Handheld Computer Buyers Guide

Looking to buy a handheld computer then this useful buyers guide should help you choose the best one for you computing needs.

Ergonomic design is important. Will the terminal be used for single or dual-handed operation? Is a pistol grip required? How long will the operator be using the device?

Does the mobile computer need to be a pocket size “consumer” PDA or a more substantial device? For many organisations, the loss of information from a damaged or broken consumer PDA would cost more than the increase in price for a ruggedised terminal.

The performance of the mobile computer can vary considerably, so it is important to select a device which has the power and specifications to meet your specific requirements. For example, the right operating system and processor are important factors.

Durability and ruggedness

Do you need a terminal which will be used in harsh environments and capable of withstanding being dropped? Does the mobile computer need to be sealed and IP-rated? Ruggedised hand-held mobile computers are available with IP ratings starting from IP54 (sealed against wind blown rain and dust).

Many mobile computers use a laser barcode scanner which has a moving part. Imager bar-code scanners are ‘solid-state’ with no moving parts; hence they are more durable.

Operating System
Options include Windows® CE and Windows Mobile (Pocket PC). “Windows Mobile" is the brand name Microsoft uses with the operating system and software applications it has developed for handheld computers. These devices are often branded as "Pocket PC". Microsoft's Windows Mobile contains a suite of productivity and multimedia applications built-in and ready to
use, such as Pocket Word, Pocket Excel.

Rugged mobile computers and PDAs often run a Windows Mobile operating system. Windows Mobile also enables the rugged mobile computer or rugged PDA to send data over a WWAN (e.g. GPRS) network or as a phone. Bluetooth headsets can easily be connected to the devices.

A Windows CE.NET operating system is also available on many rugged mobile computers. CE.NET often appears on devices with different screen sizes (such as the Gotive H4x product family). Windows CE.NET shares many of the Windows Mobile features but does not include the Pocket applications.

Most hand-held computers do not have the processing power of a PC, but they are becoming more powerful. Mobilecomputers with high speed processors are now available. Your required application functionality will help determine whether you need a mobile computer with a powerful processor.

Memory Size
Memory requirements can vary from one application to the next. Entry level mobile computers generally start with 32MB RAM and 32MB ROM and can be expanded to giga-byte levels.

Barcode Scanner
Is an integrated barcode scanner needed? If so, what specification is required? For example, if your process uses 2D matrix barcodes, then an imaging scanner may be ideal.

Global Positioning System (GPS)
A number of rugged mobile computers and rugged PDA devices now include an integrated GPS receiver. This can be used with satellite navigation software (such as iDrive or TomTom) or for tracking purposes (when used with a WWAN (e.g. GPRS) network).

Colour Camera
A colour camera now features in many rugged mobile computers and rugged PDAs. Some can take high resolution images and have a flash light to take pictures at night. Colour cameras can add value to many applications by providing additional information relating to an event. For example, in a proof of delivery application the camera can be used to take a picture of the damaged box, or a picture of a vehicle in a vehicle inspection application, or useful data when used in a quality control application.

Keyboard Size and Type

The selection of keyboard size and type will depend on the application. Ensure that the operator can input data accurately. For example, will the operator be using gloves? If most of the keyboard entry data is numeric, there are numeric keyboards available which will reduces data input times. There are also alpha/numeric keyboards for mixed data input.

LCD Display
This should be large enough to give meaningful prompts to the operator. There should be adequate room for data which needs to be validated. It may need to be back-lit for poor lighting conditions. Will PDF documents need to be read?

Should the screen be pen-stylus or touch-screen? Pen stylus allows you to hand-write characters on the screen. Alternatively, touch-screen entry may be required. Consider whether signature capture is necessary or useful.

Battery life and power management
How long does the battery need to last in the application? Battery life can vary from one product to the next. Li-on batteries are now standard in mobile computers and have increased battery life. In general batteries should be replaced every 18 months,
although regular re-conditioning of batteries is recommended during the life-time of the battery.

Peripherals Required
What peripherals do you need? For example, holsters are available to hold the mobile computer securely, when not in use. Is mobile printing, magnetic strip or smartcard reading required?

Mounting Options
Most mobile computers have a range of mounting options, which can charge the device as well as securely holding it.

Open systems environment
This is needed for flexibility and the ability to change or build your application – without compatibility concerns. You should always select hardware which can freely communicate with most host systems and which can interface with wireless network providers. This should be at both the application level and at the business level. Avoid being locked into proprietary software.

Batch data communications
How will you transfer the data from the mobile computer to another system? Batch data communication means that the data is transferred through a direct connect method using an RS232 serial link or USB connection.

An alternative is to use a modem connected to a telephone line. This can be useful for remote sites – where a computer network is limited. For those sites that do have a network, many mobile computers now have Ethernet cradle options. This allows batch data to be immediately transferred over the network, without the need for a PC in between the mobile computer and the network.

Radio Frequency data communication
Do you need data transfer to be instantaneous and seamless? RF networks now operate at 11MB/sec and faster networks are now also available. RF communication also minimizes the likelihood of data being lost. Security is a significant factor and it is essential that you consider this for your RF network.

Operating environment
Do you need the device to work in hazardous environments or cold stores (i.e. at temperatures down to -20˘c)?


What software is required? Is it possible to buy basic packages for standard applications? Is customisation or a bespoke application required?

This may be required to interface the application with the company’s enterprise system.

What maintenance is required? If a mobile computer fails, how soon must it be back in action again? Is same-day Replacement needed, to avoid downtime?

Which handheld computers are recommended?

Mobile Compia M3
The M3+ is a rugged IP64-rated PDA style mobile computer. Over 30,000 M3s have been deployed and are in use by customers across the world.
The PDA is now available in three versions:
  • MC-6500S - Microsoft® Windows® CE
  • MC-7500 - Windows® Mobile (WM5)
  • MC-7700 - Windows® Mobile (WM5) Imager
Typical applications include, field service, utilities, logistics, postal and education. The M3+ has the following features:
  • Small and lightweight
Advanced data capture options:
  • Barcode scanning
  • Colour camera (2 mega pixel)
  • 2D area imaging
  • Flexible voice and data communication
  • e/GPRS, GSM, Bluetooth 2.1, 802.11b/g
  • Mini SD slot for additional data storage
  • High-Speed CPU Intel’s X-scale PXA-270 at 520/624MHz delivers high-speed CPU performance for robust enterprise applications, including multimedia.
GPS option:
  • Up to 10 metre range
  • Integrated or in the vehicle cradle
  • Download presentation on GPS software: Sygic DRIVE for the M3.
* Windows CE.Net 5.0 or Windows Mobile 5 Operating System

Where can you buy Handheld Computers from?
Spirit Data Capture, Good Gear Guide and Smart Devices Direct are just a few companies that stock handheld computer gadgets.