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Windows CE | Palm OS | Psion/EPOC | Pen Computers | Magic Cap | Newton

New pen-based tablet computer combines ruggedness with leading edge technology and impressive performance.

It's a rough world out there for full size pen computers. And I not talking about the abuse many of them have to endure on the job. These days, small, inexpensive handhelds using the Windows CE or Palm operating system seemingly get all the attention. There are millions of them out there, and these handy, unassuming little PDAs are increasingly replacing the big pen tablet of yesteryear even in many vertical markets. However, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the rugged pen computer's demise are greatly exaggerated. Case in point is the just introduced CA-35 ruggedized pen tablet from GETAC.

The GETAC CA-35 is a rough, tough, rugged full-size pen tablet that can take a licking out there. Yet, it is also a pen tablet with a 400MHz Celeron or Pentium II CPU, a 13.3-inch XGA TFT screen, and the virtually unlimited memory and storage capacity of a modern notebook computer. You won't find any of that in an inexpensive handheld. In fact you won't find most of these high-end features in many other rugged and durable pen computers.

Shoehorning all that high end technology into a mobile yet rugged package is quite a task. With a footprint of 12.9 by 11.25 inches, the CA-35 quite large. It is also 1.9 inches thick and weighs 7.8 pounds. However, GETAC didn't waste any space either. The 13.3-inch screen fits tightly into a sturdy magnesium frame and the whole thing is then protected by a grippy neoprene enclosure. GETAC claims it can withstand a three-foot drop-quite impressive for a device with a 13.3-inch screen.

Form and function
The whole package is well designed, without any protrusions or bumps. Ports used frequently are sealed with rubber plugs you can't lose because they are part of the device. Anything that you only need to access every now and then (such as the battery) rests behind screwed-down magnesium doors. Controls and indicators are all on the face of the unit. All indicators are clearly marked with large icons, as are the push button volume and brightness controls. GETAC's design skills are also plainly visible once you open the hood, or in this case a sturdy bottom plate milled from a solid block of magnesium and held down by ten screws. It not only protects the unit and gives it additional rigidity, it also serves as a heatsink for the 400MHz Celeron (and planned SpeedStep Pentium III processors). Once the plate is removed, there is easy access to all vital systems components, including RAM and other expansion connectors. The 2.5-inch hard disk (a 6MB Toshiba in our test unit) is shockmounted in metal encased soft rubber bumpers. And while the CA-35's magnesium housing looks tough and trust-inspiring from the outside, a look inside confirms that it's as solid as a bank vault. There's also an amazing amount of room inside that housing. GETAC could have easily lopped half an inch off the thickness of the CA-35, though that probably would have impacted thermal efficiency and expansion potential.

Well connected
In terms of connectivity, the GETAC CA-35 comes with two PS/2 ports so that you can connect a mouse and a keyboard, one USB/serial port, an AC/DC connector, microphone and headphone jacks, two Type II PC Card slots (there is almost enough room for a Type II and a Type III, so final production units may be configured that way), and two IR ports, one on the front for a wireless infrared keyboard and one on the side for other uses. Two additional sealed openings on the left side of the CA-35 can provide access to a variety of internal options such as LAN and modem connections or even a IEEE1394 "Firewire" port. At the bottom, there is additional expansion potential for a couple of RS232 ports, a VGA port, and more. An opening on the bottom right side of the unit contains a bright yellow pen. The rubber plug that seal's the pen's garage is actually glued to the pen's top which means that while you use the pen, its compartment remains open. This could be a problem, and even more so if you lose the pen.

Big screen in a pen slate
The CA-35's 13.3-inch TFT screen is clear and bright, and certain to be a boon to all those who want a really big screen in a pen tablet (and judging by the number of requests we get for big screen tablets, there are quite a few who want this size screen). GETAC also offers a sunlight-readable 12.1-inch screen as well as a standard 12.1-inch screen. The digitizer is fast and responsive, all the way to the very edge of the screen. Is it suitable for handwriting recognition? In a pinch, but its 19.2kbps serial connection is optimized for touch rather than the ultra-precise cursor tracking required for good recognition. The touch screen itself is actually made by Dynapro Thin Film Products right here in the US. The polyester top layer carries an abrasion and chemical resistant anti-glare coating. Digitizer and pen operation are managed through a special control panel.

Clever IR keyboard
The CA-35, which is powered by a rechargeable 10.8V 4.5AH Li-Ion pack, is clearly designed to be used in many different environments. Though it isn't a lightweight, its comfortable leather handle makes it easy to carry around. For office use GETAC offers a multiple expansion docking station, or you can simply lean it against something and start typing away either on a conventional keyboard or on the unique IR keyboard. The CA-35 also looks like a great fit for vehicle use where its large screen and relatively compact size might come in handy. The infrared keyboard, by the way, couldn't be easier to use. It runs on four AAA batteries and doesn't require any configuration whatsoever. You simply place the ergonomically formed, full-size device on your lap or on your desk and type away. A small pressure sensitive rubber disk allows for very precise cursor control. The IR connection is very reliable and works from as far as 6-8 feet away.

Who is GETAC? Originally the company was a 50/50 joint venture between General Electric and the Taiwanese MITAC Group which had 1999 sales of US$4.3 billion. In 1998 GETAC became a wholly owned subsidiary of MITAC. GETAC's charter is to build harsh environment notebook and tablet computers for use in military, industrial, and corporate settings.

Be that as it may, these guys sure know how to built top quality rugged mobile computers with the performance of a standard notebook. Contact GETAC at 949-789-0100 or check their website at -

-Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

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