Wireless notebook goes anywhere, slowly

When ruggedized notebooks first hit the market, the big buzz was that you could venture into harsh environments with them in tow. Rain, sand, extreme temperatures and other conditions were no longer a barrier to notebook use.

Once you reached your destination, however, you were limited to using information stored on the notebook, or on a CD-ROM or floppy disk you brought along.

With the advent of integrated wireless technology, such limitations no longer apply. Notebook vendors are jumping on the bandwagon to produce the ultimate in mobility: a portable computer that can withstand extreme environments while connecting to the Internet or another communication system, such as the Global Positioning System.

Melard Technologies Inc. secures a spot in this market with the Scout2 All Terrain Subnotebook, a ruggedized mini-notebook with integrated wireless technology.

This little notebook — weighing 6 pounds, 14 ounces with the battery installed — looks like it can take some serious abuse. In fact, the system meets Military Standard 810E, which sets strict operating requirements for conditions such as shock, water, temperature, vibration, dust and humidity.

The Scout2's magnesium case is wrapped in thick rubber bumpers. The covers for the battery compartment and PC Card slots are also rubber, but we disliked the design. One small metal knob with two "arms" holds both covers closed — one arm for each cover. To access one compartment you must turn the knob, which releases both covers at the same time. In addition, the knob is difficult to turn because of its small size and the pressure of the rubber covers.

The keyboard is sealed against moisture and dirt, the hard drive is shock-mounted and the antenna is flexible. The Scout2 features a serial port, a VGA port, a parallel port and an RJ-11 landline modem port. Unfortunately, those ports are not covered.

The unit measures a mere 6.5 inches by 9.2 inches by 2.8 inches without the bumpers, which add about half an inch to the length and width at the corners and slightly less than that around the perimeter of the notebook.

The tradeoff, of course, is a small screen and keyboard. Our unit came with a 6.4-inch scratch-resistant TFT active-matrix color touch screen. The unit also is available with a 7.2-inch transflective color screen or a 7.5-inch transflective monochrome screen. Transflective screens use the sun to increase the contrast ratio; therefore, they are easier to view in bright, sunny conditions.

The keyboard is difficult to type on, and many keys have several overlapping functions. For example, the number keys also serve as function keys and program keys (for volume and screen adjustments).

The touchpad is much less sensitive than those on regular notebooks, presumably because of the protective coating and sealing. To use the touchpad with any efficiency, we had to disable tapping (the ability to click by tapping on the touch pad instead of using the buttons) because the pressure required to move the cursor resulted in unwanted selection of items.

Our Scout2 came equipped with a cellular digital packet data (CDPD) modem for wireless communications. The unit also supports speakerphone and has caller ID capability. To use the caller ID feature, the user must install an application and sign up for service.

The wireless capability of this notebook makes it compatible with GPS applications and other real-time communications, a clear asset when out in the field.

Although the ruggedized and wireless features of the Scout2 are progressive, several technical aspects made us feel as though we had traveled back in time. The Scout2 has a 233 MHz Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) K6 processor, and our benchmark test reflected the low speed.

The Scout2 scored only a 60 on Business Applications Performance Corp.'s SYSmark/98 suiteof real-world benchmark tests. The score of 60 is at the low end of the scale — even for 233 MHz systems, which generally score from 70 to 90. It scored 62 for office productivity and 58 for content creation.

Battery life was low as well. The system ran for one hour, 38 minutes and 25 seconds, completing 1.12 loops. The BAPCO SYSmark 98 for Battery Life score was 62.74.

The Scout2 is not available with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 2000 operating system — just Windows 95 or 98. It contains 64M of memory and a 6G hard drive.

But perhaps the most unusual aspect of this system is that it does not come with a floppy or CD-ROM drive. A third-party external drive can be used, but it must connect via the serial port, and users must ensure that they have the proper drivers. Melard representatives told us that Scout2 users could load software by downloading it from the Internet or using a special PC card that can store files like a floppy disk.

If you think the Scout2 might be right for your agency, carefully consider its intended use. If superb ruggedization, small size and wireless capability top your list, and performance and updated features are not as important, this notebook may be for you.

REPORT CARD

Scout2

Melard Technologies Inc.
(914) 273-4488
www.melard.com

Score: B

Price and Availability: The unit tested costs $4,500 and is available on the GSA schedule.

Remarks: This notebook is great for mobility: It's rugged, small and has wireless capability. However, it could use a faster processor, and some design improvements would make it easier and more convenient to use.

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