Last month, mobility expert Bob Ashenbrenner answered one of the most common questions we hear today related to rugged tablets: is it still beneficial to use a Windows®-based solution or should I go all-in with Android™? (If you missed that conversation, you can read it here.) However, picking the right “rugged mobile tools” isn’t just about the operating system (OS). Form factor and functionality are just as important. Even a “high performance” tablet solution may not meet your performance expectations if it’s not the right tablet solution for your organization’s field-based workers or workflows, as Zebra’s Kyp Walls explains in this next installment of our “Ask the Expert” series:
Your Edge Blog Team: Once customers know which OS is best for their workflows and IT architectures, the conversation seems to shift to form factor and then features. They want to know what is “best” for their industry or application. But, is there an ideal tablet size or feature set for field service organizations?
Kyp: As Bob explained in his interview, there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all mobility solution. That’s why Zebra and other capable mobility solution providers offer so many different product configurations, multitudes of hardware and software combinations and an entire accessory ecosystem to support each mobile computing platform. If you’re looking for a larger form factor device that’s still mobile, then I would tell you to start with a tablet. But where we go from there depends on a whole list of considerations.
Someone asked me recently to rank each of Zebra’s rugged tablets as “good, better and best.” We had just launched our new ET51 and ET56 rugged tablets as well as our new L10 Android rugged tablet lineup and they were trying to understand how each compared. They were also trying to assess other options within Zebra’s newly-expanded rugged tablet portfolio after the Xplore Technologies acquisition and the integration of the Windows-based L10 rugged tablets and XSLATE R12 rugged tablet.
The problem with that request is that there is no such thing as “good, better and best” when looking at rugged tablet options. There is only “the best” option for your operational environment. You can’t compare any two tablets apples to apples. They just aren’t built with identical configurations, and the customization capabilities of each tablet is going to vary based on the types of applications and markets it was intended to serve.
Your Edge Blog Team: Then, how do you measure performance of one tablet versus another?
Kyp: I think we all have a tendency to look at “speeds and feeds” first, partly because these numbers are part of the specs. And those things matter. But speeds and feeds don’t necessarily tell you whether or not a tablet is going to perform well in your environment. If that was the case, it might appear that a “rugged” consumer-grade device would suffice. Yet it doesn’t. That’s because certain computing capabilities are needed to install, diagnose and repair utility infrastructure or ensure constant situational awareness and accountability in public safety settings. Specialized input/output (I/O) ports are needed to be able to plug a tablet into testing equipment or a machine on the manufacturing line and extract the data needed to complete the task at hand. A certain level of screen visibility is needed in brightly lit environments, such as the middle of a summer day when the sun is at its peak and shining directly down on the tablet of a field-based worker. A “night vision” setting may also be warranted to accommodate police officers and others who don’t need or want a bright screen shining in their face. The tablet needs to be able to adjust to that, preferably in an automatic fashion.
Your Edge Blog Team: That’s a good point. We actually had a very enlightening conversation (no pun intended) with you earlier this year about just how much consideration and engineering goes into tablet screen display brightness. I would imagine, if we spoke to the engineers, they would say that just as much effort goes into designing every part of a field service tablet.
Kyp: Absolutely. Everything from the antenna placement to the POGO pin connector to the type of data inputs and I/O ports is meticulously mapped out when we develop a new tablet platform – and all of it is based on what customers with field-based workers and the workers themselves have told us they need. Because, at the end of the day, performance is measured by how well it enables workers to do their job. And efficiency is delivered by much more than a fast processor. But, that’s another reason why enterprise-grade rugged tablets aren’t being run out of the market by the consumer-grade devices. Companies like Zebra are accelerating the rate at which they introduce new features on new-generation tablet models while many consumer device manufacturers are removing features for cost and weight considerations.
Your Edge Blog Team: Such as what?
Kyp: I/O ports are a prime example. The latest generation of enterprise-ready rugged tablets can offer up to eight I/O ports on a single tablet. Not eight options to choose from, but eight built-in I/O ports. On the other hand, you’ll be lucky if you get a single USB port on a consumer device. Many have even removed the audio jack. To be honest, I’m not sure how you can use a device that is lacking I/O for any business application. Connection to the world – and other devices – is essential to data capture and sharing.
Your Edge Blog Team: Couldn’t someone push back on that thinking and say that our secure access to the cloud and increased wireless connectivity would negate the need for full-featured tablets? Or that the wireless connectivity provided by consumer-grade “rugged” devices – or a device with a rugged case – is the same as that provided by enterprise-grade devices?
Kyp: While use of the cloud simplifies some administration and data management tasks, the key consideration when selecting a mobile device for field workers is whether or not the device can provide uninterrupted accessibility to the cloud. In other words, devices with superior wireless radios and antenna designs are even more critical with cloud-based systems. Tablets and other mobile computers that have been “designed-for” field or industrial use cases typically have optimum antenna design to ensure the cloud – and the many applications that it supports – will always be available, even in remote or network-fringe locations. Testing in these areas is the best way to ensure that the devices will work. But be careful about protective cases – this is an example of an improvement in one area, but a step back in others. While protective cases can cushion a drop and keep water off of a device, they tend to add a lot of bulk and allow heat to build up. Virtually all modern computing devices slow their processor when they get hot, and turn them off when they get really hot.
And with testing, you will be able to determine whether or not a manufacturer has prioritized connectivity when designing its mobile computers. Do they design the antenna system first, before any other internal or external device component, like Zebra’s devices? Or do they place the antennas around the edges after everything else is designed? Are their antenna technologies field proven to be reliable in traditionally low-signal areas? And do they have patents that back their engineering emphasis on cloud-connectivity? The “cloud” isn’t available if the mobile device is broken, unreadable in sunlight, held back due to rain or running out of battery before the end of the shift. All of these engineering considerations must be taken into account for devices that are intended for field use.
Your Edge Blog Team: Speaking of features and performance… we’ve heard customers insist that consumer tablets, especially Android tablets, are cheaper than rugged ones, even after they buy protective cases, USB hubs and handheld scanners. And that some of these tablets are IP67 rated, making them rugged at a much lower cost. How do you respond to someone who questions the need for “old-style” rugged devices based on these objections?
Kyp: We get that a lot. They question whether or not there is really any difference, other than price, between the rugged Android tablet they can get from a consumer device manufacturer and the rugged Android (or Windows) tablets that a company like Zebra has developed. While IP65 or IP67 ratings mean the same thing for both devices, that rating doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. While consumer devices can tout these IP ratings, it’s less so because they designed them that way. They simply have so few I/O ports, there are fewer places through which water or dust can enter the device. But this rating does not mean that all of the other aspects of ruggedness were addressed, such as drop protection, vibration protection, reinforced I/O ports (in case a cable is pulled roughly) and screen strength.
Especially given how many Android-only software providers are using cheaper off-the-shelf devices to make in-roads in the market. You may be tempted to “try” these types of solutions first with your fingers crossed that they work without issue. However, that can be a risky proposition. I’m not just saying that because I am biased toward rugged mobile technologies. There are too many customers who have called us after attempting a consumer mobility solution and failing to meet their goals due to frequent device or software fails. While some consumer device-based solutions may be the right approach for certain situations, it is best to partner with a mobility solution provider who knows the software companies. They can recommend an established developer that has Android apps in addition to the more traditional Windows options, which puts you in a better position to pick the right software vendor. By “right vendor,” I mean someone whose software does not force you into one mobile device form factor or, worse, just one device model. Plus, many consumer device suppliers mask their devices’ weak processing power and lack of storage and no hope of future proofing by saying that none of that matters; that you just need a way to view the cloud. This is not the case, as we just discussed.
Your Edge Blog Team: Shifting gears a bit to another common feature concern. What do you say to a customer that is giving serious consideration to a slate tablet, which is what most of us think of when we hear the word “tablet,” but is struggling because their users insist on having a computer with a full-tactile keyboard?
Kyp: That’s a great question. One of the biggest pieces of feedback we’ve received from organizations with field-based workers is that they want and need the mobility of a handheld or tablet, but their workers are slowed down or frustrated by a touchscreen-only data input. They want a full-sized keyboard like what you see with a laptop, but a traditional laptop is just too big and bulky to use while walking and working. It ends up being left in the vehicle, the worker ends up reverting to paper in the field or they just wait until they’re back in the office to input data. Yet, they feel as though they’re stuck with notebooks if workers insist that the keyboard is necessary for the workflow. That’s exactly why we’re seeing an inflection point in tablet-based 2-in-1 computers.
When a worker needs a true, rugged, lightweight slate-style tablet, there are 2-in-1s that deliver. And when that worker needs to write reports and do other detailed computer work, a full keyboard – without compromises – can be attached. No longer do customers need to decide between a tablet and a notebook or laptop. The tablet can convert into a notebook functionality in a matter of seconds.
Your Edge Blog Team: I’m sure we could go one by one through every potential tablet feature needed by a field-based worker and outline the pros and cons of enterprise vs. consumer-grade devices: data input options, security, processing power and speed, memory and more. But it sounds like the smartest way to determine which rugged tablet is best for you is to assess your needs holistically and then test the total solution performance in your environment. Would you agree?
Kyp: Absolutely! Consider the speeds and feeds but give greater consideration to worker preferences and workflow-specific requirements as that will impact user productivity, which is why you’re investing in a mobility solution in the first place. That’s where your return on investment is going to come. Even if your budget is narrowing your options, don’t look at your budget from an upfront cost perspective alone. You may only have so much budget for today’s buy, but do you have enough budget to cover the maintenance or replacement of that solution should it fail over the next year or five? Everything should be assessed at that bigger picture level. And if sustainability is at all a consideration, which it should be for most organizations, realize that moving your replacement cycle from 2-3 years out to 5-6 years is not only a lower cost to you, but to the planet. But we’ll talk more about that in a future installment.
Editor’s Note: Want to explore Zebra’s expansive enterprise-ready rugged tablet portfolio to see which Windows or Android solution is best for your business? Visit our website or contact us.