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Buying a handheld mobile computer

Like any technology, handheld mobile computers come in all shapes and sizes, designed for a variety of applications and working environments.  The points found below are a guide to many of the issues you should consider before investing in mobile computing hardware.

Mobile Computer Performance

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 should be 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 DOS, Windows® CE, Pocket PC, .NET, and Palm OS.  Pocket PC and CE are becoming more widely available. Applications written for one of these operating systems can be executed on different mobile computers, running Pocket PC or Windows CE device.


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.


Most hand-held computers do not have the processing power of a PC, but they are becoming more


powerful. Mobile computers with 400 MHz processors are now widely 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 1-2 MB memory. Those in the higher range usually start with 32 MB.

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.

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 common in mobile computers and have increased battery life. In general, batteries should be replaced every 18 months, although regular reconditioning of batteries is recommended during the lifetime 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 smart card reading required?

Mounting Options

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

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 backlit 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.

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 are there numeric keyboards available, which will reduce data input times. There are also alpha / numeric keyboards for mixed data input.

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 normally 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 very 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? Most RF networks now operate at 11 MB/sec and faster networks are becoming available all the time.  RF communication also minimises 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 -20C)?


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?

Credits and Acknowledgements:

Spirit Data Capture Ltd


Mobile Data Devices

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