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January/February 1996

Pen Lab Review

Hammerhead 586

Speedy, rugged pen system in a case milled from a single piece of aircraft grade aluminum.

When we reviewed IBM's formidable 730TE pen tablet, we praised its excellent quality and said it felt as solid as if it were milled from a single block of metal. Well, the Hammerhead 586 pen computer IS milled from a single block of aircraft grade aluminum. It is also sealed airtight and dust proof. Each unit is individually vacuum tested. In many respects, the Hammerhead 586 looks and feels like an IBM ThinkPad 730TE after a year of martial arts training: leaner, harder, tougher, and faster.

The Hammerhead computer's impressive specs and purposeful design should come as no surprise. One of WalkAbout Computer, Inc.'s principals was a co-founder of Tusk, an early pioneer in the pen computing field which produced the highly acclaimed All Terrain Supertablet. As a matter of fact, most of WalkAbout's engineers and other leading staff also came from Tusk. Those guys know rugged pen computers inside out.

Design philosophy
The Hammerhead computer was designed and built from day one as a vehicle-based computer (though it can, of course, also be carried around). A lot of thought went into making the design as rugged and resistant to punishment as possible. Designing ruggedness into a computer is always a balancing act: overbuild and you have a heavy, bulky system; underbuild and the machines may fail in action. WalkAbout made some design decisions. The Hammerhead does not have any PC Card slots because they can compromise ruggedness and reliability. By design, PC Card slots are usually accessible from the outside, which means that machines so equipped cannot be sealed airtight. Instead, WalkAbout integrates OEM modules such as RF modems or GPS receivers on the motherboard. Other options can be built into the Hammerhead vehicle mount.

Compact size and shape
Despite its one-of-a-kind toughness, the Hammerhead is surprisingly compact and light. The unit measures 11 x 7.75 x 1.5 inches and weighs only four pounds. The housing (WalkAbout calls it the AlumaShell) doesn't have any latches or hinges that can break off, and is fully resistant to dirt, dust, humidity, moisture, and blowing rain. The interior of the Hammerhead is equally well built. The standard 260MB 1.8" internal hard disk can absorb 300G of shock while idling without data loss, before precision shock mounting. All critical components are shock-isolated in elastimers

The aluminum shell has another advantage: it acts as a large and very effective heat sink to dissipate heat away from the electronics and the LCD display. The Hammerhead barely heats up even after many hours of operation.

The Hammerhead 586 uses a Cyrix 5x86/100 CPU. According to Cyrix, the 5x86 rivals the performance of Pentium processors while consuming only half the power of competing alternatives. For example, the Cyrix 5x86 architecture has power-saving intelligence to track, monitor and automatically power down the floating point unit and other internal circuits when not in use. The chip also controls power flowing to system peripherals. At 100 MHz @ 3.3 volts, the 5x86 processor consumes less than 3.5 watts of power which minimizes heat dissipation and making the 5x86 processor the ideal choice for power-sensitive mobile systems. Processing benchmarks of the 5x86 are generally somewhat better than those of a Pentium 75.

Carry case
The Hammerhead has easily the best carry case we've ever seen. The rich and elegant looking case was custom designed for the Hammerhead computer and has an exceptionally good fit. There are cutouts for the lights and switches and even for the deskstand/port replicator. The case also offers extra padding and protection and an elastic strap for the pen. About the only thing that's missing is a screen protection cover.
n Ports:

Since WalkAbout wanted to make the Hammerhead as rugged and airtight as possible, the case itself does not have any ports or connectors except for a sealed port replicator connector on the backside of the unit. All IO and expansion capabilities are provided through a very cleverly designed port replicator. The replicator, which doubles up as a highly functional desktop stand, is made of heavy duty aluminum and plugs into the backside of the Hammerhead where it can be secured with two thumbscrews. It offers one parallel and two serial ports, a standard keyboard connector, a VGA port capable of 1024 x 768 resolution, and the DC connector. The design of the replicator provides easy access to the ports and allows perfect desktop operation, usually an area of frustration with most pen tablets. The only drawback to this arrangement we can think of is if you do need one of the ports while you carry the unit around. In that case, the port replicator would be somewhat awkward.

Hammerhead 586 vs. 486
The original Hammerhead computer was a 486 design that was first delivered in June of 1995. The 586 looks the same, but there are several improvements. Apart from significantly increased performance, the new Hammerhead 586 has active thermal control of the LCD, two fast 16550 UARTs instead of the 8550s in the 486, support for the Rockwell GPS receiver, and even an internal thinfilm heater option for extended low temperature operation.

The Hammerhead 586 uses a standard Duracell Nickel Metal Hydride battery which powers the computer up to 2.5 hours in continuous operation without any power management features enabled. WalkAbout is also looking into Lithium Ion technology but decided to stay with the less expensive and widely available Duracell NiCad technology for the time being. Remaining battery charge is indicated by a "gas gauge" consisting of five bright LEDs below the unit's screen. In addition to the advanced power management automatically provided by the Cyrix 5x86 chip, there is the usual variety of user selectable power management options to set time delays for hard disk spin-down, screen shutdown, and auto suspend.

Waking the system up is very easy, touch a key, tap the screen with the pen, or push the standby button. A very good solution.

The Hammerhead's video subsystem consists of a full 32-bit local bus and flat panel controller, 512KB of video memory, and a highly readable 9.4" backlit LCD display. A sensor mechanism automatically adjusts the display's brightness for temperature and lighting conditions. The chemically strengthened screen itself is edged to keep glare and reflection at a minimum and to provide paper-like resistance to the pen. In addition, the Hammerhead has an active backlight control with a light-sensitive diode which automatically shuts off the backlight in bright light conditions.

WalkAbout is using Wacom's non-tethered proximity sensing electromagnetic digitizer which comes with Wacom's patented sleek and handy passive stylus. Since it does not require batteries you'll never have a dead pen, though since this is an electromagnetic system, you're still out of luck if you lose the pen. Fortunately, prices for the pens have come down, but a replacement will still cost somewhere between 40 and 50 dollars. The one drawback of the Wacom digitizer is that the metal housing causes a slight distortion in pen operation along the edges of the screen. WalkAbout attempted to compensate for this in the driver, but it's still noticeable.

Operating systems
The Hammerhead comes standard with MS-DOS 6.22 and Windows for Pen Computing. It can also run the PenRight! environment. OS/2 for Pen drivers are expected to be available in the first quarter of 1996. With enough power to run Windows 95, one obvious question is: Will WalkAbout ship the Hammerhead 586 with Windows 95? We asked the company and they said that PenWin 2.0 drivers for Windows 95 are expected to be available for the Hammerhead computer in February of 1996.

Overall impression
The Hammerhead computer is an impressive machine. Its most striking characteristic is the rock-solid aluminum case, which makes the Hammerhead feel invulnerable. The entire system is engineered and built to withstand daily punishment in the field. Despite being a full size pen tablet, the Hammerhead also impresses with its compact size and light four-pound weight. We also like the very clever port replicator/stand that allows the Hammerhead to be used on a desk just as easily as in the field or in a vehicle.