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How to buy mobile computers

By Tim Dees

Choosing the best mobile computer for your organization is an especially difficult task for most cops. The law enforcement experience doesn't teach you much about processor speeds, display resolutions, and USB ports. This guide will help you navigate through the technical gibberish.

1. Form factor: The most critical decision concerns not the insides of the computer, but the outside. Vehicle passenger compartments were not designed to be computer-friendly. If your user interfaces (keyboard, mouse, display) are configured unwisely, your users will develop repetitive stress injuries (RSI) and back pain from having to twist in their seats and key in information from awkward angles. A good computer mount overcomes these problems, but not all mobile computers mate with the good mounts. The clamps that hold the computer in place may block critical connections or be the wrong size for that machine. One alternative to the traditional laptop form factor is a display that contains the computer "guts," with a wired or wireless keyboard that rests in the user's lap. This form factor requires a touch-sensitive display so that the user can press onscreen buttons to acknowledge text messages and calls, activate emergency alerts, and switch between different screens, such as from a dispatch window to a GPS-integrated map.

2. Placement: Place the display high on the dashboard, with the upper edge roughly even with the lower edge of the windshield (from the driver's perspective). This way, the user sees the display without taking their eyes too far from the outside view. This is important not only for driving, but also when users are stationary, writing reports. Users need to maintain situational awareness of their surroundings. Consider whether the computer will be used by only the driver, only the passenger, or both. This is a major factor to determine proper placement.

3. Specifications: Most public safety software applications don't require a lot of computing horsepower. Buying the fastest processor on the market will cost considerably more for an insignificant boost in performance. You'll get a better return on investment by buying extra Random Access Memory (RAM). Most portable computers use a portion of their RAM for graphics, so more RAM means faster display redraws for maps and downloaded images. 1 gigabyte (GB) of RAM should be the minimum, and the "more is better" principle applies here.

4. Ports: What kind of ports are offered, and how many, is also a critical factor. What are you going to need to plug into this computer? Consider whether your in-car video, radar, voice radio, external keyboards, mice and displays, GPS, emergency lights and siren controls, alley/takedown lights, automated license plate reader and other peripherals will need connection ports, and of what flavor. USB connections are the most common, but some components require Firewire (also called IEEE1394), PS/2, serial, parallel, DVI, or analog display connectors. Some of these interfaces may be built in to the computer, but the likelihood of this decreases as the number of different vendors for your equipment increases. If you update or transfer information between the mobile computer and the station with a USB flash/thumb drive, you'll need an easily-accessed USB port free for the flash drive.

5. System: If you have a mobile data network, what system does it use? Having the right kind of radio built in to the computer will save you adding a peripheral. If you contract with a cellular provider or other third party for your network, they can advise you on available interfaces.

6. Cost: The cost of hard drive storage has decreased dramatically in recent years. Buy big hard drives of 100 GB or more. There are now solid state drives (SSDs) that replace the traditional spinning-disk hard drive, but have no moving parts and are much faster. They cost more, but they are far less likely to be affected by vibration or hard impacts which are the most common causes of hard disk crashes.

7. Optical disks: Optical drives (CDs, DVDs) are great for installing software and playing back video and audio, but few agencies encourage users to do this. If you include an optical drive in the mobile computer, you can bet someone will use it to install game software or view DVD movies. Think about whether you need optical drives for official use. Also be mindful that external optical drives that plug into USB ports are inexpensive, and that they can be used to circumvent the lack of an internal optical drive.

Any other suggestions? Anything we missed in the list above? Leave a comment below or email products@policeone.com with your feedback.


Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of Officer.com and LawOfficer.com. He can be reached at tim@timdees.com.

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