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So you want a rugged handheld?

Contemplations on the state of rugged handheld computers in 2013
by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

There was a time when rugged handhelds were large and heavy and pretty much limited to the job at hand, if that. Not anymore. With hundreds of millions of ever more powerful smartphones out there, expectations of what a small handheld computer ought to be able to do have changed. And that's affecting what's expected from industrial and vertical market handhelds as well.

The days where customers were willing to put up with dated technology in tools for the job are over. Anyone who doubts that need only look at trends such as Lowe's home improvement stores procure over 42,000 iPhones for work that used to be done with dedicated rugged handhelds. And there are many other examples of companies replacing industrial handhelds with less expensive consumer technology.

Obviously, iPhones and similar consumer-grade handhelds aren't always the solution. They weren't designed to absorb abuse other than an occasional bump or a few drops of rain. They are generally not dust or waterproof, their controls weren't designed for use in the cold and with gloves on, and their cameras are meant for taking pictures rather than scanning barcodes.

When you buy a smartphone, what you see is what you get; there aren't options like you can get with industrial handhelds. On the other hand, it's increasingly hard to overlook the significant technology and features gap between industrial and consumer market technology and pricing. Which means more companies are taking a long, hard look at what's available on the consumer market before they make their purchasing decisions.

This article examines the differences between consumer and industrial products in the smartphone/handheld computer market as it stands in 2013. The goal is to help customers weigh the dazzling array of advanced consumer technology features against the on-the-job requirements of professional handheld computing tools.

Operating systems

One would expect the operating systems used in handheld consumer devices and those used in rugged handhelds to be in sync, but that is not the case. Whereas Apple's iOS and Google's Android absolutely dominate the smartphone market, the great majority of rugged handhelds are still based on the comparatively ancient Windows CE and Windows Mobile. I say comparatively ancient because Windows CE essentially goes back to 1996, and Windows Mobile to the Pocket PC of circa 2000.

Why did this happen? Why did industrial handheld makers stay with an increasingly obsolete operating platform when the exploding smartphone and tablet markets went in a new direction with iOS and Android?

One reason, of course, is that iOS never was an option as it is Apple's proprietary OS, and Android initially didn't look like a sure bet. Recall that Motorola's initial Droid TV commercials were downright weird and it was anyone's guess whether Android would catch on. At the time, Microsoft was launching Windows Phone 7 and perhaps industrial handheld manufacturers decided to wait and see if Windows Phone 7 would catch on and whether Microsoft would provide an upgrade path from Windows CE/Windows Mobile to Phone 7.

As it turned out, neither happened. While Android, initially under the threat of a later dismissed lawsuit by Oracle, flourished, Windows Phone 7 never caught on, and there also was no upgrade path to it from earlier versions of Microsoft's mini operating systems. Around that time, Microsoft reorganized and merged the Windows Mobile group into their embedded systems operation. As a result, Windows Mobile was renamed to Windows Embedded Handheld, adding further confusion to Microsoft's baffling OS nomenclature.

As a result, even in 2013, most newly introduced rugged handhelds still either ran the stark and utilitarian Windows CE 6.0 R3, or Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5.3, the somewhat more user-friendly shell and interface sitting on top of Windows CE. Unfortunately, whether it's called Windows Mobile or Windows Embedded Handheld, it's a very old OS platform that ought to have been replaced many years ago. The one feeble attempt by Microsoft to modernize the platform, by adding a Zune-like front page and some extra controls for touch operation, pretty much failed and actually made the platform even less user-friendly.

So with no upgrade path from Windows Mobile 6.5, no incentive to try the totally consumer-oriented Windows Phone 7 and 7.5, most manufacturers simply stayed put. In January 2013, Microsoft hinted at Windows Embedded 8 Handheld, a new OS for enterprise handheld computers, and one that was to be built on Windows Phone 8 (which was/is incompatible with Windows Phone 7/7.5), but even the Windows Embedded 8 Handheld SDK was not supposed to be available until later in 2013.

All of this is too bad because Microsoft remains the dominant corporate IT software platform, and will likely remain so for a long time to come. Which means that Microsoft's leverage argument (i.e., to use their products on all platforms so they work together and maximize existing training, knowledge and resources) remains valid. And that is probably the primary reason why of the 100+ rugged handhelds in RuggedPCReview's database, over 90% still use Windows CE and Windows Mobile.

Now what about Android, the predominant OS in smartphones? With something like 750 million Android devices activated as of early 2013, it's doubtlessly more than a flash in the pan. And there is now a small but increasing number of rugged handhelds available with Android. The biggest argument in favor of Android is that with so many Android smartphones out there, almost everyone is already familiar with Android. Which means less training, less resistance, and fewer errors. It also means a vast number of available apps, and a large number of Android programmers and resources.

Amongst Android's challenges is the fragmentation of the platform. There are numerous versions of Android, and even within a version, the interface is not always the same. Android must support a large variety of screen sizes, aspect ratios and resolutions, again complicating application support. As a result, only a fraction of the Android apps out there may actually be available for a certain version and implementation.

Then there's the question of enterprise integration, deployment, and upgrades. It can all be done, of course, but it's probably more difficult than just going with Microsoft.

Finally, there's another issue that can work against Android and in favor of Microsoft, and that's in the very nature of the two operating environments: the user interface.

Digitizer and user interface

Handhelds' success and failure is closely tied to their user interface. The Apple iPhone revolutionized smartphones not so much with its functionality (remember, the initial iPhone didn't have any apps) but with the sheer elegance of its user interface. Instead of stabbing at a display with a small stylus, the tapping, panning, pinching and zooming made possible by projected capacitive multi-touch technology changed everything. It's become so pervasive that you see people instinctively try to pan and zoom on printed maps and newspapers.

As a result, projected capacitive touch has become the default touch technology of smartphones. The iOS and Android were designed for it, but Windows Mobile wasn't. Yes, it's possible to use a resistive digitizer with Android and procap with Windows Mobile, but in each case it just doesn't feel right and also doesn't work very well.

And precisely this is the rugged industry's biggest argument against capacitive touch: it doesn't work with gloves on and in the rain. Since rugged handhelds are often used outdoors where it does get cold and wet, displays, and underlying software, designed for optimal conditions and a light touch don't make much sense. Sure, using a small plastic stylus with gloves on isn't optimal either, but it generally works, and many rugged handhelds have cursor control buttons as backups. You could argue that using tiny buttons and a tiny stylus with gloves on is just as difficult as trying to get a procap screen to work, but the prevailing opinion still seems to be that buttons and resistive touch are better suited for work out in the field than capacitive touch.

But now on to environmental and ruggedness issues.


Why are rugged handhelds necessary? Why not simply get smaller, light, less expensive consumer technology instead, especially since it's usually technologically more advanced anyway? That's actually a good question. Terms such as commercial-grade or industrial-quality suggest that a material or product holds up better under stress and against abuse, and that's usually the case. But is it really necessary?

Today's smartphones, for example, sleek and slender though they made be, are actually amazingly touch and durable. Innovations like the by now almost universally used Corning Gorilla Glass practically eliminate breaking and scratching. And since the devices are so small and light, even an inexpensive protective sleeve means the devices can easily handle the occasional drop. And since people use their phones outdoors and in the rain, they can usually handle a few drops and some dust. So why ruggedness?

Because it's good insurance as a minimum, and out there in the field it can mean the difference between getting the job done, or not. So let's take a look at the common ruggedness criteria found in specifications of rugged handhelds.


The housings of handheld computers designed to be used outdoors must provide reasonable protection of the sensitive electronics inside against the elements. A commonly used measure for that protection is the IP (Ingress Protection) rating that's part of IE 60529 of the International Electrotechnical Commission. The rating consists of two numbers, the first one indicating how well the device is protected against solids, and the second one how well it is protected against liquids.

Protection against solids is on a scale of 0 to 6, where zero means no protection at all, and 6 means it's totally protected even against dust. Numbers in between indicate the degree of protection, ranging from being able to stick I a finger (a 2) up to protected against dust, but a limited amount amy still get in. What all that means is that only a 5 or 6 rating is acceptable for tugged handhelds. They should be protected against all solids, even dust, and even a 5 which still allows "limited ingress, no harmful deposits" is usually not good enough. Realize that this is very different from notebook computers designed for indoor use, which often have wide-open ventilation slots to the interior.

Protection against liquids is on a scale of 0 to 7, again where zero means no protection at all, and 8 mens complete and total protection, even against underwater use. Liquid protection levels 1 through 6 describe what sort of exposure to water can be handled. A 1 means just a few rain drops; 2 to 4 describe protection against water spray from the top, from angles, or from all sides; 5 and 6 indicate protection against low ad high pressure water jets; and 7 protection against limited immersion into water, like falling into a puddle or bathtub. Few will need complete and total protection for underwater use, but being able to hose down a device or know it won't be destroyed if it falls into a puddle is important. And we really don't want to see "limited ingress permitted" since electronics can't handle water.

What that means is that the minimum protection of a rugged handheld should be I65: no dust at all, and protection against low pressure water jets. Albeit with the dreaded "limited ingress permitted." For real peace of mind, we want IP67. Immunity against any dust, and it'll survive a drop into shallow water.

Do watch out for qualified statements such as "IP67 front panel" or similar. That's not so common in handhelds, but we've seen it happen. With handhelds, the entire device much fulfill the requirements of a particular IP level.

It also always makes sense to take a close look at a device. Does the protection against water depend on potentially leaky doors or caps? Are there are a lot of seals that must all be in perfect condition? Can seals be disturbed or broken when replacing the battery or inserting a memory card? Are there spots where liquids can accumulate and potentially do harm even if they won't get inside the device? In general, the more openings and seals, the higher the likelihood that something goes wrong.


Stuff gets dropped, no matter how careful we are. And though we don't drop things very often, all it takes is one drop to break an expensive piece of equipment. Unless, that is, it's designed to handle such drops. And that's why the drop spec is important. While some specs simply say a device can survive a drop from such and such a height, many will refer to testing having been performed in accordance with MIL-STD-810F Method 516.5 or the newer MIL-STD-810G Method 516.6 Procedure IV (Transit Drop). Testing is generally from 48 inches because the DoD says that "a light item might be carried by one man, chest high; thus it could drop 122 cm (48 inches)." They also say that, on average, an item will be dropped from that height four to six times during its life cycle.

Since damage depends on how a device falls and how it impacts what type of ground, the general approach is to drop the item on each face, edge and corner, which makes for a total of 26 drops. The testing suggests that those drops can be divided between up to five samples.

While the MIL-STD document is quite specific, the testing was really designed to measure the effectiveness of packaging, so applying this to dropping actual devices is a bit of a reach. This means that you should pay close attention to how exactly the manufacturer tested the device. Here's what you want to know: What height was the device dropped from? Onto what surface? Did it survive all drops without damage? Was it on during the drops? How many total drops were performed? And was the test spread over multiple devices?

By and large, rugged handhelds ought to survive the prescribed 26 drops onto concrete from at least four feet. That's because if you drop it while using it, it'll fall from about four feet. And at least some times it'll fall onto a hard surface such as concrete.

Operating temperature

The operating temperature range indicates the lowest and highest temperature at which a device will reliably work. Why are there limits? Because very high temperatures may make displays unreadable, slow down a device to a crawl to keep it from destroying itself, may make touch screens unreliable, or may even melt certain materials. Very low temperatures, likewise, may make a device totally inoperable, make it unreliable, or increase the danger of damaging the device.

As a result, it makes sense to match the operating temperature range to extreme temperatures expected to be encountered on the job. In Folsom, California, where is located, temperatures can reach 115 degrees in the summer, so getting a handheld with a upper limit of 104 degrees won't do, and even 122 degrees may be marginal as devices sitting the the sun may get hotter than that.

Likewise, any intended use in cold storage or freezers must be taken into consideration, as is, of course, use in arctic climates. Freezers can pose special problems where condensation is the enemy as much as extreme temperatures. That's because if you go from a hot and humid loading dock into a freezer, the rapidly cooling air in and around a device loses its ability to carry moisture, which then becomes condensation. That condensation then freezes, which can cause frost on displays, rendering them illegible, frozen keys on the keypad, and possibly internal shorts. When the worker leaves the freezer environment, the frost quickly melts, again affecting legibility of the display and possibly causing electrical shorts. It's quite obvious that extended cycling between those two environments not only makes the device difficult to use, but it's almost certainly going to cause damage over time.

What this means is that rugged handhelds designated for use in and around freezers may need to address all those condensation issues via integrated heaters, automatic defogging, special batteries, optically bonded displays, etc.

Now let's look at components, features and specs.


By and large, it doesn't matter what kind of processor drives a handheld as long as the device is quick enough. What is quick enough, of course, depends on expectations, and what starts out being quick enough can quickly get slow with after a few software updates or in comparison with newer products. Benchmarks can provide a measure of performance, but the best real world measure is whether a device feels quick and smooth and doesn't make you wait. Much of the allure of the original iPhone was how smooth and elegant it performed, without jerky screen redraws or interminable waits for things to happen.

That said, there are consumer expectations, promoted and repeated by the tech media, and the current view is that a decent consumer smartphone needs at least a dual-core and better a quad-core processor in the 1.5GHz clock speed range. Processor architecture and speed are moving targets, of course, but the is a disconcerting difference between what we're seeing in industrial devices versus consumer smartphones. Almost invariably, industrial devices are powered by older, slower chips.

For a bit of background, since most industrial handhelds remain based on scaled-down versions of Microsoft operating systems such as Windows CE or Windows Mobile (now called Windows Embedded Handheld), most of those devices use chips that are very different from those used in iPhones and Android smartphones. For a good decade, virtually all industrial handhelds were powered by Intel XScale processors that had evolved from the StrongARM chips Digital Equipment Corporation had developed, and which had later taken over by Intel. Intel advanced the technology into a series of PXA chips such as the PXA255 and PXA270 that totally dominated the Windows CE device market. Intel sold that business to Marvell in the mid 2000s. Marvell followed up with the PXA300, 310, and 320, but eventually lost the dominance Intel had had over the device market. Competition arose from manufacturers such as Samsung, Texas Instruments, Qualcomm and others. As of 2013, even new vertical market products still generally use those chips, with one or two cores and speeds generally no faster than 1GHz.

On the consumer side, Apple used its own processor design from the iPhone's start, and Android devices generally use dual and quad-core chips from nVidia (the Tegra), Qualcomm (the "Snapdragon"), or Samsung.


The size and quality of the display is extremely important in small handheld devices, and this warrants some discussion.

The size of handheld displays has gone up and down over the years. By and large, handhelds have always used portrait displays of various sizes. The first Palm Pilot inspired Pocket PC initially had 3.8-inch displays that then shrunk to 3.5 inches and, as cellphones became smaller and smaller, to 2.8 inches. The default display resolution of handheld screens was 240 x 320 pixel "QVGA," or Quarter-VGA, VGA being an old PC term standing for 640 x 480 pixels. While QVGA seems quite coarse from today's perspective, it was enough for Windows CE and Windows Mobile software that was designed for that resolution. Some industrial handhelds eventually offered 480 x 640 resolution, especially those for who used their handhelds for GIS and other applications that required higher resolution. In 2013, the majority of handhelds continue to use 3.5-inch portrait displays, though several are now 3.7 inches and 4.3 inches. That's quite small compared to consumer smartphones, some of which have screens up to 5 inches and even more.

The type of LCD display has also changed over the years. While initially, virtually all industrial handhelds were monochrome, color became available in the second part of the 1990s. That pretty much coincided with Microsoft's push with Windows CE-based handheld clamshell computers and then "palm-size" and Pocket PCs. As is the case with industrial notebook and tablet displays, the problem is that such devices generally must be viewable both indoors as well as outdoors on the job where there can be direct sunshine.

The industry initially tackled this with either standard transmissive or reflective displays. Transmissive screens are nice and bright indoors, but were nearly unusable outdoors in bright daylight. Reflective screens were usually of the monochrome type. They were very viewable in direct sunlight, but much less so indoors, and the lack of color didn't go well with the colorful Windows CE.

On a trip to Japan in 1998 I came across a Sharp Zaurus that had a HR (High Reflective) color TFT with a sidelight. That meant it was bright and colorful outdoors, and still quite vibrant indoors. The one drawback was the sidelight that could be distractive. That screen, in an improved version by Sony, made it into the revolutionary Compaq iPAQ Pocket PC around 2000.

Today, virtually all rugged handhelds use color displays, but the technology has not advanced nearly as much as one would expect. Displays use a variety of technologies, generally either transflective screens that are a compromise between indoor and outdoor viewability, or transmissive displays with special coating. Overall, display quality lags behind that of the best laptop and tablet displays, often by a significant margin. Narrow viewing angles and excessive reflection still bedevil too many rugged handheld designs.


Today's smartphone and tablet users generally measure the storage capacity of their devices in gigabyte. Devices may be available in 8, 16, 32 and 64GB varieties, and some even more. The amount of RAM memory is hardly ever mentioned. Rugged handheld specs are different, at least with the large number of devices that are still Windows CE or Windows Mobile-based. With those devices, the specs list both RAM and ROM, with RAM being the computer's working area and ROM the amount of memory allocated to the operating system, application and storage. Older Windows CE devices often had a slider that let users change how much storage was used for processing and how much for storage.

While some rugged handhelds have a fixed amount of storage, others have expansion slots (generally either for SD or microSD cards) that can be used to augment storage.

Expansion slots

Almost all rugged handhelds have some sort of expansion slot. Expansion slots can greatly enhance the usefulness of a handheld, but there are drawbacks as well: any external slot will add another potential opening to the interior of the device, and with so many slot standards, picking the right one is important.

Sealing first: that's always an issue with slots, unless they are internal, but then you need to open the device to get at the slot. External slots are often sealed and protected with a rubber plug, and such plugs are notorious for not fitting properly. That's not to say that any such external slots will leak, but it is imperative to keep an eye on the proper fit of the protective cover.

As far as standards go, the trend has gone to ever smaller formats. In the beginning of handheld mobile computing most expansion came via the credit card-sized PC Cards. They are too large for most modern handhelds, but they still exist, primarily because their large size makes it relatively easy to create whatever functionality they need to contain. CompactFlash cards also go way back, and also still exist. They once were used to add functionality such as modems, WiFi, storage, etc., and are still popular in embedded systems projects where they (or the similar CFast cards) are often used in lieu of a hard disk. SD Cards (which stands for Secure Digital) also have been around for a while, and they have become pretty much the predominant card standard, having beaten out competing standards such as Sony's MemoryStick, the Olympus/Fuji xD-Picture cards, and similar. A smaller variant of the SD Card, the miniSD Card never really caught on, but the even smaller microSD card standard has. Those fingernail-sized cards have become ubiquitous in smartphones and many rugged handhelds as well. The biggest problem with them is that they are so tiny as to easily get lost, which is why I still prefer standard SD Cards.

Even with SD Cards, there are other issues. The original standard, for the most part, only supported cards up to 2GB. The SDHC (High Capacity) standard used the same card format, but supported capacities up to 32GB. And there is SDXC (eXtended Capacity) that goes up to 2TB. The microSD cards are also available in HC and XC versions.

Some devices include an SDIO slot. That is an SD Card slot that supports additional I/O functions. They were used for cameras, GPS, modems and similar, but have largely been replaced by USB.

... to be continued

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer, Ph.D. is Editor-in-Chief of and former Chief Information Officer of the New York State Dormitory Authority. He founded Pen Computing Magazine in 1993, Digital Camera Magazine in 1998, and RuggedPCReview in 2005. He also held management positions in the New York State Urban Development Corporation, spoke at numerous computing industry trade shows, ran Handheld Computing Magazine, was a contributor at Intel Embedded Systems and Fortune Magazine, and is the author of thousands of tech articles.