Rugged Computers - Technology and Communications - LawOfficer.com

Rugged Computers

10 tips for successfully choosing the right machine

 


 

Dale Stockton | From the December 2007 Issue Thursday, November 29, 2007

There s no doubt the police environment challenges equipment, and because cops have little tolerance for gear that lets them down, it makes sense that one of the most common trends in police computing is the so-called ruggedized computer. But this is one of those areas where you must assess your needs carefully and realize not all rugged computers are created equal. If a department gets it right, a mobile computer system can act as a force multiplier and help a good officer become a great officer. If a department gets it wrong, mobile computers can be a source of great frustration.

When you start shopping for mobile computers, one of the first things you ll notice is a huge price difference between units featured in Sunday newspaper ads through office-supply stores and those specifically designed for rugged mobile environments. As a very general rule of thumb, you can plan on paying about three times as much for a ruggedized computer with comparable tech features. Add to that the installation fees to make the unit operational in a patrol car. So, what do you get for that extra money, and how do you figure out what you need? Here are some tips to help you make one of the most important equipment decisions any department will face.

1. What s the Job?

This one is incredibly important because if you don t know what you re trying to accomplish, you can t determine the proper tool for the job. I can t overemphasize this point: You must thoroughly examine what you're trying to do and then shop for the tool to accomplish that job. To do otherwise would be like asking for a wrench without specifying the size.

One size doesn t fit all when it comes to rugged mobile computers. At a minimum, you must determine ahead of time what you re trying to achieve by putting a computer in the car. Are you connecting to a computer aided dispatch (CAD) system? Will officers ever take the unit out of the car with them, or will it be permanently mounted? Will you mount it in the trunk or in the passenger compartment? Does the unit need built-in wireless or GPS capability?

If this seems a little daunting and you don t know where to begin, remember that you don t have to reinvent the wheel. Agencies around the country are already using mobile computers, so you just need to network with those who have similar operational needs. Don t forget to ask what they would do differently because now they have the benefit of an installed user base. By the way, make sure you ask a few users, not just the person responsible for the project that has a vested interest in making it shine.

2. What s the Assignment?

Even within one agency, you may find you have jobs so different that you must obtain different computer models. A unit that works fine in a car may not be suitable for a boat, for instance. And what about officers who aren t assigned to a car? Do you want them to have computers with connectivity? If so, you must plan on some solutions other than a full-sized, wired-in computer.

The great news is that there are some incredible units now available in a variety of form-factors, and it s possible to equip just about every assignment with a ruggedized unit to meet specialized needs. Think about that for a minute an officer assigned to a bike or a horse could have the same communication and inquiry capability as an officer assigned to a patrol car

3. What s the Environment?

Officers work in incredibly diverse environments, and your situation will be a big factor in your equipment selection. Example: Do your officers routinely wear gloves when they work? If you plan on deploying a touch-screen unit in the vehicle (usually a plus), you ll probably need a special type of display because some screens don t respond to touches from gloved fingers.

And while we re on the subject of gloves, remember that electronics don t like temperature extremes. If you re in an area that routinely drops to 0 degrees F or below, you need a computer with a hard drive capable of starting up in these conditions. Hard drives spin a very small platter at thousands of times per minute with extremely tight tolerances a pretty tall order in sub-freezing conditions. This is another area where you can learn a lot from agencies that operate in conditions similar to yours.

4. Just What is Rugged?

It may surprise you to learn that there isn t a specific standard for a rugged computer. Like most things in life, you must be an educated buyer. In a very general industry sense, rugged computers can operate under extreme vibrations, temperatures, moisture (coffee) and particles (crumbs).

You ll also hear references to military-spec standards, but read the fine print carefully and ask pointed questions. Just because a manufacturer uses the term doesn t necessarily make it so. Mil-spec standards involve a whole list of conditions and, by meeting just one of those (e.g., operating at 10,000 feet above sea level), a manufacturer can say it made the computer to mil spec. Plus, there s a difference between designed to meet mil spec and meets mil spec.

Regardless of marketing claims, remember that your best information will probably come from an agency like yours that has already put units in the field under conditions that replicate your needs. Ask about their failure or downtime rate, vendor satisfaction and what they would do differently if they could.

5. What s a Nit?

Nits are a measure of computer-screen brightness, something like the wattage of a light bulb. The definition doesn t really matter, but brightness does, and the nit rating provides one method of comparison.




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Dale StocktonThe editor of Law Officer Magazine, Dale Stockton is a 32-year-veteran of law enforcement.

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