General Dynamics offers rugged UMPC
Laughs off nerve gas and even coffee
After a slow start, the UMPC concept seems to be gaining momentum in recent months. The latest entrant to the field is US arms colossus General Dynamics, which launched its GoBook MR-1 rugged UMPC at the DSEi military tech fair today.
The MR-1: is that all you've got?
The MR-1 is properly ruggedised, passing the American MIL-STD 810F and IP54 benchmarks for resistance to drop, vibration, dust and water. Sandy McCaskie, European MD for General Dynamics' comms-and-computers business, told the Reg that it floats, too. He also said that if you get it covered in - for instance - VX persistent nerve agent, it can be soaked in bleach without suffering any harm. That's handy, as one would then be able to let it touch one's skin again without suffering a terrible agonising death. (McCaskie also stressed that the MR-1 is designed to be used easily while wearing gloves.)
Inside the tough case is quite a good little computer built around a 1.2 GHz Intel Core Solo processor. You can have 512 megs or 1GB of DDR II DRAM; and standard storage is a 40 GB shock mounted, heated hard drive. There will be options for up to 32GB of Flash instead, for ultimate ruggedness.
The MR-1 will ship initially with XP Pro, but McCaskie assured us that it is "fully Vista capable" - though he didn't anticipate many of his military and blue-lighter customers wanting that to start with.
The touchscreen display is 5.6", and 1024 by 600. It also boasts GD's new DynaVue™ tech, designed to make it easier to use outdoors in conditions of bright sunlight. McCaskie demoed this for us on the deck of the "Sunborn" motor yacht hotel, and it has to be said the DynaVue™ screen was much easier to read in the sunshine than the Reg's own PDA. DynaVue™ apparently works by enhanced contrast rather than brighter backlighting, so as to reduce power demand. The MR-1 is rated for three hours of battery life with its standard battery, but there's a heavier long-life one which offers twice that.
As for connectivity, the MR-1 comes with three radios of your choice: EVDO for the States, EDGE/UMTS/HSDPA for Europe, Bluetooth Class II, 802.11a/b/g WiFi with WPA. It also has a 2.5mm audio jack, speakers, mike, and a single USB slot; plus RF connectors to allow the machine to work with vehicle antennas. There's an expansion dock offering serial, extra USB, and a Trusted Computing chip to boot.
The MR-1 was designed with GPS in mind, though you don't have to have it. Satnav equipped MR-1's have a protruding, flat aerial assembly on the top left corner of the lid, a good sign - we've been less than impressed on occasion with the capability of integrated, antenna-free GPS receivers in smartphones. (And indeed, it isn't uncommon for these units to need a helping hand from mobile-mast locations to get going.) McCaskie swears that the MR-1, however, is as good as a dedicated satnav unit. He says this was achieved by using a proper antenna, and by paying attention to suppressing the MR-1's own self-generated interference.
The basic unit is 0.91kg, and 40 x 152 x 110mm - too big for a normal pocket, but an easy fit for combat trousers.
Overall, the MR-1 is a very wantable piece of kit - perhaps even for ordinary users. McCaskie has hopes that it won't be just military and police forces who buy the MR-1; he also thinks that service engineers and their IT admins might like it too. He might be right, as the machine shrugs off oil, grease and swarfega as readily as it does nerve gas - and it can cope with being kept in a tool box or thrown into the back of a van.
As for the rest of us, this could finally be a genuinely hot-coffee-proof gadget - "the ultimate test," as McCaskie put it. He swears the MR-1 can take a tall sugary Americano on the keyboard without blubbing, though the on-the-spot demo was only with water.
The catch? As ever with rugged gear, the price. General Dynamics expect the baseline MR-1 to retail for £2,618. That's not too bad for a rugged unit, but you could get several ordinary UMPCs for the same money. ®
Check out the Switchback UMPC...www.switchbackpc.com More rugged and more features, I think a better choice.
...but does it run any REAL operating system ?
Something like xBSD, Linux or Solaris...
...and IP54 is NOT what I call rugged... You need IP66 or IP67if You want to take it out in any weather anywhere in the world.
IMHO the military should look at the OLPC instead... the military version could be called OLPS and would need some camouflage.
The GD Itronix MR-1 is related to the Paul Allen/Vulcan Inc. FlipStart, initially revealed as the MiniPC way back in 2004. I've offered El Reg a review of the FlipStart several times since the system's release, but for some reason they seem disinterested! Perhaps freelance contributions are discouraged, lest Reg hacks not get the chance to lurk about on sun-drenched yacht decks - or perhaps the readers aren't going to be interested in another UMPC, least of all one which costs half the MR-1's pricetag :)
FlipStart is powered by a 1.1GHz Pentium-M, has 512MB RAM and a 30GB HD, but has a very similar appearance and screen. The touchscreen is not implemented; in my own experience this results in a better quality display than most touchscreen-equipped UMPCs, but I haven't seen the GD tech and therefore can't comment on it.
Assuming UK releases go to plan, the FlipStart will offer WiFi, Bluetooth and UMTS/HSDPA (the EVDO module fitted for the US market is a standard unit judging by the FCC filing, and could easily be replaced with an internal 3G card - a SIM socket exists on the PCB already). US retail is $1999, and not as a reviewer but as someone who has had the benefit of using the machine for a couple of months, it's a very nice, clever bit of hardware.
The unique feature for the FlipStart - all the UMPCs outside of Origami have to have one, at least - is a small screen on the reverse of the display. With fast navigation, this is akin to the old Xircom "Rex" or similar in theory of operation - it synchronises with your Outlook data for appointments, email and contacts (the system can be set to wake, collect email and sleep again with one menu option) and these can be viewed even if the rest of the computer is in standby. The navigation control for this also doubles as a rapid-access zoom control, or a scroll wheel.
With clear Psion influences (the packaging, manual design and keyboard design in particular), the device doesn't initially have the Wow! factor that some UMPCs have - the clamshell form factor, slightly chunky dimensions, make for an 'unsexy' package (imagine the MR-1 without the rugged bits), but in actual real-world use it's a class-leading design. It's also very, very small.
El Reg hasn't featured the FlipStart since February 2004, when it was just a twinkle in Paul Allen's eye - and it's been on the market stateside (and internationally through importers like Dynamism) since April this year. I've got 4,500 words, 20 pictures going free here formed from a (smaller) review for a published magazine - come and get it ;)
...does it run any real OS ? something like xBSD, Linux or Solaris ?
...and IP54 is not what I call rugged... for real all-weather operation you need IP66.
...the military should maybe consider OLPC... it would only need some camouflage
I don't see someone using that with gloves...
On the other hand, considering how tough I am on equipment, I'd probably go through several standard units in a year, so it would be a bargain.
I've already destroyed a half-dozen Palm PDAs