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Suffice to say that our SOHO Advisor has special needs when it comes to technology. Very special needs.

Picture the scene: Semi-rural setting, stream, ducks, and hikers, including one who writes about technology for a living. He bends over to pick up a quarter and watches the PDA slip from his top pocket and fall into a river. I won’t even mention the time I actually snapped off part of a notebook screen hinge and heard a crackling, fizzing noise as the display subsystem shorted out.

Suffice to say I have special needs when it comes to technology. Very special needs.

The low-rent approach

For almost seven years, I’ve taken the low road to avoid expensive damage. I’ve been making do with off-lease notebooks, sold under warranty on eBay or at local branches of Computer Renaissance and other stores. These notebooks have already taken a licking, been refurbished, and keep on ticking. They’re not pretty, they’re not light, but they do the job.

For some years, the Compaq Armada 3500 has been my tool of choice. It was a decent mid-range computer when I first reviewed it, and it’s proved to be a real workhorse. I still have one that’s probably five years old at this stage, and when it’s pumped up with enough RAM, it does the job. When it eventually breaks down (and it will, trust me), I’ll do what I’ve done in the past: Scrub the hard disk thoroughly with Norton Utilities’ WipeDisk and sell the whole thing for parts.

The only trouble is…well…it’s a late 1990s notebook–a 333Mhz Pentium II, no less (and certainly no more). Though it’s fine for word processing, e-mail, and Web browsing, it’s no good at all for some of the more heavy-duty work I need to put it through. And then, there were two assignments I was about to go on that would mete out harsh conditions too: Two archaeological explorations during the heat and thunderstorms of a northeastern summer, and an EPA cleanup site in the oil fields of northern Pennsylvania. Clumsy writer, fragile technology, harsh conditions. That’s a triad of trouble, make no mistake about it.

Getting tough

That’s why I turned to a ruggedized tablet PC from Xplore Technologies. The company recently introduced two harsh-condition tablets for businessfolk–the iX104 Renegade and the Renegade Dual Mode Tablet PC. I used the iX104, a pen-based device running Windows XP for Tablet PCs, coupled with a tough USB keyboard and a cigarette lighter adapter to keep its charge up during long drives. The device was bulky, with heavy gray rubber devices to protect the shock-sensitive corners of the device, and also to help it grip surfaces so that it’s less likely to slide off. The same heavy rubber covered the devices ports–including its USB, Firewire, and power socket. The active stylus that all Tablet PCs use was tethered to the PC with a heavy cable that wrapped tidily around the rubber footing. When carrying it, it was a tidy and manageable, though heavyish, bundle. When using it, it was just like a regular Tablet PC. It even connected nicely to several wireless networks in different locations.

The iX104 Renegade Tablet PC, as the pen-only version is called, isn’t a cheap alternative, so it’s lucky I’ve been saving my pennies for the past seven years. But at $2,995, it’s not exorbitant for a rugged computer of this caliber. I didn’t test their claims that I could drop the notebook four feet without causing any damage, but I did take it places I wouldn’t normally take anything costing more than $200.

I found the active stylus Renegade perfectly acceptable, but if I’d favored a regular Palm Pilot style touchscreen that I could use with, say, a fingertip. Xplore Technologies also produces a Dual Mode Renegade for $3,145.

Tread softly

Of course, even rugged PCs aren’t completely shatterproof. The Xplore Renegade line, like all Tablet PCs, has a glass substrate underneath its touch screen. Like all glass, it’s susceptible to damage from abuse, such as heavy blows with sharp objects. My engineer brother figured that it wouldn’t take much to shatter the glass beneath a conventional Tablet PC–tossing it onto a car seat with a heavy object with corners (such as a power supply “brick”…or a regular brick) would concentrate enough force to do the trick, he reckoned. So would leaving the thing on a pile of papers in the passenger seat, then braking heavily.

But nobody with a smattering of Newtonian physics would do anything that stupid, would they?” he asked. In the recesses of my mind, I was replaying the scene when I moved offices in 1994, balancing a coffee cup on top of a notebook on top of a pile of magazines while moving offices. Even now, I can feel the itch beneath the cast they put on my ankle later that afternoon…

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