Tablets are now essential to many industries and work environments. While the sleek designs, availability, and apparent cost-effectiveness of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) tablets may seem attractive, these devices are not always the best choice. When deciding on the right tablet, it is essential to know what you need from the device and how you intend to use it.
Most commercial tablets available today run one of three operating systems – iOS, Android, or Windows. iOS tablets are available from a single manufacturer who keeps the operating system proprietary, making these tablets difficult to modify and deploy in many customized applications. Windows is a more open operating system, but requires licensing fees and is hard to customize at low levels of the operating system. Android is an open source operating system without licensing fees. It is easy to customize and is the operating system of choice for custom rugged tablets.
Rugged Android tablets are designed to withstand harsh environmental conditions. Because they’re often tested to the military grade MIL-STD-810G standard, they’re built with stronger cases and are more resistant to drop, impact, vibration and shock. They’re also more protected against weather and operate over wider temperature ranges (-40°C to 80°C for rugged tablets versus 0°C to 50°C for commercial electronics). The use of industrial grade displays, with wide temperature ratings and impact resistance, while increasing tablet unit costs, facilitates reliable operation in the field. Resistive (as opposed to capacitive) touchscreens are often deployed in rugged tablets and enable operation while wearing thick gloves and when wet. Because of the increased protection, rugged devices tend to be slightly heavier than commercial devices.
Many companies have tried to ruggedize commercial tablets by placing them within outer rugged cases. This may not be sufficient in all use cases to adequately protect tablets in the field, and does not consider the additional concerns that follow. The total cost of ownership of a fleet of tablets, including IT oversight (especially for unexpected configuration changes due to uncontrolled software updates), repair/replacement, and downtime must be considered.
Industrial, medical, and military grade tablets must often be customized. In addition to the ruggedness described above, these uses often require non-standard peripheral interfaces (such as Ethernet, CAN, RS-232, or even proprietary), a certain look or feel of the device, private labeling, lockdown of the software environment, or regulatory certifications that require design data that is not available for an off-the-shelf tablet.
Because custom tablets are relatively expensive to design and often meet challenging and costly industry certifications, they must perform reliably and often be available for sale for many years. While commercial tablets are typically available for sale for 12 to 18 months (and often change configurations in uncontrolled ways within this time), rugged Android tablets can be designed with components that can assure their availability for 5 to 10 or more years.
Security, in terms of tamper detection, data and software encryption and authentication and secure remote updates are also important to consider when deciding on a tablet. Commercial tablets have accessible operating systems and application ecosystems that may not be controllable to constrain application usage or personnel access. Automatics updates can disrupt usage or modify configurations at undesired times. Custom rugged Android tablets can enhance security by locking down software configuration, detect and reset the tablet under a security breach, be remotely tracked, or even constrain usage to a geographic area (which is called geo-fencing).
Ultimately, commercial off-the-shelf tablets are typically designed to meet basic use cases for home and personal use. If you are in an industry with specific interface requirements, packaging, ruggedness, security, or software requirements, you should consider equipping your team with custom rugged tablets.