Big stuff in a small package

Whether they work up north in the snow, or down south in the heat, law enforcement officers perform their duties in a variety of conditions. They are mobile, and need the latest technology to do their jobs well. Gone are the days of paper and pencil. Gone even are the days of a hard-mounted computer and a separate PDA. Companies have merged the accessories officers use, made them more durable and transformed the law enforcement community. With the unveiling of the Apple iPad, public safety consumers are looking at the reality of tablet computers, especially those in the rugged category.

About two years ago, Stockton (Calif.) police department adopted tablet computers. A department of 360 officers, currently, they have 34 tablets in use. The department chose the Getac V100. “We looked at quite a few options before deciding,”says George Longacre, Stockton PD Technology Support Specialist. “We’ve always used Getac. I like them. They allow us to do more with the computer system in the car. They also have uses outside patrol cars –Motor officers can use them. You can use them at DUI checkpoints. You can take them out of the cars. It is more mobile and more versatile.”

Like most technology, there are variations within the mobile market. Two common forms are the convertible notebooks and tablets. Convertible notebooks can be used as a laptop and placed in a fixed mount. When taken out, the screen flips and rests in the keyboard tray. “It can operate as a normal laptop or a tablet,” explains John Lamb, Director of Marketing at Getac. “It can be mounted without interfering with the airbag. It can have a keyboard and then be removed from the docking to be used as a tablet.” Tablets, also know as slates, are a one-piece unit that can be docked in a patrol car. “We think tablets serve a combination of the best of the larger size notebooks and smaller, more rugged PDAs,” says Dale Kyle, president of Handheld US, which makes the Algiz 7 Rugged Tablet available April. “They have the power, computing speed and data storage of the notebook but are more mobile.” Both convertible notebooks and tablets show great potential in the law enforcement field and offer a myriad of benefits.

 

The best of all worlds: Features

Convertible notebooks and tablets offer some of the best processors, such as the Intel Atom, which leads to a reduction in heat. Most provide specifications similar to laptops. “Anything to help them do their job better and more efficiently,” says Steve Gilbert, business development manager at Dell Rugged Computing, maker of the Latitude XT2 XFR Tablet. Tablets geared towards public safety were designed to offer all the features of a notebook with the mobility of a tablet. Standard features and options include: Bluetooth, Gobi2000, GPS, barcode readers, camera with LED illuminators, RFID reader, Fingerprint reader and a SmartCard reader.

Tablets are compatible with most software and utilize Microsoft base operating systems. “Because they run on Microsoft, these units are semi-intuitive,” says Kyle. “You can navigate through the features pretty easily if you’re familiar with Microsoft.” These new tablets no longer need a special version of the software.

 

Power

When designing rugged computers for the field, companies recognized many duties are performed outside the patrol car. They also acknowledged the variety of environments officers work in, and the differences in their modes of travel. Being away from an energy source was one of the challenges manufacturers faced. They met this obstacle by designing dual hot-swappable batteries.

“You can use it outdoors and in any environment,” explains David Poulin, Senior Business Development Manager at Panasonic (PSCS) in reference to their Toughbook H1 Field, which comes out early this summer. “The battery allows it to last. It’s usable for all those people because they don’t have to be tethered to a charger. The battery life is six hours, and the two batteries are hot-swappable. If you never wanted to cradle this thing you could just be charging a battery and swap them. It’s extremely practical for the hours they put in.”  

 

Screens

“There are so many applications coming for touch,” states Gilbert. “We wanted our computer to do multi-touch scenarios. We took ours and decided to do something different with it. What you got was the only capacity touch screen on the market. They can page flick. They can zoom with their finger. It works like an iPhone.” Dell’s multi-touch screen works with latex gloves on and their resistant-touch screen can be used with heavy gloves, so it is appropriate for officers in colder climates.

“The pressure touch screen is effortless,” says Lamb. “For example, in Minneapolis an officer will get into the car with gloves on and he can use the screen with them on. A touch screen makes the difference between the computer being usable and non-usable.”

Due to many law enforcement applications utilizing forms, most tablets can be used with a stylus as well. A bonus is the ability to automatically switch between applications.

Even with the best touch screen on the market, a computer geared towards law enforcement will be useless if the officer can’t see the information on the screen. Manufacturers addressed this problem by adjusting brightness and reducing reflectivity. “The number one complaint about tablets is they can’t see it while they are trying to read the display,” states Lamb. “One of the best features (of the Getac V100) is its QuadraClear display, which has a six times greater contrast rate than its nearest competitor. Even though there is a roof over the officer’s head, with this one they can see even with the sunlight coming through.” The utilization of circular polarization is becoming standard in rugged computers. Screen size is important as well. Specs generally run from seven to 12 inches.  

 

On the move: Mobility

One of the perks of tablet computers is definitely the ability for them to be mobile. This mobility transcends just a piece of patrol equipment and becomes a tool for investigators and specialty patrols as well. “You can take them out of the vehicle,” explains Kyle. “It can be a lot more versatile.” According to Kyle, the Algiz 7 “represents a latest, best of class, kind of device. It boasts pushing the envelope as far as specifications and ruggedness go. It provides a lot of power in a very mobile unit.”

Investigators can use them to take pictures at a crime scene. Tablet features also include bar code capability. “This puts it in the hands of investigators which are not tethered to a car and are in different environments,” explains Poulin. “It can be used for investigations and traffic accidents. [The nice thing is] the camera, the ergonomics and the touch screen allow you to utilize your software out in that kind of environment.”

Tablets are useful in specialty vehicles as well. “Police agencies are adding more bike patrols and motorcycles,” says Gilbert. “I see them mounting kits in the back of the bike. We made vehicle docks so they can be mounted in cars, boats and other vehicles.”   

A tablet computer’s mobility and versatility can be attributed in large part to its size and weight. “The way we see the tablets working in police is primarily in patrol,” states Gilbert. “One of the biggest things in the US, Canada and Europe is squad cars are continuing to get smaller.” Where once many departments drove Crown Vics or Impalas, many have now gone to Chargers (US), BMW (Canada) and Fiats (Europe). “Cab space is getting smaller, so we went to a tablet form factor that frees up space in the vehicle.” Longacre agrees the smaller size was a key factor in Stockton’s choice. “We got a tablet so we can fold the screen back and it can mount in the front of the car. One of the selling points is it only covers the AM/FM hole and air vent and that’s it. It just works so well in there.”

Tablets are also being designed to be lightweight. Most range around four or five pounds. Handheld boasts the lightest, with its Algiz 7 weighing in at 2.4 pounds, including both batteries. “For somebody who is carrying it around all day long, having a light weight unit makes a difference at the end of the day,” says Kyle.

 

Built tough: Rugged

Law enforcement computers need to be able to work in a variety of places, which is why manufacturers design public safety computers as rugged. To be classified as rugged, tablets have to fit exacting standards. The most common standards used are the new MIL-Spec 8.10G and Ingress Progression 65. These standards revolve around tests involving particulates, extreme temperatures and shock. Basically, they test for anything bad that can happen to a computer, especially a mobile one.

“A department needs to look at the shock and impact to a mounted computer,” says Lamb. “The kind of vibration [the Getac V100] will encounter makes it rugged. Officers don’t always drive nicely, and that is hard on the computer. Here in California we deal with potholes, speed bumps and the little gifts that end up in the road. With that level of impact, you don’t think about what it’s doing as far as the computer is concerned.” Another important issue is whether a tablet can be dropped and how far. This is important not only because of normal wear and tear but also for officer safety. “There are 1000 hours of engineering time into the ergonomics of this,” says Poulin of the H1 Field. “It is designed for officer safety in ergonomics. It can be dropped if I need to. It doesn’t inhibit officer safety. It’s a Toughbook and that means it’s a fully rugged. Traditional (drop) standards are 30-36 inches, but this is 72 inches. You don’t have to be afraid to actually take it outside and use it.”

 

Limitations

One prohibiting factor, especially in today’s economic climate, is the cost. Most tablets run around $3,000 each. This can be a hefty price tag for any agency. The one thing manufacturers want public safety managers to consider is the whole picture when it comes to cost. “Because the tablet has to do the job of multiple devices,” Gilbert says, “we are bringing down the cost on the back end. It’s one device and we can save you money on the life-time of a product.” Lamb, who also works as a reserve officer agrees, “Four years ago, my Lieutenant told me our cruisers cost around $42,000. If the computer is hard-mounted and it goes down, that car is down. It will be out of commission until the computer can be fixed. With the V100, a hard drive can be swapped out with a spare and keep the car in service. To have to go down due to a computer would be embarrassing.”

Poulin also justifies the cost stating, “In and of itself, it has to be part of a solution. In dollar signs, at a police department, it’s going to be in saved time, increased productivity, increased moral and increased citizen satisfaction. If you can do those things for any given problem, you will get a positive return on your investment.”

Tablets and convertible notebooks are becoming more common. Manufacturers designed them to work efficiently in many different environments and under extreme conditions. Departments justify the cost due to mobility and versatility. “When all these things seemed to get easier for officers,” explains Gilbert, “it was a good thing. Dell married these things up and it was impressive.” Considered an ultra mobile PC, the Algiz 7 Kyle finds it lives up to its name, and officers love them as well. “When we first got them, overall, there were wrestling matches over who got the car with them in it,” says Longacre.

Panasonic first started serving the law enforcement community 15 years ago to fill a need no one was serving. The evolution into tablets has been a logical move from there. “Consumer grade laptops were being put in the car and they were failing miserably, so we designed a purpose filled computer for that environment,” says Poulin. “We are filling a dream and it is a reality, because they are working and stay working. Think outside the patrol car.”

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