Point of Beginning

Product Profile

October 1, 2005

Corvallis, Oregon, the cradle of Hewlett-Packard handhelds, is also the home of Tripod Data Systems (TDS), manufacturer of hardware and software for surveying applications. It was a cool, sunny August day in the Willamette Valley when I walked in to the TDS offices to review the new Ranger handheld portable computer, also referred to as the "Ranger X-series." I was to meet with development and marketing folks to understand the details of why TDS decided to retire the original Ranger and replace it with this new and improved version.

The Ranger X-series is available in two versions, the 500X and the 300X. The 500X is the fully loaded version; it comes with built-in Wi-Fi (802.11b wireless LAN) and Bluetooth capabilities, 128 Mb of SDRAM and 512 Mb of non-volatile flash memory. Its Intel XScale processor runs at 520 MHz. The 300X comes standard with an XScale processor as well, but runs at 312 MHz. Its RAM capacity is 64 Mb and its Flash memory size is 256 Mb. Extra cost options for the 300X include upgrading the processor to 520 MHz and adding the Wi-Fi or Bluetooth capabilities, or both. These upgrades are only possible at time of purchase.

Eric Hall, marketing product manager for survey products, explained that in the five years since the original introduction of the Ranger, TDS has been engaged in continuous collection of current and potential customer feedback. Some incremental improvements have occurred over this five-year period; certainly the original Rangers being shipped today (and shipped through January 2006) are considerably enhanced over the year 2000 models. "Our customers and dealers have expressed the desire for expandability, more memory, removable memory, flexible radio options and better ergonomics. Many of these items could not be accommodated in the form and the technology of the original Ranger," Hall said. Therefore, two years ago the design team of electronic, mechanical and software engineers-80 percent of whom have HP handheld product design experience-began the process of conceptualizing and designing a new handheld computer. This new computer needed to be powerful, expandable and adaptable to the existing and imminent new surveying, communications and computing technologies. And yet, it had to keep all the facets of the Ranger that experience and time showed were highly prized in the original Ranger. "The new Ranger has met all of our design goals and I am really excited to be able to deliver it to our customers," Hall said.

Dennis York, TDS' development manager and leader of the development team, showed me the fruits of their labor by disassembling a new Ranger before my eyes. He painstakingly pointed out the innovations and improvements of the next-generation data collector, many of them below-the-surface features that improve the functionality, flexibility and usability of the unit. At the same time, great pains have been taken to retain a lot of the original Ranger's look and feel so users who upgrade will have an easy transition.

When TDS began the development of the original Ranger in the late 1990s, various third-party hardware platform providers told them that surveyors needed a unique product. Some of the criteria for the hardware unit were not only known by the TDS developers but understood as well, including high-powered computing, long battery life, environmental ruggedness (especially with respect to cold temperatures, and moisture, drop and shock resistance), long operating life on a single set of batteries, easy-to-use power management, an easy-to-read screen and uncomplicated operation with gloved hands. The original Ranger was a state-of-the-art development and a product that surveyors received well. But this first attempt at designing and building hardware, successful though it was, was also a great opportunity to gather feedback.

The Ranger X-series is the culmination of that feedback. The new Ranger basically has one main board with another board to handle plug-in cards and radios. While there are many chips and other components on the boards, they are not hugely crowded. "We concentrated on lowering the chip and part count. By doing so we made a simpler product to build, and thereby improve ruggedness and reliability," York said. The rest of the innards are connectors, gaskets and miscellaneous pieces that connect the electronic components and provide the tremendous level of environmental integrity that is proved by its IP67 rating and compliance with the military standard MIL-STD-810F.

While users will love the new radio capabilities of the Ranger, they might not appreciate the engineering headaches that had to be solved to make it practical. York pointed out the screws that attach the back case to the front, spaced at 1⁄4 of the wavelength of radio waves that are most likely to cause interference. The spacing helps to keep interference to a minimum. In addition, the interior of the polycarbonate case is completely metalized as an additional shield. While electronic devices like the Ranger must be shielded from troublesome electromagnetic interference (EMI), they themselves can be sources of interference. The Ranger's high-tech EMI weapons work in both directions.

The Ranger X-series also has what TDS calls the PowerBoot Module, which consists of the Lithium-ion battery pack and the electronics to support the connectors for the Ranger-a USB port, and 9 pin serial and power plug. The PowerBoot module has all the electronics to manage the complex charging functions for the Li-ion battery pack. This technology, which has the highest charge density of current batteries suitable for this application, requires careful monitoring of battery temperature, voltage and internal resistance. Indeed, the technology does not permit the concept of "trickle charging" without damaging the battery, thus the battery control technology must be much more sophisticated, cutting off all current when the battery reaches capacity. All of this is contained in the boot module. And best of all, should the connectors become damaged, they can be replaced by the user, simply by replacing the boot module. This is, practically speaking, the only user replaceable part on the unit, designed to address the most likely points of failure. The Ranger's battery can be charged while in the case or outside of it. It takes 4½ hours to reach a full charge, but it can be charged to 80 percent capacity in two hours.

Potential customers may be concerned that the extra radio features and the high-speed CPU will shorten the life of the Ranger's battery. They do. But this is compensated for by the high performance Li-ion battery so that battery life continues at 30 hours without backlight. Ranger literature gives users more specifics about the duty cycle under which the 30 hours is obtained. In high power consumption situations users can carry a spare battery and do a so-called "hot swap" as long as the swap is completed in a few minutes. Battery power and CPU power are also conserved by an innovative programmable custom chip that takes care of various housekeeping chores such as management of Flash memory control, power management, audio, touch panel, ports display interface and other system functions. At the top of the unit is a black end cap attached with a single screw. After removing this, users will find the two CompactFlash slots (one Type I and one Type II) and a Secure Digital (SD) memory card slot. The SD card slot will not accommodate devices that are not memory; however, the CF slots will accommodate memory cards as well as other CF devices such as GPS, GPRS data modems, digital cameras and bar code scanners. Should these devices not fit under the end cap, TDS offers a couple of other end caps that enclose more volume and that still attach with a single screw. As long as the caps are attached properly with the screw, the moisture and dust resistance is unchanged. One of the caps has a clear window so that a camera or scanner can work without having to remove the end cap.

The stylus provided with the unit stores in a slot on the top of the display. The pointer end is used for operating the touch sensitive screen; the opposite end is a screwdriver that can be used on the attaching screws for the end cap and the PowerBoot Module.

A side-by-side comparison with the original Ranger and the new X-series shows many external physical changes. The new Ranger looks smaller; it is three-tenths of an inch shorter, a tenth of an inch wider and two tenths of an inch thinner. And the new Ranger weighs a tenth of a pound less than the original. But the looks of the two units are quite different. The Ranger X-series looks sleeker, with the sharp edges of the original Ranger softened. The keypad has virtually the same number of keys but has a more streamlined design-shape, color and layout all help to make it that way. The force required to press a key is now slightly more (in response to customer feedback), and a circular directional pad has been added, incorporating the cursor control keys on the periphery and an additional Enter key at the center. As the Ranger now runs Microsoft's Windows Mobile for Pocket PCs, certain Microsoft-mandated keys are now found on the unit; of these, the most recognizable to Windows desktop users will be the Start key.

"We used customer feedback to add features to build on the original Ranger's reputation. The result is the new Ranger: more power, more memory and expandability. And initial feedback from surveyors and our dealers has been even better than we could have hoped for," said Tom Stevens, director of sales and marketing - survey products.