Dell’s Rugged Tablet – Extending the Boundaries of End-to-End Latitude Solutions

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  October 21, 2015

In the July 22, 2015 issue of the Pund-IT Review, I wrote about Dell’s introduction of the new Latitude 12 Rugged Tablet, a notable addition to both its business endpoint and rugged mobile portfolios. Why notable? Because the new tablet stands out in terms of both performance and cost.

In the former case, Dell’s general purpose Rugged Tablet running Microsoft Windows 8.1 differs notably from the special purpose devices constituting the vast majority of rugged tablets. In the latter, Dell’s solution costs about 30% less than a similarly configured Panasonic FZ-G1 Toughpad, its primary direct competitor.

Those are both compelling points in Dell’s favor, but two questions remain: 1) Does the new Latitude 12 Rugged Tablet really deliver the goods that Dell promises, and 2) What are the larger implications of the new solution for both Dell and the broader market? Let’s consider these issues.

On and off the road

When the Rugged Tablet evaluation unit arrived from Dell, I faced a quandary – how to test a product designed to not only survive knocks, bumps, scrapes and collisions that would send the vast majority of tablets and PCs to the IT equivalent of an ICU ( or mortuary) but to thrive despite the abuse.

So I attempted to replicate some of Dell’s impact tests, including dropping the running tablet onto hard surfaces (concrete patios and stone walkways, plus wooden and linoleum floors). It’s difficult to emphasize how wrong this felt to me. Like most PC owners, I’m used to handling PCs with kid gloves so the experience gave me a taste of what budding crash test engineers must feel when they wreck their first cars.

Despite my initial qualms, the Latitude 12 Rugged Tablet came through with flying colors, continuing to operate and restart flawlessly despite a few dings and scratches on its heavy duty rubberized corners and sturdy case.

Using the tablet outdoors and in a moving car were child’s play by comparison. Dell’s “Direct View” technology makes the display clearly visible, even in direct sunlight, but doesn’t kill battery life as do highly backlighted displays. I wanted to subject the tablet to the temperature extremes for which it’s certified (from -20º to 145ºF, or -29º to 63ºC) but that would have required time in a deep freeze and/or a life threateningly hot sauna.

As attractive as those adventures sounded, I decided to leave the tests to Dell and third party certifications which also gave the Latitude 12 Rugged Tablet passing marks on resisting blowing dust, sand and rain, vibration, freeze/thaw cycles and other MIL-STD810G standard requirements. And I won’t even get into the ATEX or C1D2 certifications that are available for deploying Latitude 12 Rugged Tablets in locations made hazardous by ignitable vapors and gases.

In the workplace

The Rugged Tablet also did well in other common workplace device tests, including battery life. Dell estimates that the standard single and second optional battery can each deliver about 6 hours of runtime. That matched my experience, though I expect performance will vary depending on the applications involved, use of ancillary features (like wireless connectivity) and the age of the batteries.

However, the ability to hot swap in/out spare batteries largely makes this a non-issue for many or most situations. If the Rugged Tablet’s 3.5 pound weight (plus options like the desk dock, keyboard cover and I/O expansion module) don’t intimidate you, tossing in a spare battery or two won’t be burdensome. But that brings up an important point about how commodity components are impacting rugged device manufacturers, including Dell.

As the Direct View technology described above suggests, the company is obviously developing “secret sauce” technologies that set its products apart from the crowd. But the new Rugged Tablet benefits from third party innovations, including low power Intel’s Core M processors, and falling prices in memory chips, SSD storage and lithium ion batteries. All contribute significantly to the Latitude 12 Rugged Tablet’s compelling qualities and performance, as does Dell’s skills in leveraging its relationships with component suppliers and manufacturing partners.

Bottom line: The new Dell Latitude 12 Rugged Tablet is one tough mother of a mobile endpoint with an extremely compelling price tag. If you or your organization needs a Windows-based mobile device that can laugh off abuse which would kill off most other tablets, you owe it to yourself to contact Dell.

Final analysis

Good enough, but what does the Latitude 12 Rugged Tablet mean more broadly to both Dell and the business computing marketplace? Initially, two things.

First, though the annual opportunity for rugged tablets is a tiny fraction (about $500M-$600M) of the business endpoint market as a whole, these devices address needs in high value industries and sectors, including oil and gas exploration, heavy construction and engineering, industrial manufacturing and transportation, as well as numerous military and other public sector use cases.

Plus, while many IT players love to trumpet the “desktop to data center” aspects of their solutions, mobility is sometimes an awkward adjunct. In fact, without innovative rugged solutions, can a vendor truly say its offerings are friendly to all businesses and industries? Dell could and should effectively argue that point. By continuing to expand its portfolio of semi- and fully-rugged laptops and tablets, Dell is one of a few mainstream PC vendors active in this area, and the only one that includes rugged products as a growing and integral part of its end-to-end IT solutions portfolio.

The other issue to consider is how rugged solutions are impacting the company more widely. For example, Dell’s original equipment manufacturing (OEM) division is already leveraging its rugged endpoint and server technologies with numerous customers, and I expect the new Rugged Tablet to help expand those engagements. Over time, Dell’s rugged innovations should find synergies and opportunities in a wide range of existing and emerging markets, including Internet of Things (IoT) devices and related management offerings.

Overall, Dell’s new Latitude 12 Rugged Tablet is a notable individual solution that will increase the company’s profile and presence in established rugged device markets. But it also has broader implications that should result in significant new commercial opportunities for Dell.

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