In this tip, we examine mobile devices designed for truly mobile workers -- employees who spend little or no time chained to a desk. For this crowd, device size, weight, battery life, wireless connectivity, ease of use, and appropriateness to environment and task are key criteria.
Given the break-neck speed at which technology evolves, keeping up with new mobile computing devices is quite a challenge. As a mobile worker, I am always looking for ways to improve on-the-go productivity and life quality. But, as a small business owner, every dollar spent on equipment dents my bottom line. Striking a balance between innovation and expense requires comparison of available mobile computing devices and how well they fit workforce needs.

Those 5 to 10 pound luggables are great for workers who use docked laptops as desktop replacements at the office during the day, at home during the evening and on the road occasionally. But here, we will focus on computing devices designed for truly mobile workers -- employees who spend little or no time chained to a desk. For this crowd, device size, weight, battery life, wireless connectivity, ease of use, and appropriateness to environment and task are key criteria. Let's consider three options: ultralight notebooks, tablet PCs, and ultra mobile PCs. To facilitate comparison, we will illustrate capabilities with examples that run Windows XP and/or Vista.

Ultralight notebook PCs
Heavier laptops can still pack more punch

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than their smaller, lighter counterparts, but today's ultralight notebooks are increasingly competitive when it comes to computing power, storage space, and battery life. For example:
  • At 10.6 x 8.3 x 1.1 inches thick, the Panasonic Toughbook-T5 is a "business ruggedized," ultralight notebook that weighs 3.5 pounds. It combines a shock-mounted 60 GB HDD, 1.5 GB RAM, and Intel Core Solo U1400 1.2 GHz CPU with integrated 802.11a/b/g and optional EV-DO or HSDPA wireless. Battery life ranges from 7 to 12 hours.
  • At 10.5 x 9.3 x .80 to 1.39 inches thick, the Lenovo ThinkPad X-60 is a "business ultraportable" that weighs 3.7 pounds. It combines an Intel Core 2 Duo T7200 2 GHz CPU, 2 GB RAM, and 100 GB HDD with integrated 802.11a/g/n and optional Verizon EV-DO wireless. According to Lenovo, battery life ranges from 4 hours with a lighter 4-cell battery to 10.5 hours using an optional extended life battery.
  • At 12 x 9.5 x 1.25 inches thick, the 3.7 pound Toshiba Portege R400-S4931 is both a notebook and a tablet. It combines an Intel Core 2 Duo U2500 1.2 GHz CPU, 2 GB RAM, and 80 GB HDD with integrated 802.11a/g and Verizon EV-DO wireless. This processor trades power for battery life: up to 6 hours when using a second battery.
  • At 9.25 x 6.42 x 1.10 inches thick, the Flybook V5 is a small ultralight convertible, weighing in at just 2.6 pounds it combines an Intel ULV Core Duo U2400 1.06 GHz CPU, 2 GB RAM, and 40 GB HDD with integrated 802.11a/b/g, Bluetooth 2.0, and HSDPA/UMTS/EDGE/GPRS/GSM for wireless data and voice. Standard battery life is 4 hours.

These examples provide insight into the size, weight, speed, capacity, and connectivity available in today's ultralight notebooks. The ThinkPad X-60 is a light but classic business notebook, with emphasis on power, range, a lighted keyboard, and manageability -- a good fit for those who need a real PC wherever they go. The Toughbook-T5 is a general-purpose business PC designed to withstand modest road hazards, from being dropped (magnesium alloy case) to being lost (Computrace BIOS agent). The Portege R400-S4931 uses a widescreen rotating display and Vista Ultimate to appeal to those travelers with a passion for multimedia. The Flybook pushes the opposite end of the spectrum, trading power for portability and adding voice communication features for world travelers.

Tablet PCs
Mobile workers who cannot use a conventional keyboard and mouse are a good fit for tablet PCs that offer touch screen and/or digitized input methods. To illustrate, consider how the following example tablet PCs address this need:

  • The Portege and Flybook ultralights both have articulated covers that can be flipped to convert the notebook into a tablet PC. Such products are handy for workforces that require both a conventional keyboard (for office applications) and an LCD touchscreen (for field use).
  • At 11.8 x 9.45 x .98 inches thick, the Sahara Slate PC i440D is a 3.3 pound lightweight tablet PC. It combines an Intel Core Duo LV L2500 1.8 MHz CPU, 1 GB RAM, and 80 GB HDD with integrated 802.11a/b/g and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR wireless. This tablet switches on the fly between a pressure-sensitive digitizer mode and a finger-activated resistive touch screen mode for easy data entry in work environments like retail, restaurants, warehouses, and healthcare.
  • At 11.65 x 9.64 x .74-.87 inches thick, the Motion LE1700 is a tablet PC that weighs 3.3 pounds. It combines an Intel Core Duo Processor L7400 1.5GHz CPU, up to 4 GB RAM, and 30-60 GB HDD with integrated 802.11a/b/g, Bluetooth, and Sprint (Novatel) EV-DO Revision A wireless. Options include dual-mode writing and touch screen input and a ViewAnywhere display for harsh lighting environments. This WWAN-enabled tablet aims at users who "regularly work outside the four walls of business," including health/life sciences, hospitality, mobiles sales, and manufacturing.

Because of the work environments in which they are used, tablet PCs (and a growing number of ultralight notebooks) incorporate keyboard-less authentication interfaces. Fingerprint readers are typical, but alternatives include RFID tag/badge readers and BIOS-level signature authentication.

Ultra mobile PCs
For some mobile workers, size and weight reign supreme. Ultralights and tablets may be thin, but you'll never fit them in your pocket. PDAs and Smartphones may be smaller, but they don't run your favorite Windows XP or Vista business applications. Ultra Mobile PCs (UMPCs) were created to fill the perceived gap. For example:

  • At 5.9 x 4.5 x 1.6 inches thick and 1.5 pounds, the FlipStart is a clamshell-shaped UMPC. It combines a 1.1 GHz Pentium M ULV CPU, 512 MG RAM, and 30 GB HDD with integrated 802.11b/g, Bluetooth, and Sprint EV-DO Revision. Wireless data entry can be accomplished using a backlit QWERTY keyboard, mouse buttons, touchpad, touchstick, or jog dial. The FlipStart also includes a removable port replicator for VGA connection to monitors and projectors, Ethernet LANs, and audio devices.
  • At 5.6 x 3.3 x 1 inches thick and 1 pound, the OQO Model 02 is a road warrior's UMPC. It combines a 1.5 GHz VIA C7M ULV CPU, 1 GB RAM, and 60 GB HDD with integrated 802.11a/b/g, Bluetooth 2.0, and Verizon or Sprint EV-DO wireless. To open the OQO, slide the 5 inch display up to expose a full QWERTY keyboard with mouse buttons, track stick, and numeric keypad, plus a digitizer for pen input. Back at the office, the OQO can be cradled in an adjustable arm with HDMI and VGA ports and an integrated optical drive.
  • At 5.9 x 3.7 x 1.3 inches thick and 1.2 pounds, the Sony Vaio VGN-UX180P feels a bit like a PSP that runs Windows XP. It combines an Intel Core Solo U1400 1.2 GHz CPU, 512 MB RAM, and 30 GB HDD with integrated 802.11a/g, Bluetooth, Cingular EDGE, and 10/100 Ethernet. Touchscreen and backlit keyboards are available for data entry, although you would not want to spend hours typing on this UMPC. An optional docking station can connect the Vaio to many other devices.
  • At 7.5 x 5.5 x 2 inches thick and 3 pounds, the SwitchBack Rugged UMPC is beefy and versatile enough for field work, but smaller than your average ruggedized tablet. It combines an Intel Celeron M 1.0 GHz CPU, 1 GB RAM, and 40-100 GB removable HDD with 802.11b/g, Bluetooth 2.0, and a GPS receiver. To fit a variety of work environments, the SwitchBack offers multiple input methods (QWERTY keyboard, touch screen, pointing devices) and a sunlight-viewable display. It can also simultaneously run multiple operating systems -- Windows XP, CE, Mobile or Linux -- letting you switch between conventional and always-on computing environments.
  • Shown as CTIA, available in second quarter 2007, the HTC Shift is a 1.8 pound UMPC with a 7 inch touchscreen display (to be used like a small tablet) and a QWERTY slide-out keyboard (to be used at an angle, like a laptop). The Shift combines 1 GB RAM and 30 GB HDD with 802.11g, Bluetooth 2.0, and HSDPA/UMTS/EDGE/GPRS/GSM wireless. Early reports suggest the Shift has an unusually good keyboard angle and feel for those who want an office-capable UMPC.

Since their introduction, UMPCs have struggled to find the right combination of form factor and features. Although most UMPCs run Windows XP (and now Vista), their small size limits their ability to serve as a true notebook (much less desktop) replacement. The best audience for a UMPC is someone who needs to stay connected and/or entertained on-the-go, but would find an ordinary PDA or smartphone too small or too limited.

The bottom line
Thus far, we have focused on features and capabilities rather than cost. For one thing, prices change so quickly that any comparisons made today will be irrelevant two months from now. Currently, ultralight notebook and tablet PC prices are roughly comparable; UMPCs are slightly less expensive -- but this may change. When your time to buy arrives, do your own comparison shopping. Look beyond the examples given here.

However, retail price is only one portion of total cost of ownership. In real life, one must also consider annual maintenance contracts, mobile device administration, and device repair/replacement. The cold hard truth is that the smaller the device and the more time it spends outside the office, the harder it is to manage and track, and the greater the risk of damage, loss, or theft. To that end, companies that invest heavily in mobile computing devices may wish to consider an asset tracking and recovery service like Computrace.

On the other hand, giving mobile workers the right tool for the job can pay numerous dividends, from improving customer service and reducing downtime to avoiding duplicate data entry and error. So look beyond conventional laptops when making your next mobile computing device purchase. As every mobile professional knows, one size definitely does NOT fit all.

About the author: Lisa Phifer is vice president of Core Competence Inc., a consulting firm specializing in network security and management technology. Phifer has been involved in the design, implementation, and evaluation of data communications, internetworking, security, and network management products for nearly 20 years. She teaches about wireless LANs and virtual private networking at industry conferences and has written extensively about network infrastructure and security technologies for numerous publications. She is also a site expert to SearchMobileComputing.com and SearchNetworking.com.


This was first published in April 2007

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