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Intermec/Norand PEN*KEY 6640
Modular design makes Norand's new flagship immune to obsolescence

The Norand Pen*Key 6640 is the latest in Norand's top-of-the-line 6600 Series, and as such it must live up to high expectations.

Industry insiders may recall that the initial 6600, released in 1995 (and reviewed in detail in our August/September 1995 issue), somehow never managed to satisfy Norand or its customers. Though it was a thoroughly competent and earned a degree of praise in our pages, Norand itself now feels that the machine lagged behind in the CPU and other areas. That was especially vexing because at the time of the 6600's emergence on the market, many potential customers were seeking replacements for their aging (and orphaned) GRiD, NCR, and Samsung pen computers. That alone should have guaranteed the 6600 a successful start, but alas, it simply didn't quite fit the bill. In early 1998, Norand fixed many of the shortcomings of the 6600 when the company released the 6620 model. It had a larger screen, a faster processor, more memory and was an altogether better computer. Problem was, that everyone else had upgraded their lineups, too, and Norand once again found its revamped flagship not exactly trailing the pack, but following the leaders at a respectful distance. Determined not to let that happen again, the Cedar Rapids, Iowa company essentially gave its talented team of product planners and engineers Carte Blanche to start with from scratch and build the best computer they could. No limitations, no holds barred. And they did.

Starting from scratch
After a lengthy product definition process that included numerous interviews with internal and external customers, the 6640 started life as a block of foam. Systems features and components were chosen by weighing the current state of the art against the actual relevance of leading edge componentry for the customer. At every step of the process, the development team sought feedback from customers, focus groups, and beta testers. The team discussed ergonomic design attributes, ways to componentize the machine for easy upgrade and service, thermal management that would accommodate faster CPUs as they become available. And anyone who has seen Norand's product testing "torture chamber" knows that they made 110% sure that the system would pass even the most rigorous and punishing tests. At Norand, no product is rugged until the Master of the Torture Chamber says it's rugged.

So what did they come up with and how does it compare with its predecessors? Our first impressions are favorable. In order to accommodate bigger screens, at 12 x 9.5 inches the 6640's footprint is larger than that of the older 6600s that measured just 10.1 x 8.5 inches. This means that the 6640 can have screens up to 11.3 inches diagonally whereas the older models maxed out at 8.7 inches. Thickness remains at 2.1 inches, and at a still quite manageable six pounds, the whole box now weighs a pound or two more than the older models.

As was to be expected, the 6640 is vastly more powerful than its predecessors. After much consideration, Norand's engineers settled on a modular processor design that initially comes with a Pentium 266MMX, but can easily be upgraded to a variety of Pentium II models. Think 333MHz, 366MHz, or even faster. WinBench 96 performance benchmarks show the 6640 to be more than four times faster than the 6620. And the intelligent 10.8V 4.5Ah Li-Ion battery provided 4.5 hours of battery life in the BatteryMark 2.0 test. Quite impressive.

Modularity is a key concept in all other areas of the 6640 as well. The hard disk (currently 3.2 to 6GB sealed and cushioned 2.5-inch drives), memory, and radios can all be changed. 32MB of RAM are standard, and the unit can be upgraded to 128MB. There are two radio module bays, a Type II and a Type III PC Card slot. Radios, by the way, are integrated serial modules and don't need a Card slot. Knowing that customer requirements vary, Norand's engineers equipped the 6640 with exchangeable I/O module. All 6640s come with a USB port. The customer then decides what other connectivity is needed. I/O panels are user selectable and may contain any combination of three of the following: parallel, serial, Ethernet RJ-45, RJ-11, audio, or PS/2.

On the display front, the basic 6640 comes with a 9.8 inch monochrome or a 10.4 inch color all-light-readable SVGA screen. The color screen is, from what we can tell, a color reflective design similar to the smaller color transflective Kyocera screen in the Fujitsu Stylistic 2300. As such, you can easily read it outdoors. Indoors it is not as bright and vibrant as a standard TFT, but that's an inevitable compromise.

Picking the right digitizer is always a tough job when designing a pen computer. The original 6600 had a Wacom-style inductive digitizer. Norand then switched to an analog-resistive film design in the 6620. The 6640 features yet another design, this time a capacitive MicroTouch digitizer whose tethered pen even has a right mouse button. In addition, the hardened MicroTouch glass screen doesn't wear out, doesn't scratch, and is immune to the dreaded spiking syndrome so prevalent on most other passive digitizer technologies.

And since Norand engineers live in constant fear of seeing their product rejected by that mean guy who runs the torture chamber in the basement (he's actually a very amiable gentleman), they made extra sure that the 6640 could survive any abuse short, perhaps, of being run over by an Abrams tank. They started with an internal cast magnesium frame, made sure every single component was securely mounted, cushioned, and properly sealed or ventilated, depending on the nature of the component. They then housed the whole assembly in a high impact nylon reinforced polycarbonate plastic case that's both scratch proof and incredibly strong. As a result, the 6640 passed more than a dozen of The Man's tests with flying colors. Norand's engineers proudly state that their new baby is totally immune to vibration even in a utility truck.

As our own utility specialist points out in this issue's Mobile Strategy column, good hardware is only one (and often the lesser) part of the equation. Software is what really gets the job done. Norand's goals on the software side were to provide better reliability than the average PC, superior power management, ease of configurability, and absolutely no lock-ups.

Our review unit also came with Norand's lockable docking system, also a "clean-sheet" design that is both less expensive and more flexible than the 6620's dock.

So that's the story about the Norand 6640. I knew when I met with the 6640 development team that they had done everything within their power to build the perfect industrial mobile computer for the dawn of a new millennium. The presentations by a trio of Steves (Stalock, Kunert, and Kelly), and by Todd Roberts had convinced me of that. Now it's up to Norand's sales force to make sure that what is clearly one of the very best pen computers on the market to be put to good use in the company's target markets in utilities/field service, dispatch, insurance, and public safety.

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