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August 06, 2008

The Motion Computing F5

We've had the Motion Computing F5 tablet here in the lab for a while. The F5 is a follow-up to Motion's C5 medical market tablet, which was a rather unique design solution that received a lot of positive feedback. The folks at Motion are generally right on the mark, and have been ever since some former Dell people formed the company back in 2002 or so to take on Fujitsu with a Tablet PC slate. At the time no one gave them much of a chance to prevail in a market that Fujitsu practically owned with their Stylistic pen tablets, but Motion pulled it off. I remember a dinner meeting with Motion founders Scott Eckert and David Altounian in San Francisco where they showed me the prototype of their initial tablet. It wasn't substantially different or better than what Fujitsu had at the time, but it was immediately obvious that the Motion folks truly believed in their product and that they had a very clear focus. That never changed. Whereas tablets are just a small part of their overall business for Fujitsu, tablets are the only thing Motion does. It's been six years now, and Motion never wavered from their mission. And somehow they always managed to stay ahead of the curve, with new technologies generally available in Motion products sooner than anywhere else.

I don't know what the thought process was that led to the design of the original C5 medical tablet, but it was certainly a smart decision to go after the medical market. It's a tough one to break into for a variety of reasons, but also one where mobile systems can make a huge impact. At Kaiser, the HMO I use, they finally have terminals in almost every examination room so they can call up patient info, and they can now also call up x-rays onscreen, but it took them forever, and I still see no portable electronics. I suppose it's the same elsewhere.

The Motion C5 was an attempt to provide a portable computer that could do more and was easier to integrate into the daily workflow of medical people. So they made it small and light and gave it an integrated handle to easily carry it around. They integrated an RFID reader and a bar code reader and also a camera. They also made it white so it fits in with all the other medical equipment, and it's easy to wash and disinfect. Motion also created a small, handy dock for it. So the overall idea was the provide a small computer that was easy to carry around and that included all sorts of data capture methods. It all still depended on systems integrators to package the hardware with medical systems software, and then have hospitals actually pick it up and use it. I am not sure how many did, but the Motion C5 was, and currently still is, probably the best mobile hardware for such projects.

When I first looked at the C5 I wondered why Motion limited the platform to just one market. True, it's a potentially huge market, but the C5 seemed sturdy enough to be used in other mobile applications, and it already carried IP54 sealing, which means it was didn't mind a bit of rain and some spills. Motion apparently agreed and created a second version of the C5, the F5. They called this one a "Field Tool," -- not the greatest of names, but obviously an attempt at communicating that this computer should be seen as a tool for jobs rather than a conventional computer.

I must admit, I had a bit of a hard time with the F5. When I wrote about the C5, I had no problem seeing the design decisions that had been made to make this computer just right for the medical market. The size, the shape, the features, the color and so on. The F5 is gray instead of white, but other than that, it's the same computer. It does include Motion's "View Anywhere" display because unlike the C5, the F5 would probably be used outdoors where sunlight viewability counts. So there wasn't any additional thought on how to make a computer best suited for use in the field.

The way I see it, the field IS different from a hospital. You won't always have a dock to charge a computer, and so the fairly small battery of the C5 may not be enough. And in the field it does come in handy to have a USB port or two and perhaps even an old serial port for some arcane instrument or measuring tool you need to hook up. And having some sort of expansion slot also comes in handy. Wireless communication is great and we can't do without, but it's been my experience that even with Bluetooth and WiFi, there are times when it's a lot simpler to just copy files onto a USB key or a SD card than to send them. The F5 can't do that as it doesn't have any ports or slots and totally relies on wireless or the dock.

All of this made it a bit more difficult to review the product. I am used to Motion having a very clear rationale for a machine, and in this case the rationale seemed to be that the healthcare C5 was good enough to be offered for other markets. That was probably a good idea, but something still doesn't feel quite right. Even the "View Anywhere" display that I remember as effective from previous reviews of Motion tablets seemed rather low-contrast compared to other sunlight-viewable technologies on the market.

The F5 is also one of the few machines that uses the Intel Core Solo processor. The Solo is essentially a Core Duo with one core not used, sort of like an 8-cylinder engine with only four of them running to conserve fuel. It is an economical chip, with a thermal design power of just 5.5 watts, which is only a bit more than half of what a Core Duo chip running at the same clock speed uses. Problem is that benchmark performance is much lower, too, and generally closer to the lowly Intel A110 than even an ultra-low-power Core Duo. The F5 is no slug at all, at least with Windows XP, but with Motion always being at the forefront of technology I wonder why they didn't just use an Atom processor instead. They did switch from the Core Solo U1400 to a Core 2 Solo U2200 which is said to include better caching and even more power-saving technologies, so perhaps that was the right move for now.

Anyway, just a few thoughts on what is, in fact, an interesting and welcome addition to the hardware alternatives available to those who need to implement computing solutions in the field. The official review of the Motion Computing F5, with pics and specs and all is here.

Posted by conradb212 at August 6, 2008 02:03 PM