We have written about software-based navigation system many times. However, no matter how great the software might be, it is just a beer coaster on your table without a computer on which to run it. Kevin and I got to talking about that recently, and we decided to do something about it. We contacted Panasonic, makers of the renowned Toughbook line of rugged personal computers, and asked them for a testdrive.
Panasonic has provided us with a long-term loan of its brand-new CF-18 Tablet PC. We have it mounted in our project Grand Cherokee by means of a mount, fabricated by Mike Barnett and Kevin at T&J Performance Center. We intend to use the machine on a number of trips and to evaluate a bunch of new navigation software.
There are two classes of computers intended for outdoor use. Generally, they are called rugged and semi-rugged. Rugged computers are generally defined by jargon starting with the term Mil-Spec. Basically, this means the computers can be virtually submerged, can be shaken to the point of blurred visibility, and can weigh about as much as a Thanksgiving turkey. (OK, so I am exaggerating a little.) A semi-rugged computer is partially sealed to keep out dust, can take some vibration, and is intended for careful outdoor use. After some internal debate, we choose the semi-rugged CF-18 for weight and form factor concerns.
The Panasonic CF-18 is a compact size, measuring 10-3/4x8-1/2 inches. It is a convertible Tablet PC. While its keyboard will fold under the screen for pure tablet use, we chose to set the machine up for use as a conventional laptop. This way, we can use both the keyboard and the touch screen to control our software. The computer is fast at 1.2 GHz and has enough memory to simultaneously run two graphic-intensive navigation programs. The computer does not have a fan, so it doesn't suck trail dust into its innards. The keyboard, while not completely sealed, is splash- and dust-resistant.
The machine has all the ports of a modern laptop. The ports have dust and moisture-tight plugs covering each of them. Larger openings in the case, such as the combined SD and PCMCIA sockets have sealed, double-locked doors. We are somewhat concerned about the USB ports. While the port openings can be tightly sealed, the physical ports are not sealed, in the manner of a fully rugged, Mil-Spec computer. Since the computer did not ship with an internal GPS, we are using DeLorme's external USB LT-20. There is some concern that dust will get into the machine through this open port. The nav computer I use is a fully rugged laptop. The keyboard is a plastic membrane unit, and the ports are all internally sealed. Nothing can get into it. We will see how we fair with the partially sealed CF-18.
We are less concerned about damage from vibration. The principal moving part in the computer is the hard drive. It lives in a shock isolation cage, behind a sealed door.
Using the CF-18 on the Trail
In short, so far so good. We have used DeLorme's Topo USA 5.0 (see our Jan. '06 issue for a review). Kevin reports that the touch screen works great with the DeLorme user interface. The screen is barely bright enough to be used outdoors, but, the computer is available with a brighter screen option. If we were using the machine in an open truck, we might require a screen shade. The computer does not have a CD drive. We are using Virtual CD to load and use DeLorme's 3D TopoQuads. This eliminates any possibility of CD skip from shock or vibration. This spiffy software creates virtual CD drives in your computer. You make Virtual CD images on your home computer, move the files to the laptop, and mount the image files to the virtual CD with the software. It works great. We will have more to say about our experiences as our long-term test continues.
Is there a cheaper way?
The MSRP of our Toughbook 18 is a bit high. However, you get that for which you pay. My first in-truck computer was a used Toshiba laptop. I thought I did everything correctly when I first set it up in my truck. I sealed it, so dust could not get it, but it overheated.
I built a nifty easel for the computer to sit on. However, I did not build a support for the lid and, the hinge broke. It did not use Virtual CD, initially. The CD skipped so badly, I could not use most of my navigation software.
Finally, I got it working properly and took an extended Colorado trip. The vibration crashed the hard drive on my second week out.
Yes, it is probably possible to buy a cheap, used laptop, put it on a spongy mount, and have it work for awhile. If you try this approach and really need the computer to work, take a spare.
MSRP: Starts at $3,500
TopoUSA 5.0 National Edition: $100
3D TopoQuad - State and Regional
LT-20 GPS (Sold with Street Atlas): $100
Virtual CD, Single User: $40