Rugged tablet PC makes onsite computing fast

August 11, 2010

The motion J3400 tablet PC gives its users strong wireless capabilities and deskop power in a tablet.

Introduced last fall, the Motion J3400 mobile tablet PC is a sleek yet rugged machine that combines the latest in wireless technology with the lightness and point-and-click capabilities of a tablet. To test it, I used our little review PC on the site of the 90,000-sf Clearwater mixed-use project in Oak Brook, Ill., right across the street from the BD+C offices. Exterior work on Clearwater was completed shortly after our tests were done last summer. It's scheduled to open in early 2010.

The J3400 stood up to the dustiness of a job site exceptionally well, thanks to its rubberized rugged exterior for shock dampening and strong broadband wireless capabilities. The J3400 was rated for MIL-STD-810F, the standard that the U.S. military demands of its field PCs (the documentation said it can withstand a 36-inch drop to plywood over concrete), so it wasn't surprising that it easily withstood all the drop tests I subjected it to.

What was a little surprising was how robust and powerful the little PC's wireless capabilities were—it weighs only 3.6 pounds with a 12.1-inch screen. I was able to pull in signals from the site, from my office across the street, and even from hotels about a mile down the road. The J3400 comes standard with WiFi and Bluetooth wireless connectivity, and optional mobile broadband (WWAN). My test PC had the optional mobile broadband, which I highly recommend getting if you're considering using it on a construction site.

A problem that many tablet PCs have is that the screens are downright unreadable in direct sunlight. The J3400's sunlight-readable 12.1-inch AFFS+ LED (Advanced Fringe Field Technology) backlit screen gave an always readable display whether I was in pitch blackness at night or out in the midday sun. The J3400 automatically adjusted for light, thanks to the optional View Anywhere technology included in my test unit. The screen seemed to create a proper viewing angle from all directions, so you never have to tilt and angle the tablet to see what's on it. The display excelled in eliminating unwanted reflection or diffusion.

The J3400 can afford to devote more power to lighting because Motion switched to an ultra-low-power version of Intel's Core 2 Duo processor technology with the release of the J3400 and its sister PCs. The machine runs silently without ever heating up; for the first month of my test I thought it was running without a fan. I found out it does have a small fan; you just can't hear it. The processors are part of Intel's Centrino 2 platform that also includes Intel's GS45/ICH9M chipset and the WiFi Link 5300 802.11a/b/g/draft-n module, which also helps the J3400 pull in those wi-fi signals.

Since mobile computers run the same operating systems and applications as desktops, providing enough power to deliver a productive computing experience as a docked laptop or a fixed desktop (which are both plugged into an electrical outlet) is a tall order. Tablets need to provide enough power for the machine to run reasonably fast, but without incurring penalties in the form of excessive heat generation or unacceptably short battery life.

That's why Motion switched to Intel's ultra-low voltage Centrino 2 technology that includes either the 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo SU9600 or the slightly slower 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo SU9400 processor. Both chips are highly efficient and have thermal design power (TDP) ratings of just 10 watts, less than a third of most notebook processors. (TDP is the maximum amount of power a computer's cooling system needs to dissipate heat and is used as a measure of power efficiency.) The J3400's TDP rating is the same as that of the older Motion LE1700 with its slower 1.06GHz Core 2 Duo U7500 processor.

When it comes to battery life, Motion nearly doubled its internal battery capacity from 38.5 watt-hours in the previous generation LE1700 to 60 watt-hours in the new J3400. They did this via a dual hot-swappable battery system, with two 14.8V/2,000mAH lithium-ion batteries fitting into the bottom of the machine: the rubber-encased backs of the batteries form part of the computer's back. The batteries have an external pushbutton that instantly shows (via five LEDs) how much charge is left. You can remove one battery and dock it in a charging station onsite and use the power available on the other one for more than three hours.

I was able to use the two fully charged batteries for up to seven hours without hooking up to an outlet. This was with WiFi on. Power-saving modes put the system to sleep when the computer isn't being used, so it's difficult to estimate the exact life of each of the two batteries, but the dual system is a definite improvement over the previous three-hour battery duration.

The only part of the J3400 I had some problems with was its pen and writing technology. You can use the J3400 with any external USB keyboard or with the lightweight mobile keyboard/stand combo in the package. It also comes with a FlexDock desktop mount. On a construction site, however, it's unlikely you'll have a physical keyboard available. The digital pen that came with the system worked fine for punchlists and forms, but the handwriting recognition software just wasn't up to the standard needed for today's construction projects. It should be noted, however, that according to the manufacturer, the writing digitization works better with Windows 7 than with the Vista unit I tested.

Microsoft's recognizer no longer lets you freely write on the screen as it did with the initial Tablet PC Edition. Instead, you need to write into an input panel. Ink goes on smoothly but it lags just enough to be noticeable. This should not be an issue with the technologies we have today, and I believe it has to do with the serial interface between the Wacom digitizer and the computer. Most Microsoft software simply is not optimized for handwriting recognition, but the J3400 works as well as it can with what it has. It's been reported that this has improved with Windows 7, I only tested the Vista version. The digitizing companies simply need to make a breakthrough to allow better handwriting for tablet PCs. The onscreen keyboards performed well enough when you use the pen as a hunt-and-peck finger.

Overall, the J3400 is a powerful, easily readable tablet PC that offers the ruggedness and wireless capabilities of a much bigger machine in a smaller package, with plenty of battery life. If you're considering upgrading, I'd give it a try, as it offers the best features of a rugged tablet PC without looking like it's going into battle. Although it's comforting to know that it could.


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