Point of Beginning

The Strong, Enduring Type

December 21, 2000
In order to increase my productivity as a professional land surveyor, I looked into the investment of a good field computer. I wanted a lightweight portable computer that would run the same programs I use in the office. Essentially, I needed a computer capable of running programs in the Windows 95 or higher application. I also wanted one field data collection device and a seamless link between my total station, GPS receiver and desktop computer.

The possibilities for my criteria were a typical mini or sub-notebook computer—or perhaps a rugged laptop computer. However, the mouse systems offered included a small touchpad, pointing stick or track ball (found on most laptop computers) on the clamshell designs. I find some CAD applications difficult to perform using a mouse. I decided instead to look into the availability of pen-based computer tablets. Pen tablet computers have been around for over ten years. They utilize the entire touch-sensitive monitor, either to an electromagnetic pen or stylus, which acts like a mouse. Using a pen seemed like a very practical method, especially since I enjoy drafting.

Any professional wanting desktop computer programs on a portable, practical platform in the field will find a pen tablet computer to be a practical investment. Perhaps this could be the beginning of the paperless office—and better yet, the field. Now all my computer work can be performed, stored and available on a space less than (but heavier than) my years’ worth of POB magazines stacked together.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to just walk into a store or your local instrument dealer to see a pen tablet computer, let alone test one. The pen tablet computer market is a business-to-business market, not a consumer base market. The manufacturers customize and deal directly with large users, such as the military, medical profession, emergency management, insurance adjusters and utility companies. There are a very limited number of “resellers” for these computers.

Before I was going to invest $4,000 to $6,000 in a rugged pen tablet, I wanted to at least see one and get a chance to experiment. In order to test a pen tablet, I bought a used Fujitsu Stylistic 1000 on E-Bay for only $380. The Fujitsu Stylistic 1000 was introduced in the 1994-5 year. It is a 100MHz DX486 computer with 8Mb RAM that runs Windows 95. It measures 11"x7.3"x1.6", only weighs 3.5 lbs and has an 8" backlight color screen. Most of the applications I loaded on it ran all right. However, due to the small processor and memory I did have some problems. But, at only 3.5 lbs, it’s easy to carry around and fun to use in the field or anywhere else.

I believe pen tablet computers are worth considering to increase productivity with worthwhile investments in high technology. The potential benefits are unlimited because most pen tablets contain a PCMCIA card slot or USB port, and therefore, can add virtually any peripherals, including GPS, cellular phones, modems, radios, networks and any necessary drives.

There are a limited number of manufacturers of Microsoft Windows-based pen computer tablets available today. The table on page 50 is a summary of seven pen tablet computers that run Microsoft Windows-based programs. Some are designed for indoor use; others are for rugged outdoor environments. One of the limitations to keep in mind is that the screen resolution on pen tablets is low.

Easier applications

Most pen-based computer tablets come with their own pen or stylus that acts as a mouse. I found no problem adapting to this method. In some models, it acts as a digitizer as well. Positioning the pen to a point on the screen is easy and quick. I find the mouse on my desktop computer to be inadequate and cumbersome. Using a pen to navigate the mouse during CAD applications seems many times better than a mouse. Just think of how much time and stress it takes to move your hand and mouse to a point on the screen in front of you. With a pen, all you have to do is position the pen to the point. The click of the mouse works when the pen is pressed down on the screen. The right click is usually a button on the pen or on the computer.

Pen-based computers come with a handwriting recognition software. I first thought this program was a stand-alone program to write notes by hand and then be converted into text. Then I envisioned that I would copy and paste text into my programs. To my surprise this handwritten recognization program interacts with all the other programs. In my CAD program I can enter text in the text box by handwriting letters and/or numbers, which then are automatically converted to text. In any dialog box in the pen-based computer, text prompts can be entered with the pen in your own handwriting. How simple!

Pen-based features

Should you desire to use a keyboard with a pen-based computer, there are two options. One option is a regular desktop IBM compatible (P/S2) keyboard. There are mini and rugged keyboards available as well. Some keyboards can be connected without cables via an infrared (IrDA) port, or USB. Others may require a small port replicator. Or a portfolio case can be used to hold the tablet and the keyboard together—presto! you have a laptop. Another keyboard option on pen-based computers is a pop-up keyboard or softkeys, which interact with any program. The pop-up keyboard is superimposed on the screen. I found that this works very well for simple data input. Certainly I would not like to type a long letter with a pop-up keyboard. Unfortunately, these pop-up keyboards do not have function (“F”) keys and other keys found on a normal desktop keyboard. With a pen-based computer, there are more choices than a regular laptop computer as to data input types.

The type of screen for a pen tablet is a big consideration. It depends on your budget, the potential working environment and, most importantly, the individual who will be using it. Size may also be a consideration. The screen on a pen tablet is the basis of the cost of the entire computer. The types of screens range from a highly accurate electromagnetic digitizer that is direct sunlight readable to a simple touch screen (no pen or stylus) that is indoor readable. Indoor readable or non-sunlight readable screens can be used outdoors, however, they cannot be read in the direct sunlight. Therefore, you must be flexible, perhaps needing to find shade. On an overcast day, an indoor screen (similar to that found on a laptop computer screen) can be read—with patience.

The more expensive outdoor screens can be read in the direct sunlight and usually have more contrast control. For these screens, the more sun, the better the color is. While working indoors you may want to connect the sunlight screen computer to a regular desktop monitor via a port replicator or docking station.

Some pen tablets come with a screen that acts as a digitizer, while others may be touch screens.

A computer that is regarded as ruggedized could be considered a matter of opinion. Each computer is ruggedized in its own way. At a minimum, a ruggedized computer must be sealed to some degree and contain a shock-mounted hard driver. A good ruggedized computer should withstand some severe environmental conditions; others are designed for long-term use and abuse. I would not hesitate to set a rugged pen tablet in snow, running a CAD program while setting up the instrument. Some are sealed with aircraft grade aluminum housing that can be submersible to 6" for up to 5 minutes.

Accessories and Peripherals

During my research on pen tablets, I found that no two of them are alike—especially the accessories and peripherals available. Each manufacturer has its own market, and their accessories and peripherals are geared toward that market. The main thing to consider here is the port replicator and docking station options. For some, a small port replicator is required in order to add the minimal accessories. Some accessories can be added through an IrDA port, while others may require a more elaborate docking station. Some manufacturers have accessories geared toward vehicle mounting. Most of the pen tablets available today do not have an internal floppy drive, let alone a CD drive. They can be added as an external drive option. At a minimum, most come with a PCMCIA card slot and/or a network option. Some come with a wireless LAN option along with cellular and modem abilities built in.

Fortunately, professional land surveyors and other field data collection specialists have had numerous choices on the types of data collection devices available for use in the field. Historically, our instrument manufacturers and software developers have created data collection packages. Either we can purchase an instrument that comes with a special data collector unit, or we purchase field data software that works with other manufacturers’ data collector units, such as calculators or PDAs. If you are looking into improving your productivity in the field, a ruggedized pen tablet computer is one I recommend.


Click here to download our Rugged PCs chart*

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