Dell Latitude 12 Rugged Tablet|
Dell rounds out its rugged offerings with a flexible, modular state-of-the-art rugged tablet
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)
On July 21, 2015, Dell introduced the Latitude 12 Rugged Tablet. It is a fully rugged Windows tablet computer, and complements Dell's rugged mobile computing offerings. As such, the new rugged Dell tablet joins the Dell 14 Rugged and Rugged Extreme laptops and the Dell 12 Rugged Extreme convertible notebook. So why did Dell add a rugged tablet, and how did they go about it?
First, why? The obvious reason is Dell's resolve to step up its presence in the rugged PC market where the company has highly competitive product offerings on the notebook side but up to now nothing in the faster growing rugged tablet sector.
Cracking a new market is never easy, even for a company of Dell's size and reputation. Dell product manager Umang Patel said that while there are lots of options in this space, fully rugged tablets are heavy and expensive and in the lower price range there isn't much that offers the kind of features and performance that many prospective tablet users need. And that's what Dell seeks to offer with their new Latitude 12 Rugged Tablet.
So how did Dell go about creating such a tablet? Well, they had a good base in the form of their existing Latitude 12 Rugged Extreme convertible notebook (see our full review), and that remarkable machine serves as the foundation for Dell's new tablet. In essence, Dell condensed the guts of their convertible into a pure tablet form factor, retaining the same 11.6-inch display size and much of the functionality, but paring 40% of the weight and updating underlying technologies in the process.
Display and interface
Dell is one of the pioneers in modern-era outdoor-viewable displays, and the Latitude 12 Rugged Tablet benefits from that expertise. Dell's "Direct-View" screen technology is designed to reduce internal reflectivity and display glare to the extent where the device doesn't need a battery-killing superbright backlight to achieve good viewing performance outdoors and in the sun.
For operation of the tablet, Dell chose capacitive multi-touch, the technology hundreds of millions are familiar with from their smartphones and consumer tablets. Dell's implementation can handle up to 10 simultaneous inputs and is also "glove-capable," which is important as field work often requires the wearing of gloves and it's impractical to take them off every time the tablet is used. How, and how well, that works we hope to report on as soon as we have an eval unit in our lab.
Flexible connectivity is crucial in many enterprise and field deployment, and it's an area where consumer tablets are sorely lacking. To address that, Dell made sure to make available almost every conceivable special or legacy I/O (such as serial, PC Card, dual Ethernet, etc.) while still living within the physical constraints of a compact and lightweight tablet.
So while default onboard connectivity consists of a standard USB 3.0 port, audio in/out, and micro versions of serial and HDMI, there's modular expansion via a pogo-pin connector on the back. Initially available is an extended I/O module that adds RJ45 Ethernet and two standard USB 3.0 ports (see image in the sidebar to the right). A barcode and magnetic stripe reader module will be added soon, and Dell will provide a development kit for third-party developers or customers with unique module requirements.
A desk dock (see image in the sidebar to the right) provides not only charging for two spare batteries, but pretty much all the connectivity of a full function notebook. Also available is a compact vehicle dock that likewise adds full laptop I/O.
State-of-the-art wireless connectivity is crucial in a mobile computing device, be it in the office or out there on the road or in the field. Dell covers that with an Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7265 module that also includes Bluetooth 4.0. Note that 802.11ac—the latest WiFi standard and often called "5G WiFi"—is up to three times faster than 802.11n. Optional 4G LTE mobile broadband is available in versions for the North American and worldwide markets.
Shown below is the optional full-size keyboard that snaps on to the tablet, has customizable RGB backlighting, and comes with a kickstand.
Ruggedness and durability are sore subjects with consumer tablets where almost universally style prevails over substance. Dell points out that the 5-year total cost of ownership of a rugged solution is actually only half that of a consumer product.
That doesn't mean a rugged device has to be a tank, just that it must be logically designed and built to handle whatever conditions and eventualities will be encountered in the real world. For the new Dell tablet that includes IP65 sealing, where the "6" means it's totally dustproof and the "5" means it's also protected against low pressure water jets from all directions. The device can operate within an extremely wide temperature range of -20° to 145° Fahrenheit (-29° to 63°Centigrade), which means practically anywhere. Dell says the device is also independently tested according to MIL-STD-810G procedures for transit drop, blowing rain, blowing dust and sand, vibration, functional shock, freeze/thaw cycles, and more.
For use in hazardous locations, ATEX and C1D2 certification is available. These are becoming more and more important, and they are a prerequisite for deployment in industries such as oil, gas, and petrochemical manufacturing, and many others where ignitable gases or vapor may be present.
Performance: Intel 5th gen Core processors
What about performance? That's historically been a challenge for rugged tablets due to customer demands for both light weight and long battery life. Vastly improved efficiency in Intel's lineup of mobile processors has helped to address that problem, though often at considerable cost. For its new rugged tablet, Dell chose Intel's Core M processors which is the most power-efficient part of the "Broadwell" 5th generation Core processor family. How efficient? While Dell's initial specs don't specify which Core M processors are being used in the new tablet, all of them are rated at an incredibly low 4.5 watt Thermal Design Power. That's a fraction of what even ultra-low voltage Core processors use, and lower even than many Intel Atom processors.
How is that possible? Through a vast arsenal of power saving and optimization measures. The flipside of this approach is that, in our lab testing of earlier such Intel chips, there's often a large performance drop-off under anything but optimal operating conditions. Which is most likely why Dell gave the new tablet a fan. While passive cooling is usually good enough to dissipate power draws of just a few watts, the fan and thermal system, which Dell calls "QuadCool," is likely needed to provide peak performance even under trying thermal and operating conditions.
The device supports up to 8GB of LPDDR3 memory. LPDDR3, by the way, generally uses only about a tenth as much power while in standby as does regular DDR3 RAM. Mass storage is via solid state disks up to 512GB. An SED version (Self-Encrypting Drive) is optionally available.
How does Dell handle the battery issue in the Latitude 12 Rugged Tablet? With room for two separate 2-cell 26 watt-hour Li-Ion packs. Only one battery comes with a standard tablet.
Is that enough? It might be. Dell claims up to six hours. By comparison, the Dell Dell Latitude 12 Rugged Extreme convertible comes with a single 56 watt-hour battery for which Dell claims 8.5 hours. In our lab testing we saw over 13 hours, and that was with an Intel Haswell chip with 15 watt TDP. So even though 26 watt-hours is barely more than an iPad mini has, it might be enough for some customers. We'd definitely recommend using two batteries which not only makes hot-swapping possible, but also boosts estimated battery life to 12 hours.
For security, the Latitude 12 Rugged Tablet offers FIPS 140-2 TPM 1.2 functionality to store secured information. Some of the available processors support vPro, a set of Intel security and remote management technologies that offer multiple lines of built-in defenses, and there are also Dell's advanced security and data protection and encryption tools. There's a cable lock slot for physical security, available smart card reader, contactless smart card reader, and fingerprint reader, and also NFC.
What Dell's rugged tablet means
Compared to the Dell's overall sales volume, the market for rugged tablets is quite small, perhaps $600 million per year worldwide. However, to be a credible force in the rugged computing market, and Dell wants to be that, one needs a rugged tablet in addition to notebooks. Dell now has that with the Latitude 12 Rugged Tablet. And it's in the 12-inch class that has seen a lot of activity as of late, it uses state-of-the-art technology, it has an attractive starting price, and it seems almost indefinitely expandable.
Add to that Dell's massive corporate capabilities and services and one-stop shopping appeal, and it's probably fair to say that overnight the rugged tablet market has become far more competitive. — Conrad H. Blickenstorfer, July 2015