The Unwired Medic

Teaching EMS providers & other public safety pros about using mobile tech to improve their practice, patient care, continuing education, scene safety, general entertainment, & productivity.

Toughpad – The Armored Android

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An intro to the Panasonic Toughpad A1 Android-based Tablet

Panasonic Toughpad - FrontIt’s everywhere… mobile this, tablet that.  You can’t escape the implementation of technology in public safety and public health.  If you have to use it (and you do, or at least soon will), then you need a dependable piece of hardware to access the software.  iPads are great, but they’re expensive and durability is out the window (get it? Out the “Window”? Ha! Geek humor – you gotta love it!).  Face it.  They were made with the consumer in mind, not the professional like you with the unpredictable working environment.  They don’t hold up against water, freezing cold, or even 90-degree hot days.  They tend to shut down outside a comfortable, cozy room temperature.  Their displays aren’t so great in daylight.  Vibration tolerance is low.  Crack the glass and the whole thing is unusable.  Heaven forbid you drop one… from higher than 3”.  They’re not expandable beyond a Bluetooth keyboard.  They have a very locked-down operating system and even that doesn’t prevent a hacker from assuming control of it and stealing your data.  Have you ever tried hacking one through its data port?  I have, and it isn’t hard at all.  How can you, in good conscience, chart on a patient using an unsecured device?  How good is the warranty?  And if your IT geeks have an ounce of education about BYOD (bring your own device) risk and enterprise scalability, they don’t think much of them either.  Popularity aside, it isn’t a good choice for HIPAA compliant technology.  And if it can’t handle HIPAA, then it can’t handle Sensitive/FOUO or classified data either.  You know, the whole “homeland security, response plans, and deployment strategies” kinds of stuff.  All those gate codes and secret locations of preparedness supplies we keep stored, but available to ourselves and other agencies in the event of disaster or attack, that we store on all our mobile devices so we can access them on the go.  Surely, I don’t need to point out to you that the iPad is a wildly successful consumer device, and I happen to like toying around on them too.  I like reading e-books and being able to view a whole page at once instead of scrolling (like I have to on my smartphone).

And then there’s the smartphone.  What a small screen (except the phone/tablet – a.k.a. “phablet” devices like the Samsung Galaxy Note I & II, and the LG Intuition which feature 5” screens).  If you want to do anything web, video, or photo with them, you’re constantly scrolling and pinch-zooming in and out.  I’m about to the point where I’d like the old Nokia 5160 and a 7” or larger non-phone but 4G-connected tablet.  Okay, so the Motorola Xoom, the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet, the ASUS Transformer Prime, and the Samsung Galaxy Tab are alternatives to the iPad, are bigger than a smartphone and have the features I desire, but they’re still designed for the consumer, not the consummate, 21st century public safety professional like you and me.  They also have some serious security flaws, and attacks on Android by malware are ever increasing.  That leaves the Blackberry Playbook, which, although has great security and a not-too-bad app market, was and still is a marketing flop from a company that is perceived as on its death bed.  Oh yeah, it too was designed for consumers and businessmen in suits, not for the public safety professional working in an unpredictable environment.  Sorry folks… even an Otterbox case won’t protect your device from what we do for a living.

Panasonic sees this and applied its decades of ruggedized computing experience with the Toughbook lineup to create the new Android-based Toughpad A1.  Android?  Didn’t I just intimate that Android was bad for security?  Why, yes… yes I did.  And Panasonic has taken that into consideration too.  I can’t imagine any other manufacturer coming up with a device that covers every conceivable aspect of public safety (and even military) portable technology as thoroughly as Panasonic has.  They have security covered so well, that they received DOD clearance for their tablet (prior to this, the only version of Android I’m aware of to pass security is a heavily locked version 1.6, and we’re now publically on version 4, a.k.a. Jelly Bean).  They did it by making security integrated with their hardware and by using the toughest standards of encryption, and then you can add your preferred antivirus/antimalware application to that (I prefer Avast!, personally), a theft-recovery app (Avast! And Cerberus are my favorites), and a VPN (virtual private network) to that, and your server-side enterprise security to that.  They also intentionally left it IT-friendly.

Isn’t an Android Tablet too limited versus a PC?

Comparing apples to oranges?  Or rather, PC’s to oranges?  Take a good hard look at what you do on the PC.  You surf the web (from a browser), open a few e-mails (sometimes in a browser), you access the CAD (from a browser), WebEOC (from a browser), send text pages (from a browser), look at Google Maps (from a browser), watch streaming video (from a browser).  You edit or even create a few documents, most likely from Microsoft Office, but you can use Kingsoft Office, QuickOffice, OfficeSuite Pro, Documents To Go, or even Google Docs or Microsoft’s web-based SAAS (Software As A Service) Office365.

I build a little bit in ArcGIS, which is quite video memory intensive, but I can publish the final product to the web for view in a web browser or a free specialty app.  I also do website design and graphics work, most of which is not so in-depth that I couldn’t use Adobe’s new Touch Apps and Photoshop Express.  Need to draw in depth sketches?  Then SketchBook from the folks who brought you AutoCAD can do almost anything you could imagine.  Maybe the final work needs to move to a PC, but even a laptop or other Windows-based tablet isn’t likely to be feature rich enough (unless you use an Alienware or some other ridiculously expensive gaming rig), so you’ll probably have a committed desktop with those very memory-intensive programs.  So will it replace your PC?  Probably, unless you are really heavy into gaming (on an ambulance or in a squad car?) or you are a professional graphic artist in need of heavily featured editing programs.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my PC and all it offers, and I do tax its capabilities with ArcGIS, Photoshop, and video media editing, but I don’t use the thing to its max capacity THAT often.  I’ll never see a need to replace it, but I can augment it and be more portable and flexible.  If you are a field technician (LEO/FF/EMT), you probably don’t need a full PC for completing your job.  Besides, today’s Android tablets and iPads pummel the capabilities of a typical Windows 98/XP-era computer.  It has the processing and video power you need.

So what else can I do with the Toughpad?

Geographic Information Systems (GIS)…

Panasonic Toughpad - BackThey are being applied like wildfire.  Correct that, even to wildfire.  We’re making pre-incident plans, giving you access to basic CAD info and system status, showing you where hospitals and hydrants are located in relation to your present position.  It’s making its way into public health, disaster management, search and rescue, crime scene logging and plotting, and frontline emergency response.  It’s the mapping engine behind that annoying map program you use to tell you how to get to your next call the fastest.  It monitors traffic flow, tells you which intersections have red-light cameras, and tells the dispatcher where the closest unit is.  It works with Reverse-911 to tell callers where their designated shelter or vaccination POD is.  (Note: a POD is a “Point Of Dispensing” used by public health to dispense vaccines and antibiotics/antivirals in the event of an epidemic or biological attack.)
ArcGIS offers a free app to get you started in mapping for iOS, Android, and now Windows Phone.  There are apps on the market that use ArcGIS on the back-end to allow you to report potholes and streetlight outages to the city or county, or to map you through a college campus or mall.  You probably use GIS more often than you think.  Well, if you roll up on a structure fire, do you know where your connection points are?  Do you know where sewer access is to monitor for hazmat contamination?  Chances are there’s already a GIS map for it and you can access that on the Toughpad.

Web apps…

These can be accessed using Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Dolphin browsers and can be made mobile compatible, or load a page just like a desktop (which looks much better on a 10” screen than a 4” screen).  Your WebEOC, CAD, and ePCR probably all use a browser to deliver you content in the field.  If they don’t, I’ll bet you they already have an Android app or will have one within the next year.

Other apps…

You can use medical and response programs/applications like ePocrates, WISER, QRG, CDC’s Field Triage, iTriage, Relief Central, and various PTSD apps.  Get in on the scanner-world action with ScannerRadio and Tunie-In Radio.  Read barcodes on drugs, shipping labels, and more with Barcode Scanner or RedLaser.  Quickly convert pounds to Kilograms or Fahrenheit to Celcius with ConvertPad, and many thousands more apps that you probably already use on your smartphone.  Want a more detailed list and app descriptions?  Visit this article: What’s On My Android Phone?

How about video conferencing?  Use Skype, Voxer, Tango, or another app.  There’s a built-in front camera.

Maybe, rather than ask, “So what else can I do with the Toughpad?” you might ask, “What job-essential task can’t I do with the Toughpad?”

Is there a downside to the Toughpad?

You bet!  There is no perfect device.  This one is pretty good overall, but the additional features I want to see are: 1.) Quad-Core Processor; 2.) 2GB minimum RAM; 3.) Bluetooth v4.0.  Additionally, Android Police did a brief review of this device and pointed out that it has its own marketplace (ugh, another one?).  But you can add Amazon Appstore and may be able to access Google Play.  You can always sideload apps too (install your own apps using a “.apk” installation file), which I figure most agencies would go with, since their apps may be developed on-contract or in-house.

Closing…

Panasonic Toughpad - Left SideI bet you’ve already figured out for yourself that I’m a fan of the Panasonic Toughbook.  I’ve owned a couple CF-18’s and CF-19’s personally, and used them for years on the ambulance.  I know they are worth every penny invested.  I’ve seen what they hold up against and I’ve tested it with my own gaffes and intentional abuse.  They always came through without a problem (albeit with a little sphinctoral puckering on my part).  The question is, have I convinced you?  I haven’t gotten anything for “selling” this to you.  I don’t work that way.  If Panasonic was so generous as to let me have one to play with or let me give one away to a reader, I’d certainly love it, but it won’t change the way I approach the tests and what the results of the eval are.  I saw this device at CES 2012 back in January and was thoroughly impressed.  Now it comes with the latest version of Android, and it is priced a couple hundred more than I expected, but good grief, it has more features than they touted at the show too.  It wasn’t quite ready for release a few months ago.  It has built-in GPS, unlike any other consumer tablet.  It has the option for GSM or Verizon CDMA 4G service. It has an LED flash/light by the rear camera.  It has the signature magnesium alloy casing and covered ports.  It has vehicle mounts available.  It has a stylus (not all tablets are back on-board with this benefit) to compliment the multi-touch screen.  It’s less than ¾” thick.  It can be a Wi-Fi hotspot.  And you can dock it.  Check below for some links to see the product webpage, its specs, and some videos & brochures.

Do you have a reason to prefer another tablet?  The comment lines are open.  I like all mobile tech.  I try to be platform agnostic (I have a Windows Phone, a Windows 8 tablet, a Kindle Fire, 3 Android phones, an iPhone 4S, and I’ve had a recent Blackberry (RIP).  I’ve worked on (as in disassembled and rebuilt or repaired) and/or hacked on all of these and more.  Don’t keep it to yourself.  Enquiring minds want to know!

Panasonic Toughpad Website and Specs:

http://www.panasonictoughpad.com/

DURABILITY: MIL-STD-810G and IP65 certified

HARDWARE AND SOFTWARE: Android™ 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich); Dual Core processor – 1.2 GHz with embedded hardware security

DISPLAY: 10.1” XGA LED 1024 x 768; Multi touch and digitizer daylight-readable screen

STORAGE AND MEMORY: 1GB DDR2, 16GB Flash

INTERFACE AND EXPANSION: Micro-USB 2.0, microSDHC, HDMI micro

WIRELESS: Integrated 4G (LTE) or 3G mobile broadband (optional); Wi-Fi hotspot router, GPS receiver (satellite-based), Bluetooth®

CAMERAS: 2MP front (webcam); 5MP rear with auto focus and LED light

POWER: Li-Ion battery pack (33.9Wh)

WARRANTY: 3-year limited warranty (parts and labor) with business class support

4 Comments

  1. Price?

    Could an agency buy multiple iPads for the price of a single panasonic toughbook?

    I watch my kids use/abuse my iPad. I am not convinced it is as fragile as you make it out to be.

    Greg

    • Thanks for the reply Greg. I saw a retail price of $1379, so I guess you could buy two WiFi iPad models for that (they’re $499, I think). The 4G modems are another $400 whether for Verizon or AT&T. I’m also assuming you aren’t getting them subsidized, but are buying them outright at full retail pricing with no bulk purchase discount. I’m not sure if the retail at a wireless carrier would equate to making it three to one or not, but the security factor still can’t be ignored. I don’t have an iPad to call my own (I’ve had to mooch a bit), but I have an iPhone. It’s pretty dainty without a case. At least a silicone sleeve-like case is a good idea to take some of the corner impact from a drop and to protect the screen from falling sheerly flat on the ground. Come to think of it, the Kindle Fire is pretty fragile too. I broke the screen on mine with not too much effort. Again, the consumer market was the target, not public safety. In my experience, people tend to treat work computers like they aren’t theirs. :-S Maybe the best thing to do is find agencies that are using the iPad and seeing how they have held up.

      If you compare an iPad to a Toughbook like the CF-19, that’s about $4K to start, so I’d be swaying heavily towards iPads and the easy replacement factor.

  2. Awesome and heartfelt review. I don’t know what to add that wasn’t covered already. I think we can discuss GIS applications in public safety further in a future review though. But for now, I am also a satisfied tablet consumer that got my daughter hooked as a college student. Her only computing devices at school are an Android tablet and her smartphone. She loves the battery life and portability of the tablet – the cost was a nice break for me since the tablet was cheaper than some of her textbooks. Thanks for the thorough overview!

  3. this seems AWESOME! i must start saving 😀

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