Thursday, January 03, 2008

Replacing the Tablet PCs of our Mobile Mapping Lab with Newer Tablet PCs

We received our HP tablet PC grant in summer of 2004. What we got were the early addition of the ‘convertible’ tablet PC, the TC1100 (shown above). To get an idea of how we use tablet PCs with GIS software and GPS receivers (shown below), please check out our project web page. We also had a paper in Journal of Geoscience Education on our use of tablets in a geomorphology class.

For the past seven months or so, I’ve tested out new tablet PC options for replacement of our original HP/Compaq tablet PCs. The following are my thoughts on the tablet PCs we tested and what we decided to get, so if you don’t care to ever use a tablet PC for GIS mapping, you can skip this entry.

What we were looking for in a replacement tablet PC were these key improvements: 1) a brighter screen, 2) lighter weight, and 3) longer battery life. Ease of use of the pen and screen conversion (when you flip the screen around and write on it) is a plus. If we could also get a rugged option, that would be great, as we use these tablets in the field and, we all know, “stuff happens.” Also, with each choice, we wanted the most RAM available. Our original TC1100 tablets are 1.876 kg or 4.13 lbs. and came with 512 MB RAM that we never upgraded.

On each of the tablets listed below, I loaded ArcGIS 9.2 plus the GPS software that we’ve been using with our little Rayming receivers (these are no longer available under that name). This is what the GPS receiver looks like. All loaner tablets were the standard units and did not have extra RAM installed.

HP TC4400 (daylight viewable model) with Windows XP (I forgot to weigh it but the web page says 4.6 lbs. 0r 2.08 kg, which seems heavier than I remember) I wanted to be loyal to HP, since they so kindly gave us the original grant and I feel forever indebted to those guys, we tried the TC4400 (shown above). This model tablet PC is like a ‘real’ laptop, very business-y. It’s black and sleek, it looks nothing like our funny little TC1100 (overheard by an anonymous Vassar computing support person, “these are just novelty items” when referring to our new tablet PCs. Ha!) The price for the TC4400 I was quoted was around $1300 (including extra RAM). These seemed pretty good to me and to my colleagues in Earth Science and Geography.

Lenovo ThinkPad X41 (and X61) with Windows XP (X41 - weight 1.889 kg or 4.16 lbs.; X61 - weight 1.765 kg or 3.89 lbs.) When Vassar replaces Intel machines, we use Lenovo/IBMs, so I figured that a ThinkPad tablet (shown above) should be tested because our in-house support might be better. In addition there are ten ThinkPad X41 tablet PCs already on campus in Biology (used for field work also). But I was not sold on the ThinkPad. The weight, the laptop-like quality and our past lack of conviction that ArcGIS plays nice with the ThinkPad, turns me away from this option. Plus the price was around $450 more (similar specs to the HP). There seems to be no daylight viewable model available but I could be wrong about that. Panasonic Toughbook CF-19 with Windows XP (weight 2.341 kg or 5.16 lbs.). Sure these are monsters, but wow, they’re beautiful (see above). These are the Hummer of tablet PCs. If you want a piece of field equipment that won’t sneeze at inclement weather, or balk at dust and heat, the Toughbook CF-19 is your soldier. They even have a model with embedded GPS receivers! It was a little awkward to get a loaner, but when you’re a little school with only a little bit of money, and you want to make an educated decision, you need to actually hold the equipment in your hands and give it a thorough test. If you want advice on getting a Toughbook loaner, contact me ( and I can let you know what I went through so maybe you can avoid some of the pitfalls. The price, including GPS and extra RAM is a whopping $4,000+ each. We cannot justify buying 10 or more of these rugged tablet PCs for teaching purposes, plus the weight alone could make students a little cranky. But the faculty members who routinely use the tablet PCs for mapping loved the ruggedness and know the hardship of heavy field equipment. They wanted a couple to have around for their summer field projects. Who am I to argue?! HP 2710p with Windows Vista Business and daylight viewable option (weight 1.68 kg or 3.7 lbs.) I was about ready to order fifteen TC4400 tablets, I was on the phone with my sales rep and he said are you sure you don’t want to try out the newer 2710p? (Shown above) I didn’t want to. I was quite tired of trying out tablet PCs and felt like I was annoying everyone around with, ‘here, try this one out!’ exuberance. But when the sales rep said that they’re a good ½ pound lighter, I thought that I better give a test. I am glad that I did. The 2710p is terrific, light-weight, sleek, easy to use, great screen for outside use, it is exactly what we need to replace our older TC1100 tablets. The 2710p tablet has a metallic case, so it doesn’t seem like a standard laptop and it doesn’t seem frail. I doubt that it can stand a drop from a second story window, but at least it looks like it could handle it. The price I got was a little over $1,300 each, but I think we will go for the 2710p. It reminds me of our TC1100 tablets, only more rugged, more serious, less ‘novelty item.’ I might look into getting the embedded camera that takes still and video pictures; might be great for field work. Note that this model comes with Vista Business operating system and ArcGIS 9.2 needs service pack 4 to work with Vista. It seemed to do fine in my test.

Added 2/12/2008: We bought 2 CF-19 Toughbooks, and they're working great, and have on order 15 HP 2710P tablets. By the way, in addition to a daylight viewable screen, we are getting the 2710Ps with an embedded camera, all for a fabulous price. Would really like to have an embedded GPS receiver (I know I'm not the only one) but will have to wait until more people shout about this to the vendors.


JimAtLaw said...

Did you get the ToughBooks with the built in GPS? (It's actually an option for them, along with lots of other built-in options.)

Meg said...

Yes, JimAtLaw, we got the embedded GPS (works beautifully) on the Toughbooks and the daylight viewable screen. Both of these options will use up the battery power, so we also got extra batteries and a charger. Thanks for writing!