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Product Review: The TDS Nomad Mobile Computer

Law Enforcement officers rarely get to choose their working environment. Usually, they just prepare for the worst and rely on the best equipment they can find. I tested the TDS Nomad and found it was functional and rugged enough for law enforcement tasks.

Tripod Data Systems (TDS) is a mobile computing company that creates hardware and software solutions for rugged use. Their mapping, navigation, surveying and data collecting solutions have been used in military, industrial and law enforcement environments around the world. The TDS Nomad is their full featured mobile computer, which is a product of TDS’ data collection and processing experience.

The TDS Nomad is a powerful, almost indestructible, handheld computer which uses the familiar looking Windows Mobile 6. At 6.82” x 3.92” x 1.96”, it is sized to fit in a cargo pocket, even with its hard shell exterior and rugged endcaps. The Nomad is submersible, shock resistant and able to handle rather uncomfortable temperatures. Despite its resistance to rough handling, the Nomad has a sunlight readable color screen with touch screen input.

The TDS Nomad can be configured for almost any handheld mobile computing application. However, I found it was unfair to categorize it with ordinary mobile computers. First, it was blazingly fast. After all, it is a mobile computer, not a beefed up PDA (Personal Data Assistant). Second, it accepted a variety of input methods like character recognition, which included writing anywhere on the screen while the computer put this into a word processing document, laser bar code reading and using the keypad, which had the correct “feel” for gloved hands.

While it overlaps many of the features of a PDA, anyone who mistakes the Nomad for simply a pocket toy is dead wrong. It is kind of like putting a laptop in a Hardigg Storm Case, only one can still use the laptop without popping the lid.

The TDS Nomad Comes with Windows Mobile 6, Classic Edition. It has appropriate software for synchronizing with a desktop. This is convenient for data transfer and adding new software. I was able to synchronize this product with six different laptops and desktops. It performed without a hitch.

A rugged computer has many possibilities. Imagine an extensive crime scene with huge amounts of evidence that needs to be tagged, located, photographed and processed. Technicians can bar code the evidence in place using preprinted self adhesive codes. As the technician with the TDS Nomad processes the scene, he scans the barcode, photographs items in place and records the location using the integrated GPS. A secure ad hoc WiFi network can be established at the scene and the scene can be analyzed as it is processed without ever interrupting the collection. When the evidence is booked at the facility, it can be wirelessly transmitted to the records division.

Using the same processing standard as above, a TDS Nomad can quickly record an entire accident reconstruction, including GPS coordinates, photographs (using the optional camera) and (using third party software) factual diagrams. The advantage with this system is the fact that even minor collisions will have reconstruction information gathered at the scene. This is a bonus for officers subpoenaed in non injury civil cases where only a minimum of reporting information would ordinarily be gathered.

The TDS Nomad can be used to write citations, inputting the information directly on the screen while using third party software to populate the offender’s information in the fields. If a signature is required, it can be done right on the screen.

Nomad uses a 5200 mAh Li-ion rechargeable pack, which can be swapped in the middle of business without even breaking stride. TDS specifies 15 hours of active use on one charge. I cycled the battery pack several times and found it averaged 15 hours, even when I used applications that are graphics intensive.

My Nomad came with a modern looking modular plug, which allowed international use. I also recommend the optional AA cell module for added insurance.

How does it conserve power so well? The Marvell XScale processor is specifically designed for mobile computing. The heart of the processor was designed to operate at a variety of speeds and power, thus giving it the ability to routinely idle." My tests concluded that the Nomad started faster than a laptop or an ordinary PDA or cell phone and never lagged in processing time.

If the Nomad were used simply for wireless communication and navigation tasks, it would still be a worthwhile investment. This test model came with an integrated GPS that was more sensitive under cloud cover a tree canopy than standard handheld units. This GPS has an effective graphic interface that indicates the satellite status and location. With optional and third party software, one can navigate on custom maps and hybrid satellite photos which could compliment GIS capable agencies.

I experimented with inputting drawings and maps, zooming them for minute detail, as a traffic scene or crime scene analyst would do. The 480x640 backlit VGA color display was accurate enough for this kind of work and sunlight readable. However, when the display is covered with screen protector sheets, which I recommend, the ability to read in direct sunlight is diminished.

I timed the startup of the GPS, from a cold start to the point where the Nomad found its location. It located itself at about the same speed as several car mounted units with external antennas and averaged 10 percent faster than two other handheld units. I had several cold starts that were under 30 seconds. I could stump it by staying in the lowest level of a parking garage, but none of the other units worked reliably underground either.

The Nomad had excellent WiFi capability. I spent several days roaming local hotspots while surfing the net. I took advantage of some of the great sites that the US Forest Service has provided for people who like training in adventure sports. My Nomad was adept at Bluetooth connections also, which could be handy for on scene photo sharing. For use away from a hotspot, it also has WWAN capability in the AT&T network. This gives it international compatibility.

While testing a data transfer capabilities of the Nomad, I explored the data input options. The Nomad, like many Windows Mobile devices, has a touch screen from which users can enter letters by simply writing on the screen. There are several options that allow the user to enter words on the screen, characters in a portion of the screen or select letters in an onscreen keypad interface. The Nomad has simple selection keys surrounding a central toggle. They have a positive click when activated, and are small enough and spaced enough for users to maneuver around without removing their cold weather gloves.

In addition to the input options, the Nomad also had output in the form of a headphone jack, external speaker and USB ports. There are optional configurations (which must be purchased separately) that include a 9-pin RS-232 serial port, a laser ID bar code scanner, or a color camera.

The ruggedized stylus (which is more tool-quality than office-quality) is a metal cylinder with a spring loaded soft tip and a Phillips head on the opposite end. It doesn’t simply fit in a recess on the back of the unit, it firmly mounts there. I recommend tethering the stylus with a cord. If this stylus were discovered during a search of a suspect, it may raise an eyebrow or two.

The Nomad is tapered in the middle. When lying on a flat surface, only the endcaps touch the surface it’s sitting, whether face up or face down. Although it is probably the most vulnerable area of the product, the screen is recessed into the case well enough to reduce the likeliness of a direct screen strike when dropped. I tested the screen for scratch resistance but did not include it in our shock testing.

My first test of its shock resistance was informal — the Nomad is sort of balanced like a football, so I threw it like one. I tossed it about 20 yards for half an hour. While the Nomad was hard to catch and really did not spiral very well, it did display its location without interruption, despite my inability to convert a third down with it. From this test I moved into more formal experimentation.

I modified this test to reflect a likely law enforcement environment. I simulated leaving the Nomad on the roof of a patrol car and driving away. The Nomad was launched from a five foot height at a consistent velocity so that it flew at least 10 feet on towel covered concrete. I did this test 10 times.

The Nomad always landed on the boot style endcaps. I carefully observed and confirmed that the screen did not flicker and the task (usually GPS location) given the computer continued without interruption.

I tested the Nomad in temperature extremes, first in a hot natural environment, then in the freezer. Using a nonvolatile flash memory is an excellent idea for a rugged computer. It appeared to be unaffected by these temperatures, including its ability to be reset and cold started. Interestingly enough, one could input on the touchscreen in these environments, including during underwater tests.

I tested the Nomad in a simulated downpour. First, it was placed in a sandy area where the sand had the consistency of coarse powder. Then I doused it so the sand ran over all parts, including the USB input. This test was punctuated by word-processing tasks. In fact, some of this article was written during the simulated downpour test, using the stylus input.

I can report that the course abrasive material did not get behind the buttons, or in the edges of the screen. It was easy to rinse off. I used a little dish soap in one of my iterations and that didn't seem to bother it either.

I submerged the Nomad on the morning of one of our tests, and returned eight hours later. I dried it off enough to run a simulated drop test from four feet, and then submerged it again.

I can unequivocally say that the TDS Nomad is ready to be sworn in for duty. It has the right features and is robust enough for inevitable encounters. I walked away from my tests with praise for such an excellent product.

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