Monday, March 17, 2014

Would you swap your Toughbook for a Toughpad?

Panasonic Toughpad FZ-G1
Panasonic might be getting ready to phase out their line of Toughbook laptops in favor of tablets, exclusively. They might be, but really, I don't know. One news website seems sure of it, but only one, and all but a few sentences of their article is hidden behind a pay wall. Forget that noise. We'll say, for now, that it's a rumor, but supposedly Panasonic's DoD Director of Sales James Poole implied last month at the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Associations (AFCEA) West Expo that tablet computers will begin replacing replacing rugged laptops sometime within the next 12 - 18 months. Unable to find any other coverage of Poole's appearance at AFCEA West, I reached out to Panasonic via Twitter for comment, but got no response. For now, we will say that this is not news. This is hypothetical.

Still, hypothetically, what would happen if Toughpads really were to replace Toughbooks? How would people who rely on their rugged laptops for work feel about switching? Curious, I turned to social media to find out, posing the question on the Bob Johnson's Toughbook Stuff Facebook page and on /r/ProtectAndServe, a Reddit community for police officers.

(All the quotes that follow come directly from public online comments. I have performed some minimal editing for spelling and grammar where applicable, but unless otherwise indicated, I have not changed the content of the posts.)

A few Reddit users were in support of switching. A verified State Trooper, using the handle GamecockTrooper, poked fun at his under-performing rugged laptop:
I have a General Dynamics 6000. It's a great little machine when it does work. I'd love to have a Toughpad for the other 95% of the time, though.
Those who spoke from experience seemed happy with the change. "CSOs in my department were recently given Toughpads," said Redditor CR4allthethings. "So far, they're working out great." MagioBiwan, a verified Sheriff Cadet, is also impressed by what he's seen so far out of tablets:
My county is switching to Toughpads as the Toughbooks are getting old. They're actually really nice, and the cars are getting keyboards for them to use still. I've gotten to use one and it's pretty nice. The great thing is you can take it out of the car easily and show it to other deputies/officers if needed, or take it into the office and use it there.
Not everyone has embraced the idea of switching over. Typing, it seems, is a "key" issue in this debate (har har), and the main source of apprehension. When asked if they'd be willing to trade in their Toughbook for a Toughpad, Reddit user CanIhaveGasCash didn't mince words:
No way in hell. I do way too much typing to use a tablet. If I use a tablet with a keyboard what is the advantage over a laptop? I also use excel, which seems like it would be a nightmare to try to use on a tablet.
Echoing that sentiment were Redditors FzzTrooper:
Hellllll no. I need a tactile keyboard of some sort. Real buttons are almost always better than a touchscreen.
and Stlou:
Sure, if it comes with a real keyboard.
"I don't think [Panasonic has] a choice," said Richard, one of our friends on Facebook:
Traditional PC use seems to be dwindling. Their tablet choices have expanded rapidly recently. They seem to be getting ahead of the curve, offering tablets for most uses. It seems to me that the future combines a rugged tablet with a rugged keyboard (something like iKey keyboard when needed). Maybe my CF-31 is the last of the breed.
Richard suggests a kind of modular computing setup, where the tablet serves as the central component. Anything else you might need -- a keyboard or a mouse, for example -- could be added in the form of a peripheral. If a peripheral were to break, replacing it  would become a simple plug-and-play fix. Tablets are also more mobile, freeing up the user to easily carry data around on foot, take pictures on the go, and share information with colleagues without having to lug around the entire setup.

This was all starting to sound like a great idea, until our Facebook friend Bear threw a wrench in the works by asking a very reasonable question:
Do [Toughpads] have serial ports? Gotta have.
In looking over spec sheets to find the answer, I was reminded that Toughpads are not modular computers. They are tablets. Impressively rugged tablets, but still, tablets. In the future, we may well see Toughpads that can function as modular PCs with all the functionality of a Toughbook laptop, but we don't see that in what's currently on the market.

I still haven't answered Bear's question, though. Do Toughpads have serial ports? The answer is ... sort of ... sometimes. The FZ-M1 and FZ-G1 tablets both have a space where you have the option of putting a serial port, but using that space renders it unavailable for anything else. With a G1, for example, having a serial port means you can't have an ethernet jack, SiRFstarIII™ GPS, MicroSD, or a second USB port. A serial port on the M1 might sacrifice a barcode scanner or a bridge batter, among other things. A Toughpad can do many things, but you have to choose just one of them.

Even though tablets can't, as of now, serve as fully-featured modular computer, it certainly seems to be the way things are headed. Will tablets replace laptops within the next few years? I doubt it. Tablets and laptops are different tools for different jobs. For most professional situations, Toughbooks still make more sense, but it will be exciting to see tablets find their place. I would not be at all surprised if, years down the road, rugged mobile computing is dominated by modular computing. When and if that happens, we at Bob Johnson's Computer Stuff, Inc. will be ready. For now, the Toughbook is king.

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