Friday, March 7, 2008

Gear- Itronix Ruggedized Stylus Touchpad

After several discussions, the General Dynamics Itronix team have generously offered to loan us a Duo-Touch II with a 16 Gig solid state hard drive! This is about as rugged a Personal Computer as you can find.. if you had the Mac Air at one end of the PC spectrum, this would be at the polar opposite. Their latest model, the Duo-Touch II is coming loaded with a Dynaview Display (will give us regular screen viewing, even when outside on a sunny day), Windows XP (running XP OS works better than Linux when interfacing with BGAN satellite systems), Wireless Internet capabilities, and even a GPS module for on-the-ground tracking as we trek along and begin our climb. There is an attachable keypad that you can plug in if you don't want to use the touch pad keyboard and like just about every other laptop out there has your standard USB, card slots and potential to attach on a DVD player, etc. Recommended operating temperatures are 04 to 140 degree Fahrenheit. Expectations are 26,000' should be attained easily for this 4 pound system... basically the fully loaded model with leather seats and spinner rims.

Iraq Connection

For Iraq deployment #2, I brought along a Duo-Touch, which was my first experience with this PC. At the time, I had worked out an arrangement to test a Speech-to-Speech technology software tool for IBM and the Duo-Touch is the laptop that it came loaded on. The speech-to-speech technology- known as MASTOR (Multilingual Automated Speech-to-Speech Translator) was and is a quantum leap forward in the ability for people to speak colloquially thanks to a super-technical algorithm developed by IBM Research. In a nutshell, I speak into a microphone in English and after a two second delay MASTOR communicates in Iraqi, complete with proper verb placement, conjugation and with dialect understanding. "What's in your car trunk?" -pause- "Durka durka durka". Then an Iraqi speaks back into the microphone in Iraqi, and after another two second pause out comes English "Durka durka... durka?" -pause- "Six lobster tails I stole from your chow hall.. why?"

The Duo-Touch went far and wide. It was out on convoy, it was in the searing hot sun. It went out with other Marines from Civil Affairs, to Counter Intel specialists, to Spec Ops. Through all of this, the Duo-Touch was treated as any well-loved piece of Marine gear is. It was dropped, banged around, covered in three inches of sand and dust. Give a Marine a piece of new gear and it better be sturdy because typically the first thing a Marine will try to do is figure out a way to break it. The thing was amazing and performed admirably. I watched other ruggedized laptops like the Panasonic Toughbook fail, IBM Thinkpads lose keys, and Dells fizzle out while the Duo-Touch kept on going like an Energizer Bunny.

Latest and Greatest

When I joined our Everest team, I didn't even think for a second about which laptop I was bringing along for the ride and now get to use in an entirely new set of extremes. Unlike 120 degree heat and sand, the Duo-Touch II will be exposed to -40 and snow. Obviously I don't know for sure, but from everything I have seen it will perform just as well. If the stars come into line, I'll be taking the laptop straight up the Lhotse Face and sending blog entries the entire way.
Solid state essentially means that it's loaded with Flash memory, which has no moving parts and as a result is therefore not susceptible to the challenges of regular hard drives at altitudes above 10,000'. Here's the deal on that: in order for an ordinary hard drive to function, a spinning disc rotates around like a mini- record. A reader hovers within millimeters of the disc, passing an electrical charge through the disc in order to "read" information. Above 10,000', all sorts of physics come into play that render most hard drives inert. Oxygen molecules that allow the disc to spin in orderly fashion, allow the reader to function, and keep a barrier of air in between the reader and disc just plain aren't there in the same levels as found at sea level. If the reader and disc touch thanks to wobbles or lack of air barrier, the disc can become scratched- and valuable information vanishes. After that happens enough times the disc is rendered inoperable which is bad. Very, very bad.

Older, more clunky laptops with larger spaces between readers and discs seem to work a little better at altitude, but still can't get much further than Base Camp. Newer, sexier and smaller laptops typically die well before Base Camp. As a result, iPods Shuffles & Nanos are ok, older iPods (the boxy white kind) are marginally better and sexier, newer versions you might as well throw in a storage locker in Kathmandu.

Same goes for laptops- this solid state laptop will work and go higher and higher with me, regular ones will likely be crapping out well below Base Camp as we trek in from Lukla. So based on all this and after conversations today, it was decided that the Duo-Touch II will be the team laptop, going up as high as the South Col in order to send team updates via a BGAN terminal. We will be linking the Duo-Touch II with our BGAN terminal for data uploads back home at $140 for 20 MB of data transfer.

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