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PenLab: Itronix GoBook Duo-Touch

Compact Tablet PC slate gets tougher and better in very respect
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)

When Itronix introduced the original GoBook Tablet PC, we were certainly pleased to see the Spokane, Washington based developer of wireless, rugged computing solutions enter the Tablet PC market. Designed by longtime Taiwanese partner Twinhead, the GoBook TPC was a nice-enough machine, and one that nicely filled a market niche that had been overlooked--or not been deemed important enough--by the competition. That niche was a machine that was smaller, lighter, and less expensive than full-size rugged tablets.

The GoBook TPC fit that bill with a very compact die-cast magnesium and plastic case built to IP54 specifications and designed to take a beating. Everything was nicely sealed, the body was thick enough to accommodate up to three different wireless concurrent radio networks, and the device was technologically up-to-date. Since the GoBook Tablet PC was smaller than full-size rugged tablets, its display was smaller, too--just 8.4 inches in diameter, but that was enough for its intended use. A bigger problem, at least in our mind, was that the machine just didn't look very serious and didn't quite have the rock-solid feel we've come to expect from a real Itronix. Well, that was because the original GoBook Tablet PC wasn't a real Itronix. It was a Twinhead machine that was sold through several resellers, including Itronix, whereas all other Itronix machines had been developed by Twinhead in very close cooperation with Itronix. When the Tablet PC market began to take off, Itronix was smart enough to go back to Twinhead and start working on a second generation of the machine, with the goal of making one that would truly earn its membership in the highly regarded lineup of rugged computers carrying the GoBook name. The result is the Duo-Touch Tablet PC. In this review we'll explore whether Itronix succeeded, and to what extent.

The new GoBook TPC

The short answer is that they did succeed. My initial reaction to the original device was, "This doesn't feel quite right." My initial reaction to the Duo-Touch was, "Wow. They really nailed it this time." Yes, the difference is that large. You wouldn't expect it because the size, dimensions and overall design of the second generation machine haven't changed. But whereas the original design felt not-quite-ready-for-primetime as a serious rugged machine (even after the silly bright blue inserts of the original Twinhead implementation had been replaced), the new model feels solid as a rock. No twisting, no flexing, no creaking at all. Just a solid block of purposefully molded magnesium ready to do battle with the rugged machines from WalkAbout and Xplore. The housing is a workmanlike gray with the sole exception of a bit of beige in the front fascia made of some tough plastic. Basically, the machine went from being plastic with some aluminum structural parts to being all-magnesium. Big difference.

Stunning internal design

In fact, while the new machine looks the same outside, it couldn't be more different inside. Remove two large sealed magnesium covers at the bottom of the Duo-Touch and you'll be rewarded with a look at what must be one of the toughest, cleanest computer bodies ever made. Every smallest detail looks like it has been thoroughly thought through. And everything inside is as beautifully designed and finished as any part outside. That's in stark contrast to the sloppy messes we've found inside many rugged machines over the years. The hard disk has its own housing where it sits insulated on all six sides by almost a quarter inch of very dense foam rubber. The speedy Intel processor does need cooling, but since a conventional fan is out of the question in an IP54-sealed machine, Itronix designed a clever fan and heat exchanger that sit in a special compartment which is open to the outside but sealed to the inside. But if it is open to the outside, won't the fan get damaged if wet?

It won't. The fan even runs underwater. I saw it. And just to make extra-sure that not a single drop ever penetrates, Itronix used springloaded screws to hold down both the fan and the heat exchanger.

All ports and openings along the side are sealed with individual plastic covers with rubber seals. Each cover is screwed onto the body, so if it ever breaks you can simply replace it with a new one. Large openings like the PC Card and CF Card slots also have threaded holes on either side. They are there so that those slots can be sealed with screw-down covers if there is no need to open them. This is rugged machine design at its finest.

Electronics overhaul

It goes almost without saying that the second generation machine received a significant technological makeover. The old Pentium III processor has been replaced by a 1.2GHz Pentium M 733 CPU that's complemented by the Intel 915GM Express Chipset which delivers twice the graphics performance of the older chipset in the predecessor. Standard memory has been doubled from 256 to 512MB, and it is possible to go all the way up to 1280MB (256MB onboard and up to 1GB in the single expansion slot). The 30 GB hard disk has been replaced by a faster 40GB Hitachi TravelStar.

Itronix has always prided itself on powerful, flexible wireless implementations. The Duo-Touch continues that tradition. The computer can accommodate up to four internal radios. Depending on customer requirements, the DuoTouch can be equipped with 802.11b/g or 802.11a/b/g WiFi, Bluetooth, GPRS/EDGE, and even GPS. In terms of external connectivity, the right side has a v92 modem port in case you ever need to make a landline connection (yes, that can still happen), two USB ports, microphone and speaker jacks, and a CF Card Type II slot. On top is a PC Card Type II slot and a gigabit Ethernet RJ45 jack. Power and a docking connector are on the bottom. The active Wacom-style pen is tethered to the device via an elastic cord. Its garage is recessed into the back of the machine.

What's "Duo-Touch?

Why is the machine called Duo-Touch? The term refers to the computer's dual-mode digitizer. It can work as an active digitizer as required for Windows XP Tablet PC Edition functionality, but it can also work as a passive touch panel. In active mode it provides cursor tracking, the Tablet PC Edition's handy right mouse-click emulation (pressing and holding the pen until the right mouseclick menu pops up) and all the other neat tricks an active digitizer can do. In passive touchscreen mode it works like a PDA. You can use any stylus to tap the display, or even use your fingers. In touchscreen mode, the digitizer is responsive, but also offers excellent palm rejection. Palm rejection refers to the digitizer's resistance to making the cursor jump when you inadvertently touch the screen with the palm of your hand. To toggle between the two modes, you simply press the left and right buttons at the same time.

The beauty of this dual-mode arrangement is that it adds flexibility to the machine. Some vertical and industrial software applications may work best with finger touch. It is also amazing that Itronix managed to provide both digitizer technologies without excessive dimming of the screen. After all, there are two separate and different layers of digitizing technology there.

This possibly contributed to what I consider a not-quite-optimal implementation of the active digitizer. Anytime you have a thick piece of protective glass in front of an LCD you get a certain parallax effect: the distance between the tip of the pen and the cursor displayed on the LCD is so much that the two don't match when you look at it from an angle. I can live with that. What is less acceptable is the active digitizer accuracy. No matter how I calibrated it, the cursor would not get all the way to the top and left side of the display. And since the display is recessed into the magnesium bezel, you can't overshoot the screen to try to force the cursor to the very edge of the LCD. The thick glass and possibly the touchscreen digitizer also require you to keep the active pen very close to the screen surface or else the digitizer doesn't track.

All of this is really a Wacom issue more than an Itronix issue. I have been wondering for years why Wacom hasn't made any visible progress with its digitizer technology. I mean, what good does it do to have superb digitizer resolution when it then uses a glacially slow serial interface which makes the cursor lag behind the pen when you move quickly? This is something that must be addressed.

Still, the bottomline is that the digitizer's dual-mode implementation makes this remarkable Itronix machine more flexible in every respect, and the active digitizer flaws I mentioned are present in almost all Tablet PCs, albeit usually to a somewhat lesser degree.

The 8.4-inch display

Moving on to the LCD itself, at 8.4 inches diagonal it is smaller than almost all other Tablet PCs. At first sight, the machine appears large enough to accommodate a 10.4-inch display, but that would almost certainly weaken the internal structure and also make the device less rugged on the outside. And let's not forget that not too long ago, 8-inch screens were standard even in high-end notebooks. Further, millions live happily with almost microscopic screens on their cellphones, so 8.4 inches seems about right in a very compact rugged machine. Also, while SVGA resolution (800 x 600 pixels) has become marginal for web browsing, it makes for about the same perceived resolution on the 8.4 inch screen as the standard 1024 x 768 pixel looks on a 12.1 inch screen.

Still, having 10.4 inches would have been nice for another reason: then Itronix could have used the incomparable Hydis wide-angle display. As is, the Duo-Touch has a standard transmissive display with a relatively narrow vertical viewing angle that translates into a narrow horizontal viewing angle when the device is used in portrait mode.

Working with the Duo-Touch

In everyday use, the Duo-Touch is a pleasure to use. Its relatively light weight (3.9 pounds--just a bit more than the plastic-clad predecessor), ergonomic design, a clever handstrap, and a multitude of available cases and docking solutions make it easy to use and work with the computer. The machine is quick and doesn't heat up excessively. The hardware buttons are well placed and easy to figure out. There's nothing not to like, and that includes the price which is at the lower end of the spectrum for rugged machines.

How rugged is it?

Speaking of "rugged," Itronix has not nominally changed the environmental specs of this computer compared to its predecessor. I find that hard to believe as this is definitely a much more solid machine. Of course, being able to operate the Duo-Touch between temperatures of -4 to 140 degree Fahrenheit and dropping it 26 times from a height of three feet is probably tough enough, as is the IP54 sealing spec.

Essentially no competition

As is, Itronix has the field of compact rugged pen slates pretty much to itself. Competing models from WalkAbout, Xplore and others are generally larger and heavier. So if size and weight matter, the Duo-Touch's design and many qualities clearly make it an ideal candidate for numerous field worker applications in many different industries. Of particular interest is the perfectly implemented switch between the active digitizer that requires the pen, and the touchscreen that can be used with any stylus or even with a finger. This can come in very handy in the field. Contact Itronix
--Conrad H. Blickenstorfer