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PenLab: Itronix GoBook III

Itronix' High Performance Rugged Notebook Gets Higher Performance Yet With Intel's New 745 Chip
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)

Itronix has been a provider of rugged wireless computing solutions for going on 20 years and we've been reviewing each generation of the company's mainstay GoBook and its predecessor, the XC-6000 line, as well as Itronix' various handhelds. In our July 2001 issue we reviewed the original GoBook. We concluded that "this Itronix machine provides all the desktop computing power you need, yet it's also tough enough to serve as a high tech computing and decision support tool in the harshest environments." But if we marveled at the original GoBook's performance, we hadn't seen anything yet. In our March 2003 issue the new GoBook II took on two of its biggest competitors, the Amrel Rocky and the Panasonic Toughbook CF-28. We found all three machines exceptionally well engineered and built, but in the performance department the GoBook II outclassed its competition with a powerhouse 1.7 GHz Intel Pentium 4-M while the others still used earlier generation Pentium chips. This power advantage also earned the GoBook II a coveted "Pen Computing Editor's Choice" award as the best high performance rugged notebook in our 2003 Buyer's Guide. If there was one drawback to the GoBook II, it was the high power consumption and heat generated by the 1.7GHz Pentium 4.

Enter the brand new GoBook III. It is the first fully rugged notebook computer available with the new Intel Pentium M processor 745, a fast and powerful chip that also runs significantly cooler and more economical than the old Pentium 4.

So right upfront, with the GoBook III Itronix once again proves its resolve to give its customers state-of-the art performance right now rather than postponing adoption until a chip generation is already obsolete. Maximum speed isn't always necessary in the field, but the tendency to use trailing edge technology has long been a sore subject in mobile and rugged computing circles, and Itronix clearly doesn't want to have any part of it.

How does the 745 chip stack up against the GoBook II's 1.7 GHz Mobile Pentium 4? Using ultra-dense 90 nanometer (90 billionths of a meter or just over two billionths of an inch) technology results in faster and cooler running chips that consume less power. Performance charts would indicate that the GoBook III's Intel 745 chip (which runs at 1.8 GHz) might be as much as 60% faster than the GoBook II's 1.7 GHz Pentium 4, yet have a power consumption of at least 30-40% less. That is a very considerable difference. In terms of battery life, although the new model's 66 Watt-Hour Lithium-Ion main battery remains unchanged, Itronix now claims a battery life of over five hours, much more than the hot-running older model. What this means is that Itronix' swift adoption of Intel's new chips allows customers to get a product that is significantly faster, runs cooler, and has significantly longer battery life. Hard to argue with that.

The technological overhaul of the GoBook doesn't stop at the processor. While the 945 chip is part of the Centrino family, Itronix chose to forego the coveted Centrino sticker on the front of the machine by using an ATI Mobility Radeon 9000 graphics engine instead of Intel's own 855GM chipset. The 64MB Mobility Radeon 9000 provides blistering 3D performance and supports half a dozen or so of impressively named and trademarked proprietary display technologies (like Smartshader, Video Immersion II, Smoothvision, etc.) and also makes for superior DVD playback. While this almost seems like overkill for a rugged notebook with a 12.1-inch XGA display, there are now vertical market applications that can take advantage of, or require, this performance, and making it available gives the GoBook III yet another competitive edge.

Other advances under the techno-hood include a doubling of maximum onboard storage from 1 GB of relatively low speed PC133 RAM to 2 GB of much higher speed DDR RAM. In the hard disk department, the GoBook II's 20 and 30GB drives give way to a standard 40GB and optional 80GB model.

Despite the superior graphics subsystem, the actual display remains the same, a solid 12.1-inch transmissive display with 1024x768 resolution and a touchscreen. Itronix uses its trademarked ColorVue technology to provide a degree of outdoor viewability and readability. What exactly ColorVue means is not clear. Itronix VP Matt Gerber called the technology "semi-transflective" and that describes it well. In direct sunlight the display becomes difficult to read, but it does not wash out completely. However, side by side it was also no better than the display on my Toshiba Portege 3500 Tablet PC convertible. Suffice it to say that the GoBook III's display is very bright and that its graphics subsystem can keep up with even the most advanced applications.

The touchscreen is very precise. You can either operate it with a stylus or even with your fingers. Alternately, you can use the GoBook's touchpad which is a simple, rectangular design that works very well. Those used to the active digitizers in Tablet PCs will undoubtedly miss cursor tracking and the elegant way to do a right mouse click, but a simple touch screen has its advantages also.

In addition to the ruggedness of its products, Itronix also takes great pride in its many wireless offerings. GoBook III users are alerted to that fact via a "CRMA" Itronix Upgradeable Wireless sticker to the right of the display. CRMA stands for Common Radio Module Architecture. The idea here is that Itronix will make new wireless technologies available in CRMA module form, thus allowing easy upgrade to new and more advanced standards. This is not a bad idea, although miniaturization of communications modules and rapid obsolescence of computing platform probably mean that it is usually less expensive to simply switch to new computers that already have the new standards built in.

As is, the GoBook III offers almost unprecedented wireless flexibility. Ours came with 802.11g WiFi (via Intel's Centrino family PRO/Wireless module), Bluetooth, a Sony Ericsson GC82 EDGE PC Card, and a built-in 12-channel GPS receiver. EDGE provides mobile communication at up to three times the speed of GPRS, with average speeds of 100-130 kbps and bursts up to 200 kbps. The GC82 card in our system used AT&T Wireless service and came with a handy and comprehensive Communications Manager. In this day and age of ever faster WiFi, ever more bloated websites, and masses of spam email, even EDGE seems slow, but it sure comes in handy once you're outside WiFi range. The GoBook III's GPS receiver Quadrifiliar Helix antenna sits in an attractively styled pod that's integrated into the top of the clamshell body. A nice example of form follows function. The GPS system comes with the WinFast Navigator utility. Customers will use GPS for mapping, automatic vehicle location, route instructions and asset management applications. Compared to some GPS systems we've tested, this one locked on to satellites very quickly, continued working inside buildings, and never lost connection. That's important for critical mapping applications.

The GPS antenna bulge, in fact, is pretty much the only external design element that differentiates the GoBook III from its predecessors. The entire design and color scheme remain unchanged, which means the new GoBook III is the same light gray/dark gray magnesium box it always was. It isn't as handsome as Panasonic's gleaming Toughbooks, but this is not a beauty contest. Even if it were, the GoBook would actually do quite well. The whole design is supremely functional and to the point, and wholly devoid of unnecessary styling elements. This is an intelligently conceived just-the-facts kind of machine. It is also a service technician's dream. Whereas many devices these days clasp and snap together and only come apart when you know the secret place to push and prod, the GoBook has no secrets. All parts that come off have openly accessible screws (which are also used as industrial design elements). And the covers at the bottom are clearly marked "Battery," "RAM," "RTC," etc., so that you don't inadvertently open the wrong one. One minor gripe here: I wish they'd used screws that don't fall out and get lost. The only other part that looks like it might come loose is the flip-up radio antenna. Every GoBook we've tested has had it, so it must be pretty tough or else Itronix would have changed it. It's not particularly elegant but apparently a solution that works.

The very fact that the GoBook III is both a flexible, technologically advanced machine and a rugged one posed some problems to the machine's designers. That's because such a machine needs to offer lots of connectivity while still remaining water and dust proof. Itronix solved this problem by giving some of the ports individual attached rubber plugs while hiding others behind hinged doors. Looking at the back of the machine, for example, you'll find individually sealed modem, LAN, USB, PS/2, and FireWire (new with the GoBook III) ports whereas the serial port, external VGA adapter and expansion connector have a common hinged door. The speaker and microphone jacks on the left use a rubber flap whereas the large expansion bay on the right has a hinged door. In a machine like this, a door that pops open by accident could have disastrous consequences. For this reason, Itronix uses not one but two spring-loaded latches that need to be pushed in opposite directions to open each hinged door. There is no way that one will open unless you want it to. Itronix says they are rated for 30,000+ openings and closings. Even a platoon of individuals with obsessive disorders will be hard-pressed to reach that number. Despite the cooler running processor, the GoBook III still features a thermal heat exchanger with a fan that gets its cooling air through a grill opening on the right and back of the machine. However, the fan comes on far less often than in the Pentium 4-based GoBook II, and the machine definitely runs a lot cooler.

The new GoBook features other design elements that we've come to know and love. There is the "NiteVue" keyboard, which is fully waterproof and made of ivory-colored phosphorescent plastic. Even in total darkness the thick black letters are completely visible and the keyboard is neither too dark nor too bright. A very clever idea. We also like the uniquely designed handle that doubles as a sturdy keyboard stand and even contains a couple of loops for a carry strap.

The media bay can accommodate one or more of a good number of options. You can get anything from a lowly CD-ROM drive all the way up to a combination DVD/CDRW drive. Alternately, you can use the bay for a floppy drive or a second battery. The bay also contains a Type II/III PC Card slot. New are Smart Card reader and fingerprint scanner options. Itronix added those to address increasingly common data security and data access requirements.

Let's move on to perhaps the main raison d'etre of the GoBook, its ruggedness. The GoBook III, like its predecessors and also like its direct competitors, has an IP54 rating. The first number shows, on a scale of 0 to 6, protection against solid objects penetrating the housing. The "5" means that the GoBook is totally protected from contact with live and moving parts and also offers protection against any kind of dust deposits. The second number shows, on a scale of 0 to 8, protection against penetration of liquids. A "4" means protection against splashing from any direction. Other than that, the GoBook can be operated in temperatures between -10 and 140 degrees, though the lower extreme requires the optional hard drive heater. The device has also been tested in accordance with MIL-SPEC 810F procedures that requires surviving 26 drops from three feet onto plywood over concrete, exposure to severe vibration, and other tortures. The die-cast magnesium-clad Go Book passed all those tests. In the past we have agonized over whether having low-tech rubber bumpers is a good thing or not. They definitely provide protection and are inexpensive to replace. Itronix doesn't use them, and apparently doesn't need to with this design.

GoBooks have been criticized for not having a latch that keeps the display secured until it is actively released. Instead, Itronix uses two cylindrical snaps that hold the display in place and won't let it twist sideways. Problem is that the lack of an active lock means the display can pop open and expose the relatively fragile LCD to harm in a fall. Itronix argues that this is unlikely to happen and that many of its customers open and close the display dozens or hundreds of time during a typical workday, making an active clasp cumbersome to use.

What Itronix has released with the Go-Book III is a technologically updated version of a successful and extensively field-tested design. From the outside it is virtually indistinguishable from its predecessors, with the exception of the large GPS antenna pod. In this day and age of snazzy industrial design we half-expected Itronix to jazz up the looks of the GoBook a bit. They didn't, and that's okay. The GoBook is a tool for tough jobs rather than a status symbol. All the good stuff is under the hood anyway, and there Itronix didn't skimp, showing that Itronix is determined to give its customers not just tough tools, but tough state-of-the-art tools. We're certain that will be appreciated, especially since the price of the GoBook III remains unchanged at US$4,495. That's for a base model. You decide which of the numerous wireless and security options you want and need.

With the GoBook III Itronix has clearly set new standards and upped the performance bar for the competition. And thanks to Intel's new processors, this performance does no longer come at the price of reduced battery life. Sometimes you can have your cake and eat it, too. - Itronix: www.itronix.com -

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

Type Rugged notebook
Processor Intel Pentium M 745
OS Windows XP Professional
Memory 512MB expandable to 2GB
Display 12.1" XGA (1024 x 768) "ColorVue" TFT
Digitizer/Pens Touchscreen/1
Keyboard 87-key full-scale with glow-in-the-dark NiteVue
Storage 40 to 80 GB hard disk w/ optional disk heater
Size 12.0" x 9.8" x 2.36"
Weight 8.2 pounds incl. battery pack
Power 65 WHr Lithium-Ion ("over 5 hours")
Communication 10/100base-T, 56K V.90 Modem, internal 802.11b/g wireless LAN radio
Interface USB 2.0, audio/mic, PS/2, IEEE1394, RJ-11, RJ-45, VGA, serial, dock, 2 PC Card Type II, CRMA for wireless
Price starting at US$4,495
Contact Itronix Itronix