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HANDS ON: XPLORE TECHNOLOGIES XSLATE R12

Jul 4 • Features, Hardware • 2049 Views • No Comments on HANDS ON: XPLORE TECHNOLOGIES XSLATE R12

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We return to our ever popular hardware review series as Kris Oldland runs the rule over the newly beefed-up XSLATE R12 from Xplore Technologies

What the manufacturers say…

Think you need a desktop, laptop, and rugged tablet to excel at the tasks you complete in the office, in-vehicle, and in the field? You don’t…anymore. You just need the highly mobile, extremely flexible and always resilient Xplore XSLATE® R12 tablet PC.

The transformational 2 in 1 device gives you all the high performance capabilities and complete computing functions you need in a single platform.

You’ll have the right connectivity and ergonomics for a quick transition from the field to a full desktop computing experience – and the most conveniently stored Companion Keyboard on the market. It’s fast to deploy when you want a notebook, and even easier to store when you don’t. This makes the XSLATE R12 rugged tablet much more evolved than traditional detachable tablets, improving upon its own award-winning R12-series predecessor.

First impressions…

OK I’ll open with full and honest disclosure.

When Xplore acquired Motion and took on their product range some time ago now, the device I was most keen to see harness the benefit of two expert teams of rugged R&D specialists was the R12. It was always my favourite of the old Motion line up, looking as close at the time as a consumer unit a rugged device could get and packing a decent punch in terms of power.

Similarly, I’d always liked the aesthetics of the Xplore range, and their heritage as an ultra-rugged manufacturer meant that their devices were as tough as you could get. ‘When the Xplore team start chipping in with the next gen R12 it’ll be a pretty impressive machine’ was one of my first thoughts when I heard about the acquisition.

So needless to say when the demo unit arrived here at Field Service News Towers expectations were high.

Would the new XSLATE R12 live up to those admittedly high expectations, or would it be a missed trick?

Would the new XSLATE R12 live up to those admittedly high expectations, or would it be a missed trick?

In terms of first impressions it is in fact exactly what I envisioned it to be.

The heritage of the original Motion R12 is still there, it’s a sleek looking tablet by any standards, yet it now undeniably looks like an Xplore tablet at the same time. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but it is instantly recognisable as such even from the front where there are no obvious logos or markings.

Xplore’s claims for this tablet is that it is a ‘transformational 2-1 device’ and i’m not 100% sure if that is accurate (more on that later) but what they are referring to here is the fact that the tablet has a rather lovely optional attachment to the back that not only acts as a kick stand but also houses and charges a decent size (about 4/5 the size of standard) bluetooth keyboard which even has a track pad within it.

Of course a tablet on a kickstand, using a keyboard and trackpad doesn’t mean this is still necessarily going to deliver a laptop experience – as anyone who has used either an Android tablet or iPad in such as way will attest, there is more to using a laptop than setup – namely the ability to run ‘proper’ applications – which of course all depends on the processors.

One of the key points raised in the XSLATE R12’s marketing blurb is that the device comes in a number of flavours in terms of processors.

The Microsoft Surface was arguably the first device that could genuinely claim to have finally cracked the ‘tablet that could replace a laptop’ category, although the Panasonic ToughBook20 (another device i’m a fan of) does things the other way around (i.e. a laptop with a screen that can be detached and act as a tablet) but essentially offers a different take on the same concept in a fully rugged form factor.

So perhaps the first question we need to ask is how does the XSLATE R12 stack up when it comes to CPU?

Processing power

In fact it does pretty darn well.

One of the key points raised in the XSLATE R12’s marketing blurb is that the device comes in a number of flavours in terms of processors.

In fact there are four options:

  • Intel® Core™ i7 vPro™ 7600U up to 3.9 GHz, 4 MB SmartCache
  • Intel® Core™ i7-7500U up to 3.5 GHz, 4 MB SmartCache
  • Intel® Core™ i5-6200U up to 2.8 GHz, 3MB SmartCache
  • Intel® Celeron® 3865U 1.8 GHz, 2MB SmartCache

At the top end with the i7 vPro configuration, the XSLATE R12 even sits well alongside the top end of consumer devices including the Microsoft Surface 4.

Now, if we are to compare this to the Panasonic ToughBook20 – which is perhaps the easiest device for comparison, the Celeron configuration is less powerful, the Core i5 is pretty much on a par (albeit with a smaller cache) but the two Core i7 configurations are both superior in terms of processing power.

Indeed, at the top end with the i7 vPro configuration, the XSLATE R12 even sits well alongside the top end of consumer devices including the Microsoft Surface 4. From a hands on perspective I used the XSLATE R12 for a number of my day to day tasks many of which require fairly demanding applications such as video, audio and image editing and the tablet accounted for itself well, with no issues and similar response levels as the MacBook Pro I generally use when I’m on the road.

Operating system

The XSLATE R12 is available primarily on Windows 10 64 bit which is to be expected given the fact that Microsoft put out an end of life announcement for Windows 7, 8 and 8.1 in the last quarter of 2016.

The good news is that whilst they may have taken their time to get there and made a few mistakes along the way, almost all of Windows 8 for example felt rushed and ill thought out (hence the quick reworking that became Windows 8.1), Windows 10 is a genuinely intuitive and powerful OS.

Of course, being on a Window’s system in the field may be helpful for the many, many organisations that are using such systems in the office as well in terms of mobile device management and cyber-security etc. Also for those who have yet to migrate to Windows 10 the XSLATE R12 does come with downgrade options to either Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 which will be available until October this year.

The Ins & Outs

Data input options: Bluetooth Keyboard

Let’s start off with the area that Xplore themselves have highlighted as a key USP for the XSLATE R12, namely the way they have approached the 2-in-1 category. My initial thoughts on this, as alluded to above, is that just adding a kickstand and a bluetooth keyboard doesn’t necessarily mean that we are getting a true laptop experience.

The keyboard itself connected through the bluetooth easily, quickly and with no issues at all and was of a decent enough size to be more than comfortable for typing anything of length

However, perhaps the biggest obstacle for a tablet to replace a laptop is the processing power and as we have seen above the processing power of the XSLATE R12 is certainly in the laptop replacing category. In the terms of being considered a 2-in-1, the approach taken by Xplore (i.e. integrating a kickstand that can also act as a holder and charger for the bluetooth keyboard) is a innovative and slick approach to the form factor.

The keyboard itself connected through the bluetooth easily, quickly and with no issues at all and was of a decent enough size to be more than comfortable for typing anything of length and the trackpad was also equally responsive and a useful inclusion. Indeed the experience of using the XSLATE R12 with the keyboard is very much that of using a laptop, also from my experience using the device, the lack of the physical connection between the screen and the keyboard actually lends itself to more flexible, and thus more comfortable use.

Finally, it should be highlighted that the entire kickstand mechanism including the keyboard is able to be detached very easily (it is attached magnetically) at which point the XSLATE R12 becomes a powerful tablet. It is certainly a heavy duty device weighing in at fairly hefty 2.9 lbs. To put that into context that is almost twice as heavy as the 12.9 inch iPad Pro – a good comparable device in terms of screen size. However, perhaps a more even comparison would be with the Dell Latitude Rugged 12 as consumer devices are of course lighter than their rugged counterparts and in this instance the XSLATE R12 is indeed around 20% lighter of the two.

Date input options: Pen input: 

As you would expect of a professional grade 2-in-1 device the XSLATE R12 comes with a pen stylus for written input. The tablet has a neat built-in holder for the pen, which would be very familiar to anyone who has ever used a Samsung Galaxy Note tablet or smart phone, and the stylus itself has a similar level of variance in stroke pressure to that of a Wacom stylus and comes with a standard, but still highly useful, button that can be set up for a number of uses (personally I find it useful as a right mouse click replacement.)

Data input options: Cameras

The camera options for the XSLATE R12 are sufficient if not groundbreaking.

There are two cameras on the device a front facing camera which has become an absolute necessity for field service work as the concept of remote assistance via video calls becomes a very standard approach amongst field service organisations. Given the primary function of this front camera the 2.0 Megapixel spec is more than sufficient – anything more than that would just get wasted in compression codecs used for video streaming – particularly over 3G internet signals.

On the rear of the tablet there is an 8 Megapixel camera which also has a LED flash.

Whilst of course this is adequate for most of the tasks required of it – which are for documentation purposes rather than taking award winning landscapes, in dark corners (where field assets can often reside) capturing clear photographs was slightly less straightforward.

However, this is a minor gripe, and for the most part the rear camera fared well in our test scenarios.

Data input: additional options

The tablet is also capable of including additional data input options which come in the form of Xplore’s proprietary add-on system called slate mate.

Additional options for the XSLATE R12 include a 13.56 MHz HF RFID with reader with write capability and a Barcode reader that works with both 1D and 2D barcodes. Both of these inclusions are optional extras.

I/Os:

In terms of it’s inputs the XSLATE R12 is not particularly rich in options that come as standard. There is only 1 USB port (which is USB 3.0) although there is a HDMI port. I flagged this up as a benefit when reviewing the XSLATE R12’s sister device the XSLATE B10 as it is certainly something useful for those working in telco/pay TV sector – which I understand is where the original request for inclusion of HDMI in came from.

However, the XSLATE B10 comes with an extra USB port making it less of a trade off.

For the R12, especially given that it seems to be aiming for a wider market – trying to step into not just field workers but the wider arena of enterprise mobility perhaps, then I felt that perhaps this bit of real estate on the tablet could have been better served as a second USB.

Realistically, given the fact that the keyboard is bluetooth and the screen is touch sensitive, then the requirements for a second USB port in the field may be fairly limited

The team at Xplore I am sure would argue that the XSLATE R12’s docking station is designed to overcome exactly this issue offering not only an additional four USB ports but a whole plethora of other I/Os (including another HDMI port plus also an ethernet port and a serial port both of which are only available on the tablet itself as additional upgrades which incorporate a slightly clumsy sounding dongle based solution.

Indeed, on reflection I guess they would have a point.

Realistically, given the fact that the keyboard is bluetooth and the screen is touch sensitive, then the requirements for a second USB port in the field may be fairly limited, and the docking station really does open the R12 up into desktop level experiences and for many organisations could be a hugely beneficial addition. However, if i’m being hyper critical I still think if given the choice between an additional USB port or a HDMI port many field workers would opt for the former. Perhaps a choice between the two could be integrated into future iterations of the device?

In terms of connectivity, the XSLATE has space for a SIM card to provide mobile internet coverage, and comes with three internal options for configuration of LTE networks depending on region and requirements – which is of course an essential inclusion for field workers. This is acts as a compliment to the Intel® Dual Band Wireless-AC 8260 Wi-Fi which picked up good speeds on our wireless network.

For storage there is a MicroSD slot to expand the XSLATE R12’s internal capacity which ranges from 64GB up to 512GB.

Finally, the XSLATE R12 has a standard 3mm audio jack plus 2 integrated speakers and 3 microphones (2 front facing and one rear facing). The XSLATE R12 also features RealTek noise reduction which worked very well when we made a test call from outdoors in what was a very windy environment.

Battery Life:

It is slowly become a bit of a moot point in the world of industry level devices at least to discuss battery life and for the XSLATE R12 that is almost certainly the case. Essentially, the device is capable of running forever via hot swappable batteries – which can be purchased as additional accessories.

Even for those who don’t have a second battery the stated life time of the device is over 9 hours. However, it should be mentioned that we found this to be slightly lower (closer to 6 or 7) and looking at the fine print Xplore do state that 9+ hours is based upon the Core i5 configuration.

However, we also found that in our tests batteries were charging close to full within a little over 2 hours – which again is pretty much in line with Xplore’s stated claim of 2.5 hours.

Ruggedity:

I mentioned earlier in the review that the XSLATE R12 seems to be aimed at a slightly different market to where Xplore have played in traditionally. Indeed, I recall Mark Holleran, COO of Xplore telling me that he saw the Motion range more in the semi-rugged space compared to the original Xplore tablets and when the XSLATE R12 was launched John Graff, VP of marketing at Xplore was quoted as saying “No one sits still anymore at work”.

The device is certainly robust – the fact that it is tested to MIL-STD-810G standards means it is capable of taking more than it’s fair share of knocks and drops

Which is very much true, but is this an indication that the XSLATE R12 is not being targeted only at field workers, but at the wider (and much bigger) market of mobile workers, i.e. those who are essentially based primarily in an office but work on the road as much as they do at HQ?

Maybe I am reading between the lines here but the rugged specs for the XSLATE R12 would appear to back up this assumption.

Whilst the device is certainly robust – the fact that it is tested to MIL-STD-810G standards means it is capable of taking more than it’s fair share of knocks and drops, it’s relatively low IP rating of IP54 means that this is not a device particularly suited to the outdoor life.

For reference a rating of IP54 means that the device is neither protected against dust ingress nor anything more than splash proof. In a world where many top-end consumer smartphones are now rated IP67 or even as is the case with Samsung’s last three flagship devices IP68 (meaning completely closed off to dust ingress and submergible in water for up to 30 minutes) it is a surprise that the XSLATE R12 scores so lowly in this regard.

Yet, whilst the XSLATE wouldn’t be too happy getting dropped in a muddy puddle, on the flip side it’s screen brightness rating of 800 NITS means you would be able to see the screen clearly even in bright sun if you did take it outside – so just be careful where you put it down.

Finally, the XSLATE R12 is also C1D2 certified for hazardous locations, an important inclusion for those working in such environments.

Conclusion:

There is so much good to write about the XSLATE R12. It is comfortable as both a laptop and a tablet which makes it a good option for those companies whose engineers are currently still using multiple devices.

It has plenty of power for more CPU intensive tasks such as CAD based design work and for a rugged 12inch tablet it is a sleek looking and not to cumbersome to carry around, and as mentioned it is certainly capable of surviving a fair few knocks and drops.

However, there is a certain element of Jeckyl and Hyde in the XSLATE R12 that I just can’t get my head around.

It’s low IP rating certainly surprised me when I looked through the specs and based on it’s rating of IP54 I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to an organisation whose engineers work outdoors on anything near even a semi-regular basis. In the world today our field engineer’s mobility tools are critical to his role, and no matter how good those tools are, they are useless if they are broken.

I’m sure that the team at Xplore would quite rightly point out the fact that they offer other tablets which are “fully rugged” as they term it – such as the XSLATE B10 which is IP67 rated for field technicians working in such environments, but what confuses me is that the XSLATE B10 has a significantly lower (although admittedly perfectly acceptable) screen brightness compared to the XSLATE R12 – so in very bright sunlight the XSLATE R12 would be easier to view than it’s more rugged cousin the XSLATE B10.

But as mentioned the XSLATE R12 isn’t really suited to outdoor environments where it could get dusty or wet – so why bother giving it a NIT rating of 800 in the first place? It is this kind of lack of connection in reasoning that makes me think that even the R&D team at Xplore may not truly know exactly which vertical this device is aimed at.

The XSLATE R12 is undoubtedly a very, very good device and if your field service company is one of the many whose engineers are currently using both a tablet and a laptop then this could certainly be a device worth exploring.

However, this doesn’t mean that the XSLATE R12 is not an excellent tablet and could be a perfect tool for some field technicians. The inclusion of HDMI as mentioned does make it an excellent choice for field service technicians working in the installation and maintenance of PayTV systems for example and of course such indoor environments would mean less exposure to wet or dusty environments – so for telcos the XSLATE R12 could be a great choice.

Indeed, with the application of this same logic the XSLATE R12 would be a good fit any sector whose field workers were largely based either within homes or offices.

Although, again when we look at these sectors we need to ask whether consumer devices within rugged casing may be suitable alternatives and similarly whether simpler tablets can be deployed in cases where the impressive processing power of the XSLATE R12 is simply going to waste?

The XSLATE R12 is undoubtedly a very, very good device and if your field service company is one of the many whose engineers are currently using both a tablet and a laptop then this could certainly be a device worth exploring. In this regard it certainly could potentially find a much bigger home outside of field service in the hands of the general mobile worker.

However, if your field service engineers do work in more challenging environments than homes and offices then regardless of the XSLATE R12’s many impressive facets, you are probably best looking at alternatives such as the XSLATE B10 or the Panasonic Toughbook20.

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