mobile phone technology), but it’s not always standard, so do check. Some makers offer this as standard and make Wi-Fi optional. 

There are various levels of mobile network capability from 3.5G upwards. GPS or A-GPS is usually standard on WWAN devices, and field-oriented devices also have features such as E-compasses and accelerometers.

Backwards compatibility

Backwards compatibility of cradles, chargers and docking stations is now more common than was once the case, and can have a marked effect on the cost of new deployments, so check.


IP ratings

IP ratings (for Ingress Protection) show how well the device is sealed against water and dust ingress, with the first figure indicating dust-resistance and the second effective sealing against water. An IP67 rating is usually considered the most rugged and watertight (though even better resistance to total immersion is offered with IP68), with an IP54 rating the minimum requirement. IP65 is a common rating, with the “5" indicating resistance to water spray, rather than immersion. 

Take care, too, when comparing drop-test performance – don’t assume that devices where manufacturers state they are “designed to meet” or “compliant with” IP ratings, drop-tests or MIL-STD test have actually been tested or passed. 

Drop test

The drop test cites the number of drops a device can withstand on to plywood- or steel-covered concrete from heights of 1.2, 1.5 and 1.8 metres. The US Department of Defense devised the MIL-STD-810 shock standard quoted by many device manufacturers. Most rugged manufacturers quote MIL-STD 810-E, 810-F or 810-G.

Some manufacturers’ tests are more rigorous than others; the “tumble test" for example, is designed to simulate what happens when devices are dropped on their corners or sides. 

Ambient temperature can affect results; so can the question of whether the test is done with the device switched on and/or running an application.


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