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Monday, 30 April 2007

The Intermec CN3 Computer

Written by Nick Atlas
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So you’re going to be away from home for a month or two on that epic trip you’ve always wanted to take. You’re going to be crawling through jungles, climbing mountains, navigating cities in unfamiliar countries, and generally being away from the things you usually take for granted. Still, you may want to be able to make a call when you’ve got cell phone signal. You might want to navigate via GPS. It’s possible that you’ll want to have a handy translator in your pocket. You might even want to drop an email to friends back home or find some information on the web. Even with all of those possible wants, the prospect of lugging a delicate, bulky, and awkward laptop around with you for a month probably doesn’t appeal. Enter the CN3 Handheld Computer from Intermec. It’s a premium pocket PC running Windows Mobile 5.0, a GSM or CDMA phone, a GPS unit with navigation software, and all around handy device. The beauty of such a device as opposed to a laptop is that it takes less power; it could easily be recharged using a solar cells setup or external battery in the field if no plug is available. Best of all, unlike the consumer grade convergence products, this one is ruggedized to military specifications and designed to take tremendous punishment: soak it in water, expose it to extremes of temperature or continuous vibration, and it still functions.

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Recently I had the privilege of trying one of these devices out and talking with Jeff Sibio, the director of Transportation & Logistics at Intermec. I asked a lot of questions of Jeff and put the unit they loaned me through some pretty hard testing. The amount of functionality that’s packed in to this device is staggering so I’m going to go over it one set at a time.

Physical Characteristics

While smaller than a laptop or even a micro-PC, this is not a small device. Weighing in at 14 ounces and with dimensions of 6.3x3.2x1.3 inches, it’s rather a handful. The weight of it actually makes it feel more solid rather than needlessly bulky and the build quality is excellent. Twisting the body of the device produces no creaking or movement of any kind. The screen is a nice size and is both quite bright and extremely crisp given the resolution of 320x240. The nicely-sized keyboard lights up just bright enough to see in any lighting conditions and lights the keys entirely rather than trying to just light up the letters.

The wrist strap on the back is great for holding onto the thing in distracting situations (climbing, jumping, etc.) and the tethered stylus fits firmly into the body of the device. The overall impression is of no-nonsense functionality. This is a device that is made to survive.

 


 

As a Pocket PC

The CN3 is a relatively cutting edge Pocket PC. Powered by a 520 MHz processor with 128MB of RAM, it has a good amount of speed. It runs Windows Mobile 5, the latest of the Windows Mobile operating systems. It comes packaged with a number of standard applications including Pocket Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, a calculator, a solid personal information manager, a voice and text notes program, a picture viewer, and even a couple of simple games. These are nice for journal writing, entertainment, or just keeping track of things, but what makes this system really shine is its expandability. There are thousands of different software programs available for WM5 including translation, currency conversion, e-book reading, and reference. One of my personal favourites is the mobile version of Wikipedia that allows you to load up the entire database as a mobile reference. When out of familiar territory, it’s always good to have a little extra information available.

The CN3 proved to have really excellent performance, coming in with benchmarks that place it well into the high end of the Pocket PC arena. This is good because many of the newer applications, especially those that involve navigation or similar tasks, require a fair amount of horsepower to make them function well.

One of the nicest things about working with the CN3 as a pocket PC was the range of connectivity options available. I could connect either by cell network for a fairly slow but long range connection, or I could very easily connect to any open Wi-Fi network that happened to be in range. This made looking things up online a relative breeze.

As a Phone

The CN3 does work as a GSM or CDMA phone depending on which option is purchased. In this case, the unit I had was a GSM model. While adequate, there were some problems with the CN3 as a cell phone. First off, the reception was only so-so. In places where my normal phone might have seen 4-5 bars of signal, the CN3 only got about 2. Another issue was the internal speaker. First, in order to use it, your ear has to be placed in just the right spot on the case. I found myself missing that spot frequently. Also, that speaker had fairly incredible volume. After my first few contacts complained of a terribly echo-effect through the phone, I realized that the volume on the earpiece was so high that it was feeding back through the microphone to create an echo. On the other hand, it was very nice for hearing my callers in loud environments. I should also mention that the speakerphone is the best I’ve found so far. It is very loud and quite clear.

Suffice to say that, as cell phones go, the CN3 is fairly mediocre. Still, it does the job reliably and never failed to find me some signal anywhere where I would normally have had coverage.

 


 

As a GPS

The GPS functionality of this unit was quite nice. When I first started the CN3, the GPS software automatically installed itself from the provided memory card that sits deep under the battery, behind a screwed on plate of hard plastic. Once installed, the internal GPS was quickly detected and set up. Satellite signal in the open was generally obtained within a minute or two of starting the software and accuracy seemed generally good. The included basic version of Copilot was a solid navigation solution that was effective at getting me around, and included voice directions as well as visual cues. The provided license offered an upgrade option, and seemed to have no expiration date.

Other functions

One of the more interesting things about the CN3 is the bar code scanner on top of the unit. This may seem to be entirely useless to the average traveller. Not so. In fact, the bright red light proved to be an excellent emergency flashlight bright enough to move or even read by if necessary.

Down sides

One of the biggest issues I had with the CN3 was the battery life. The unit I had came with the standard 2200 milliamp/hour battery. With all of the various connectivity options, the bright screen, and the powerful processor, I had trouble getting through a day of normal use. For the CN3 I think the extended battery is a must.

Another weak point was the lack of a single directional control, something that is generally standard on most of the convergence devices out now. Such things are very useful for navigation on the screen.

The memory card was physically hard to access. In order to get to it, I had to take out the battery, and unscrew a plastic plate. While this may be necessary for durability reasons, if you need more than a couple of gigs of storage, this might become a problem.

The Good Part

As you can see, the CN3 was designed more for the business market than for the consumer. As such, it has several different design priorities. It’s less designed for elegance and more designed for indestructibility and raw functionality. In order to make it as tough as it is, it had to be a bit bigger and sparser than most other combo devices. And it is tough. It was mentioned that it could work under extremely damp conditions. I turned it on and put it in the sink for 15 minutes. Here’s what I got:

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According to Intermec’s Jeff Sibio, the testing they do on these is quite rigorous. They are made to be dropped 24 times on every side and corner from 4 feet in the air onto an unyielding surface. I mentioned concrete and he told me that concrete was not “unyielding enough” to meet their standards. They put a thick steel plate over the concrete to be sure.

To test this out, and see what the unit would take, I dropped it off of my front porch onto concrete. It’s about a 10 foot drop. I figured three times would be enough. I dropped it once and it bounced. It still worked, so I did it again. It still worked. After the third time, it finally stopped working.

It seems that despite some of its shortcomings in elegance and design, the CN3 is a survivor, first and foremost. No other device on the market would have survived half of what I did to this thing. The first splash of water or single fall is enough to kill the normal cell phone or PDA.

Conclusion

A device with mixed merits, this is a great phone/GPS/Pocket PC for taking into rough conditions. If you’re thinking about buying a laptop for a difficult trip, this might be an alternative that’ll take less to recharge and last through more abuse. The tough part is the price. I hope you’re sitting down. The MSRP for the base model CN3 is $2395.00.

The CN3 comes with a variety of options. A number pad instead of the QWERTY keyboard that my demo unit had is available, as is an internal camera, magnetic strip reader, bar code imager, and CDMA.

The CN3 is available through Intermec or authorized resellers. For information on how to buy, go to http://www.intermec.com/about_us/how_to_buy/index.aspx .

© Nick Atlas

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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