Rough, tough and PC, too

Clare Newsome tests a portable built to take life's hard knocks
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Like the people who use them, portable PCs are often too fragile to cope with life in the field. Ordinary notebooks tend to be fragile, heavy, unsuitable for use while standing, inadequately sealed, and usually need a mouse and have a short battery life.

Trials of notebook PCs by engineers, emergency service personnel, maintenance crews and other field workers often result in harsh verdicts, leaving organisations reliant on a mix of technology and paper-based working methods.

Husky Computers, a British firm specialising in field computing equipment, has spent the past couple of years designing a rugged, portable PC that can be used on the move, and in direct connection to corporate systems via fax, radio, fixed or mobile phone. The result is the "go-anywhere" FC-486. It is based on standard PC technology - the units are powered by 25 or 50Mhz Texas Instruments 486SLC processors - but other similarities are hard to find.

The first surprise is its appearance. Instead of having a conventional "clam-shell" format, the FC-486 is a hingeless unit with a curved profile designed to fit in the crook of the arm, allowing users to work standing up and on the move.

The unit weighs only 2kg, and its carry handle neatly doubles as a desk stand. The user can input or access data via the FC-486's cordless pen or reduced-size keyboard. The latter is not intended for lots of input - most field workers will use the pen to interface with specially designed, check-box type applications - but is included as an acknowledgement of the failings of handwriting recognition-based text input systems.

Whatever applications users choose to use, they will be able to run them for longer. Instead of the typical two or three hours of battery-life provided by a standard notebook, the FC-486 offers up to 12 hours of operating time, thanks to a Duracell DR30 battery pack which can be recharged in an hour.

The screen is a mono transflective VGA display designed to be clearly visible in a range of interior and exterior lighting, including direct sunlight. The top layer can be peeled off and replaced if it is scratched.

Connectivity was a key consideration, leading to the inclusion of two PCMCIA slots - one external, one internal. Each can accommodate one type- III or two type-II cards, including the latest cellular modem and Global Positioning System navigational devices. Data can be transferred to PCs via serial port, modem, or PCMCIA hard disk.

Most notebooks suffer a premature demise as a result of being accidentally dropped, so the FC-486 has a tough magnesium alloy casing and its screen is reinforced. The unit is sealed against dust and moisture.

The extent of the FC-486's durability is probably best illustrated by its conformity to a range of military standards - meaning it can be dropped, frozen, immersed, baked, or buried and still continue working.

The screen is tested to withstand direct impact from a 1in-diameter steel ball dropped from a height of more than 6ft.

The final extraordinary fact about the FC-486 is its low price. Systems start at £1,799, with a Windows-based unit featuring the pen interface and 4Mb of RAM, costing £2,299. Keith Gallagher, the firm's marketing manager, says reaction to the new system has been excellent, with major utilities, insurance firms, retailers, surveyors, and the medical industry keen to give the notebook PC another chance.

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