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November 22, 2007

Thoughts about rugged handhelds -- the Juniper Archer

For the past few weeks we've had an Archer Field PC from Juniper Systems. "Field PC" is perhaps a bit of a misnomer as "PC" generally implies a Windows-based computer. The Archer is Windows-based alright, but it's Windows Mobile, so it's really a Pocket PC or whatever Microsoft is trying to call handhelds these days. We still generally call these machines Pocket PCs, or just PDA, the term Apple originally used when it came out with the Newton back in 1993.

Creating a "rugged" PDA isn't easy. And just like "rugged" notebooks or slate computers, the degree of ruggedness varies greatly. Commercial products really don't have that problem. It's the electronic guts and then a plastic case that should look good, be small and light, and hold up in daily use. It doesn't have to be waterproof or be able to absorb punishment, like drops or getting crushed and so on.

For mobile computers used in field work, things are very different. If you use a machine outdoors, all sort of stuff can happen. For one thing, outdoors is not an air-conditioned 72 degrees all year round. It can get very cold and very hot. Some electronics don't like that. Also, outdoors it rains. And sometimes pours. And a handheld terminal may even fall into a puddle or get sloshed by water some other way. Dropping it is a distinct possibility. And that generally happens when you pull it out of a bag or Pocket, or while holding it. So it should survive four to five feet drops. There's other stuff to consider. If it goes up in a military airplane, pressure may be an issue. If it's strapped to a truck, vibration can be the killer issue. And in certain flammable environments it is imperative that there is chance the device can ignite things with a little spark or arc. There's more, but one thing isn't usually listed: if a device must be rugged, it's likely going to be used outdoors, and outdoors there is sunlight. So the display must be readable outdoors. That's never included in ruggedness specs as it is, technically, not an environmental exposure issue. But it's part of what a rugged device must be.

So how do manufacturers go about building rugged handhelds? In many different ways. While the guts of a Windows Mobile/CE device are fairly standard, rugged housings most definitely are not. As a result, almost everyone does it in a different way. Here at, we love looking at, and analyzing, those different design approaches.

In a way, making a handheld tougher is not that different from making a slate or notebook computer tougher. Seek the traditional weak points and eliminate them. Consider all possible accidents and challenges and address them. And since building a rugged device usually means higher cost, larger size, and higher weight, have a very clear view of what exactly you're trying to achieve. The design must be just right for its intended use.

So how does all that apply to the Archer handheld build by the friendly folks at Juniper Systems in Logan, Utah? Well, they have a history in catering to agricultural markets, then branched into all sorts of other outdoor markets, like surveying, forestry, fisheries and so on. So whatever they build should be fairly waterproof, able to handle a drop and just generally be a tool that its owner can take along on a hard day's work in the wild, without having to baby the computer.

When you first see the Archer, and usually you see the one with bright orange protection molding, it has a friendly look that is far removed from some of the deadly-serious designs that, if they were in a Pixar movie, would probably say, "Sir, unless you're military and have proper clearance, you are not authorized to touch me. Please step away." When you look at the Archer, alas, pumpkin comes to mind. Same orange, same texture. That provides excellent visibility, which is a good thing if you accidentally dropped it in the woods and then have to backtrack to find it. For that, bright orange is much better than camouflage.

But take a closer look and the Archer is a rather nasty wolf in sheep's clothing. The friendly elastomer overmold comes off easily and underneath it's a hefty case made of magnesium. Hefty as in you could probably take a sledgehammer to it. I described all of this in the review, but seeing this "compartmentalized" approach to designing a rugged device was really interesting. They Juniper engineers must have said, "Look, if we enclose the whole box in a waterproof and dustproof shell, how are we going too have connectivity? Hardly possible. So let's separate things into a totally sealed core and then protect that with rubber molding that can easily be replaced. And we just seal the electronic contacts and leave the actual jacks exposed. Think that'll work?"

It does, with some limitations. The Archers housing is certainly an "armored core" and invulnerable, but dust and water can get into the jacks and other places. Which means the Archer DOES have great connectivity in an ultra-rugged device, but if it falls into the water or hits a dust storm it will not fail, but afterwards you have to take it apart and dry and clean everything outside of the armored core.

A couple of months ago we did a little stunt with the Trimble/TDS Nomad by actually taking it scubadiving. It was just in a pool, but it made for great video and underwater pics. I wanted to do the same with the Archer after we determined that it could do it, but the water was pretty cold by now and so we just dropped it into the pool. Juniper's most helpful Pat Trostle had told me how they often display the Archer in a fishtank at trade shows, but that they keep an eye on air bubbles which usually mean the thing is flooding. I've flooded a few underwater cameras in my day and know what Pat meant. So when bubbles emanated from the Archer upon being dropped into the pool, I felt a little burst of anxiety until I remember that, of course there will be some bubbles. They come from the air escaping the outside overmold and the plastic block that houses the interface jacks. No matter gets inside the core, of that I was sure. And it didn't. But it had to be taken apart and carefully cleaned and dried afterwards. Professionals would do that anyway, so no worries there. Saltwater may be a bit of an issue and I wonder if Juniper has data on the long-term effects of repeated contact with saltwater.

Later, we did drop tests by carelessly swiping the Archer off a wall and down onto rather a rough driveway surface. We did that two or three times and I was afraid the unit would go back to Juniper with some good scratches. Amazingly, no scratches at all. That is impressive. Rugged device with exposed metal almost always scratch. Apparently not this one.

Like many mobile computers, the Archer can be expanded in a number of ways, via a SD and a CF card slot. That way customers can use their own choice of expansion cards rather than being stuck with whatever is integrated into the unit. That's a good solution, and Juniper offers several extended caps that fit over such expansion cards. Amazingly, they claim that all of those expansion cards also provide the exact same IP67 ingress protection rating. That is a tall order. The way they do it is by separating the extension caps into two pieces. One is a precision-engineered adapter plate with a o-ring type of seal. The cap then screws on top of that. It works beautifully. But as anyone familiar with underwater housings knows, the o-ring approach depends totally on having immaculately maintained o-rings or sealing plates (which is what Juniper uses). Rings are, as far as I am concerned, easier to maintain as they can be replaced. The soft rubber sealing plate in our adapter was slightly deformed, and I wondered if it still sealed properly. I didn't want to risk flooding the machine and thus didn't put it to the test.

It was an interesting experience, reviewing the Archer. It is fully up to the job and probably suitable for a far wider range of applications than Juniper currently pursues. But it also showed me again that design of professional equipment is only one part of the whole package. The other is the care the professional him/herself takes in working with, and maintaining, the equipment. These are tools for tough jobs, and good professionals always treat their tools with care and respect.

Posted by conradb212 at November 22, 2007 05:08 PM