Rugged notebook makers target commercial users

Two manufacturers of ruggedized notebook computers are changing their strategies, unveiling new models targeted at industrial and commercial users.

Until now, the companies have adopted a one-size-fits-all approach, producing a single machine tailored to the most demanding specifications: those of military users worldwide. With the market for such products growing, the companies are beginning to look more at commercial applications, such as factory floors and laboratories, where normal notebooks won't make the grade but military-grade machines are often overkill.

For users, this means good news in the form of lower prices.

"Look at that connector," said Jimmy Lan, sales manager for Crete Systems Inc., a Shen Keng Hsiang, Taiwan, company that makes ruggedized machines. He was pointing to the small power connector on a military version of its latest tablet PC. "It costs a couple of hundred dollars. You don't need that on the industrial version."

It's not just power connectors. Companies are reevaluating other features and specifications of their machines to cut prices but still provide a durable product.

Mitac Technology Corp. will launch its W120 notebook in late July. The machine is not quite as rugged as the current A760S model, but is around US$1,000 cheaper, said Irene Wu from Mitac's product marketing department. With a mobile Pentium III processor running at 700MHz and a 10.4-inch TFT (thin film transistor) screen, the machine will cost between $2,500 and $3,000, Wu said.

The machine is aimed at markets such as police, field workers or maritime users who want a PC that is waterproof, dustproof and shockproof but aren't so worried about other standards that are often built into the machines, said Wu.

These include things like electromagnetic radiation protection, said Crete System's Lan. "If you have this PC next to $2 million of radio equipment, you can change the sensitivity and range of the radio equipment unless the PC is well protected." Most commercial users don't have to worry about such concerns and so machines aimed at them don't have to be built to such exacting specifications.

Crete is planning to release a tablet PC based on a Pentium III processor running at 500MHz in September this year. The company will have two versions, one for military users and one for commercial users, and expects the latter machine to come in at between $2,500 and $3,000. At present, just over half the company's business is with military customers, although Lan hopes this may change with the launch of a cheaper model for commercial and industrial users.

Another new rugged PC unveiled at Computex this week is the Revolution from Kontron Asia Inc. The machine looks like a regular notebook computer but the display can be swiveled around and folded back down to be used as a tablet PC. The machine is based on a mobile Pentium III processor and comes in a single version priced at around $5,000.