Shake, rattle and roll: We test 3 rugged tablets (with video)

Shake, rattle and roll: We test 3 rugged tablets (with video)

We dropped, sprayed and shook three Windows 10 tablets from Getac, Panasonic and Xplore. Here's how they fared.

Anyone who depends on their tablet throughout the workday knows that disaster can strike at any moment -- it can get accidentally pushed off a desk or dropped while you're running for your airline connection, or caught in a sudden storm, or sat on by your three-year-old.

If you want to avoid last-minute catastrophes, then you may want to consider buying a ruggedized tablet.

There were about 530,000 rugged tablets sold in 2016, about 0.3% of the overall computer market, making it a niche within a niche, according to Chetan Mohan, lead hardware and semiconductor analyst at market-research firm Technavio. He forecasts sales to rise to 720,000 systems by 2021, an annual increase of over 6% -- a rare portion of the PC market that is prospering.

But how do you measure how rugged a tablet is? Today, there are two prime ratings of a computer's ability to survive the worst that users and their environments can mete out:

  • The Army's MI-STD 810G series of tests is like basic training for computers to see how they can handle environmental stresses. It includes drops, shakes, dousing with water, chilling, heating and covering them with dust.
  • The two-digit Ingress Protection (IP) ranking is equally important and rates how a device stands up to dust (the first digit) and liquids (the second digit). An IP54 rating means that dust can get into the system as long as it doesn't interfere with the system's operation and can withstand splashing of water. By contrast, the more stringent IP65 rating specifies a dust-tight system that can withstand a high-pressure spray.

According to Mohan, the three top-selling vendors in this space are Getac, Panasonic and Xplore. In this roundup, we look at one ruggedized tablet from each vendor: the Getac F110, the Panasonic Toughpad FZ-G1 and the Xplore Xslate R12. These tablets all have a similar look, but the recipe for making each is very different. 

For example, it once was standard to build a rugged system out of a thick, heavy, but super-strong magnesium-aluminum case. Of the three tablets I reviewed, only the Panasonic Toughpad FZ-G1 follows this method. It can survive when lesser computers would fall apart or break, but is roughly three times the weight and thickness of a 9.7-in. iPad. The Getac F110 and Xslate R12 have metallic frames but plastic skins, so that they are lighter. All three are much more resilient than non-ruggedized tablets.

Size and weight are only part of the rugged equation. I gave each tablet a tough workout that would break lesser systems. Each was dropped from heights of 29 in. and 60 in., shaken on a vibration table in a box filled with sand, and sprayed with water. 

And that's the point behind rugged tablets. Rather than fragile devices that make you cringe when dropped or spilled on, these are tough hombres that can shake off abuse and come back for more.

Getac F110

A mix of old and new, the Getac F110 -- which is has a slightly different case and completely updated technology as compared to its previous iteration -- bristles with power and includes a handy barcode scanner. However, it's got a low-resolution display and is the heaviest and biggest tablet of the three reviewed here.

getac f110 Getac

Getac F110

The black and dark gray system has been built around a magnesium-aluminum frame with an acrylic butyl styrene plastic case, soft silicone rubber edging, reinforced rounded corners and protective port doors. It is MIL STD 810G certified and passed the IP65 tests.

This is not a lightweight tablet. It measures 1.1 x 12.4 x 8.1 in. and weighs a hefty 3.3 lbs. If you include the AC adapter, it has a 4-lb. travel weight.

At the same time, the Getac's 11.6-in. display is not only smaller than the Xplore's 12.5-in. screen, but tops out at a 1366 x 768 resolution, which can't compare to the full HD screens on the Xplore and Panasonic. Like the Xplore, the Getac uses Corning's reinforced Gorilla Glass, but it uses the second-generation version (as opposed to the Xplore, which contains fourth-generation Gorilla Glass).

To the right of the display, the Getac has five buttons: A power button, volume up and down, one for the built-in barcode scanner, and a programmable function key. There's also a Windows key below the screen. Additionally, it comes with a tethered stylus that snaps into the tablet's right side.

The display's brightness was on a par with the others, measuring 715 candelas per square meter. Getac's LumiBond technology uses silicone between the display pane and the touch overlay to make for brighter images and better readability in sunlight.

The tablet has a full HD front-facing camera and an 8MP camera in the back. Standard ports include a single USB 3.0 port, an HDMI port, a headphone jack and connection for an external antenna. There is also a space for one of several optional features. The review unit came with a barcode scanner that can work with 1D and 2D barcodes. Other options include an Ethernet port, an RS-232 serial port, a microSD card slot or a USB 2.0 port. All the connections are safely stowed behind a sealed door, which can obstruct inserting larger thumb drives; you might want to invest in a USB extension.

The Getac is equipped with 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2; you can get an optional card for using an LTE mobile data network.

The system's single sealed speaker is on the right side of the system's back. As a result, the sound is not as rich as it could be, with flat audio that points away from the user.

The system is equipped with an Intel Core i7 6600U processor (a generation behind the Xplore's Core i7 7500U), which runs from 2.6GHz to 3.4GHz. If that's not your speed, you can order the Getac with a slower 6500U Core i7 or your choice of the even slower 6200U or 6300U Core i5 chip. The system also comes with 256GB of SSD storage and 8GB of RAM (it can hold up to 16GB).

The Getac is nicely security-minded; it includes Intel's vPro security extensions, a TPM 2.0 module and a fingerprint reader on the back (although it can be an awkward reach for the left index finger to reach the scanner).

Behind a sealed cover is the Getac's pair of swappable batteries. Each has a capacity of 2,160mAh, for a total of 4,320mAh, the highest of the three systems reviewed here. Each battery has a five-LED charge indicator, but you need to remove the door to check the charge status.

Like the Panasonic, the Getac's cooling fan was loud, annoying and ran often.

The company offers a variety of accessories that range from optional desktop and vehicle docks to a snap on keyboard that can turn the tablet into a notebook. While it doesn't offer higher-capacity batteries, the company does have a device for charging eight batteries at once, a boon for those who use the tablets every day.

Test results

Despite all that capacity, the Getac had the shortest battery life of the three on the PCMark battery test, lasting 4 hours and 15 minutes. This increased to 5 hours and 17 minutes on our continuous video playback test.

While on paper the Xplore's Core i7 7500U processor is more powerful, the Getac was the top dog in our performance testing, with a PCMark rating of 3,428.7.

The system survived all our torture tests: The drops from 29 in. and 60 in., being drenched with water and shaken in sand. Unfortunately, during the last test, its exhaust vent quickly filled with sand, which if not cleaned could eventually cause the system to overheat.

It comes with Windows 10 Pro and Getac's G-Manager utility, which summarizes the system's major settings (although I found it hard to read at times, because the software can run at only one-quarter the screen size).

Bottom line

The Getac F110 offers a well-protected exterior (except for its exhaust vent), good performance, and the choice of several options, including a barcode reader, an Ethernet jack or a microSD slot. However, the display, while nicely visible in sunlight, shows less detail than its peers, and although the batteries are replaceable, which is a plus, it did not do well on our battery tests.

It is also heavier than the other two tablets reviewed here and, probably because of its options, more expensive. As a result, each business must judge whether the choice of options and additional protection is worth the extra expense.

Panasonic Toughpad FZ-G1

Seeing the recently introduced fourth-generation of Panasonic's Toughpad FZ-G1 is, to me, like being reintroduced to an old friend -- this is an updated version of a tablet that I reviewed two years ago. It looks familiar, but the current system has been updated in every way.

panasonic toughpad fz g1 Panasonic

Panasonic Toughpad FZ-G1

The Panasonic's silver-tone magnesium-aluminum case has heavily rounded corners and black silicone edging. Its sealed doors protect its ports from dust and water. Like the Getac, it comes with a MIL-STD 810G certification and an IP65 rating for liquids and dust intrusion.

At 0.9 x 10.9 x 7.7 in., this Toughpad FZ-G1 is slightly smaller than the previous generation and is, in fact, the smallest of these three rugged tablets. Still, it's slightly thicker than the Xplore. It weights 2.4 lbs., making it the lightest of the three. With its power adapter, the FZ-G1 has a travel weight of 2.8 lbs.

The Panasonic has a 10.1-in., 1920 x 1200 screen, compared to the Getac's 11.6-in. and Xplore's 12.5-in. displays. Unlike earlier models, the current system doesn't come with Corning's Gorilla Glass; instead, it uses a non-branded chemically strengthened glass.

Compared to the Xplore's 12.5-in. display, the Panasonic's 10.1-in. screen felt small and constraining, particularly when trying to work through a complicated diagram or detailed map. Still, it delivered 713 candelas per square meter of light, which is on a par with the others, and did well in direct sunlight with a minimum of glare.

There's a convenient place on the back of the unit to snap the included stylus into place and it comes with a coiled tether, making it harder to lose.

Below the display are seven buttons for powering up the unit, adjusting the volume, an auto-rotate control, and a programmable pair for starting apps. Above the screen is a 1280 x 800 forward-facing webcam, which is augmented by a high-resolution 8-megapixel back-facing camera. 

There is a single sealed speaker in the lower left corner of the system's back. It was on a par with the Getac's sound system but sounded tinny and hollow compared to the Xplore's richer audio.

Inside, the review unit of the Panasonic had a Core i5 6300U processor that runs at between 2.4GHz and 3GHz, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of SSD storage. The Panasonic tops out at 8GB of RAM and there is no option for a high-performance Core i7.

The CPU includes Intel's business-oriented vPro manageability extensions. The system also has a second-generation TPM module to make remote access more secure, but there is no option for a fingerprint scanner.

Its assortment of connections includes 802.11ac Wi-Fi; there is an optional LTE mobile data network and you can also opt for an Ethernet port. The system comes with Bluetooth 4.1, not the faster 4.2 version that ships with the other two tablets.

The system includes an HDMI port, a single USB 3.0 port, an audio jack and a connection for an external antenna. Like the Getac F110, the Panasonic can be augmented with a variety of equipment, depending on the task at hand. These include a magstripe or Smart Card reader, an RFID reader, a barcode reader, an RS-232 serial port, an Ethernet port, a micro SD slot or a second USB port.

All of the ports are protected from the elements by a sealed door, which, as with the Getac, can get in the way if you're inserting a slightly oversized USB thumb drive. It comes with a fan that, to my ears, was loud and annoying.

Performance tests

Like the others, the Panasonic's 4,200mAh battery is swappable and behind a single sealed cover. The tablet led the three reviewed here with a 4-hour, 45-minute runtime on PCMark's battery life test, and earned second place with 6 hours, 15 minutes in our continuous video test. (The company offers an optional 9,300mAh battery that adds about 7.4-oz. to the tablet's weight, but could double the time spent away from an AC outlet.)

Although it was up against a pair of Core i7 devices, the Core i5-equipped Panasonic acquitted itself well in performance testing, scoring a 2785.0 on the PCMark series of tasks.

It survived the six drops, the sand-shake and the drenching with water without a scratch. Only one slight issue: In the last drop from five feet, the Panasonic ejected its stylus from its snap-in holder. Good thing it comes with a coiled tether.

The system comes with Windows 10 Pro along with Panasonic's excellent PC Settings Utility that consolidates every major system adjustment -- from screen brightness to networking -- in one place.

Bottom line

The Panasonic Toughpad FZ-G1 doesn't offer a fingerprint scanner or a Core i7 processor, which in today's market makes it feel slightly behind the times. And its metal design means that even though it's the lightest of the three tablets reviewed here, it's still a lot to carry around for a 10.1-in. screen. But it combines a ruggedly-built frame with fine performance and good battery life.

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