While its great fun as a reviewer to look at the latest smart phone or PDA, the fact is that in most enterprises, its not the BlackBerrys or Treos that do the heavy lifting. In fact, the real work in industries that involve everything from manufacturing to the movement of goods takes place in the field using rugged, waterproof, unsexy, portable computers that do everything from read bar codes and RFID tags to handling sales routing and shipping. While the Symbol division of Motorola is best-known in this field, Psion Teklogix has been a significant player.
Now, Psion and AT&T have teamed up to deliver an HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) version of the Psion Workabout Pro. This is an industrial strength portable that looks its part. Its approximately the size, shape and weight of a brick and appears to be about as rugged. However, you can use this brick-like computer to surf the Internet, check e-mail or run mobile applications, and with a fast connection, using it as a remote client should work just fine.
The Workabout Pro is available now from Psion and AT&T resellers. Its a solid device that competes well with devices from Symbol and has the advantage of access to AT&Ts 3G network, which greatly improves its flexibility.
Its not cheap, however. The monochrome version of the Workabout Pro starts at $1,500, and the color version starts at $2,000 in units of one. Any add-on modules will add on to the price. As youd expect, AT&T and Psion give discounts for larger volumes. The service cost for the Workabout Pro is the same as it is for other data devices from AT&T, which is less than $50 per month.
AT&T sent two versions of the first-generation Psion Workabout Pro to eWEEK Labs. One of the devices included a complete alpha-numeric keypad and a monochrome screen. The other device had a numeric keypad and a color screen. Both devices arrived running Microsoft Windows CE. The only applications installed were standard Windows CE bundled software, including Internet Explorer and WordPad from Microsoft. One unit was delivered with a bar-code scanner and included a demo application that would read and display the contents of bar codes. It would not do anything else with that information, however.
Getting the device up and running is really just a matter of pressing a button to return the Workabout Pro from suspended animation. You can cold-boot Windows, but the operating system normally stays loaded in memory, and when you want to power it down, you simply suspend it. If left alone, the device will power down and suspend itself on its own to save battery power. You need to tell the device to connect to the AT&T network using an included application. This takes a few seconds each time, while the device locates its SIM card, the modem and the network.
The monochrome version with the alpha-numeric keypad has an ABCD-type keypad layout rather than the more typist-friendly QWERTY layout. However, the Workabout Pro isnt designed for entering large quantities of text but rather for entering small amounts of data into forms by people who arent trained at typing. Picture entering inventory data rather than entering an e-mail, and youll get the idea.
Both devices have a relatively small screen: 2 1/8 inches wide by 2 7/8 inches tall. Psion officials say the resolution is one-fourth VGA. The screen was quite clear during tests, and, in some cases, the applications on the screen provided scroll bars so I could see the entire screen. The scrolling worked well with eWEEK.com, for example. In other cases, such as with Google, you can load the mobile version of the Web site and that will work fine.
For the most part, however, the Workabout Pro isnt really designed for accessing the Internet. You can certainly use the browser, and typing information into Web sites using either the keypad or the on-screen pop-up keyboard is easy enough. But youll find surfing with your BlackBerry to be an easier process. Instead, the Workabout Pro is designed to run mobile applications and remote clients. This eliminates any issues about screen size or keypad layout because those applications will be designed for the device in any case.
In addition, because of its modular nature, the Workabout Pro can be delivered with a wide variety of add-on components. One of the tested devices had a bar-code reader, for example. However, Psion has a very broad range of add-ons, including RFID (radio-frequency identification) readers, specialized optical scanners, alternate communications devices (like Wi-Fi) and other hardware upgrades, including a pistol grip.
In fact, most of the Psion Workabout Pro devices are sold through resellers and integrators that include modules and applications, delivering the device fully configured with applications already installed.
Each Workabout Pro is delivered with a docking station thats designed to charge the batteries and also provide a USB connection to an external computer. However, the docking stations for the Workabout Pro with the alphabetic keypad are slightly different from the stations for the device with numeric keypad, so you cant use one stand with a different kind of device. Since theres no obvious visible difference between them, youll need to find your own way to mark docking stations, or deal with the frustration of not having things work half the time.
Fortunately, the one big item that needs to work does. The HSDPA connection to AT&Ts 3G network worked perfectly during my tests. It transferred data at a reasonably fast pace, despite the fact that the area in which I was testing has only limited coverage by the cellular network. The test units were not delivered with alternate network access, so I couldnt test them with Wi-Fi or other wireless options.
I didnt test the Workabout Pro to see if it could handle all of the abuse that Psion claims. However, several drops from shoulder height to a paved parking area in the rain seem to support the companys claims. Other than getting wet, the Workabout Pro was unaffected by the ruggedness testing.
In one case, however, the Sierra Wireless AirCard 860 PC Card, which the device uses for connections to AT&Ts 3G network, was jarred loose. According to tech support at Psion, this happened because a mechanical stop that would normally keep the card in place wasnt installed on the test unit. Opening the unit and pushing the 3G card back into its slot solved the problem.
Psion has just announced a new version of the Workabout Pro that will be available for the AT&T network in the near future. Its currently undergoing acceptance tests. The Generation 2 version of the Workabout Pro will support Windows Mobile 6. The Generation 2 docking station will support all Generation 2 devices, as well as all of the Generation 1 Workabout Pro devices currently available from AT&T.
Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis on mobile and wireless computing.