Above: the author testing the Panasonic FZ-A3 for piloting a DJI Phantom 4 Drone
There are a lot of things to like about Panasonic’s new 10” Android tablet the FZ-A3. If you are familiar with Panasonic’s Toughbook line of mobile devices you will not be surprised at the specifications of this device. This is a great ruggedized tablet with features that really matter for field users:
- A bright outdoor viewable display – likely the best Android tablet display available as it is bright and has a good anti-reflective coating.
- Dual Hot-swappable batteries – these are very quick to change
- Five user-configurable buttons – well thought out locations and functionality
- Operating temperatures from -20 to 50 °C (-4 to 122 °F)
- Highly rugged features – water and dirt are kept out of ports with secure covers
- A digitizer that will work in the rain or with gloves (best in the rain that I have tested)
- Stylus that is comfortable and precise
- Dual SIM card and Micro SD card slots
I am not going to get into minute detail about the storage capacity, processor, operating system, etc. You will find links at the end of this article to a couple of really good reviews that cover this better than I can. I will cover the features and functionality that are really important to field users.
I have had the opportunity to test a wide range of Android, Apple and Windows mobile devices. In many cases these have been consumer grade devices that have been put to use in very challenging environments. I have been surprised at how well these devices hold up in work environments they really were not designed for. Users that are motivated can come up with solutions that work around the device’s limitations. Some of the creative solutions I have seen include:
- Ziploc® bags for waterproofing – actually works surprisingly well but it can difficult to see the display through the bag.
- Hand warmers to keep the mobile device functioning below freezing
- Wide brimmed hats to create shade so the display is readable in sunlight
- External power supplies to ensure the tablet will get through the entire workday
- Keeping it under your jacket so that it will keep running in cold weather
Cost is usually the primary driver in making the choice to use a consumer grade mobile device. However, if the mobile device is “mission critical” productivity suffers when the device fails to fully meet the needs of the mobile worker. This cost is often not considered when “making do” with a consumer grade device in challenging environments.
I have experienced what happens to productivity when a consumer grade mobile device fails due to heat, cold and low battery. For example, I learned the hard way that an iPad cannot reliably be used to operate a UAV (Drone) during the summer. If I cannot find shade the tablet will overheat when the temperature gets to about 30°C. It is more than a little unnerving when the tablet fails, and the UAV is several hundred meters away! When piloting a UAV I would much rather have the FZ-A3 as it is much more reliable. Also, for UAV pilots the outdoor viewable display is terrific! I really appreciate this as the live video feed is often mission critical.
The five programmable buttons on the tablet are easy to reach when holding the tablet in both portrait and landscape. These buttons can be used for a wide range of actions. There are buttons on the left and right and three along the bottom (along with power and volume buttons). The buttons can be used for more than one action with a long press, short press or in pairs. For example, I setup the left and right buttons to take a screen shot by pressing them at the same time. Some of the other functions include:
- Launch an Application
- Launch a custom program
- Entry of selected character from the keyboard – including Tab, Enter, Space
- Sleep and Wakeup
For some tasks, these buttons could be time savers or more importantly reduce data entry errors.
For use in the rain this tablet is unbeatable. There may be tablets with a digitizer that is as good as the FZ-A3 but I have never found any that function better.
- In Normal and Glove mode the only time the digitizer would activate from water droplets running down screen was when large droplets run from bezel onto screen.
- Pen Mode increased the sensitivity of the digitizer which caused activation as droplets ran down screen.
- Rain mode is brilliant. Despite my best efforts I could not get the unwanted activation of the digitizer from water droplets running down the display. However, the tablet still responds reliably to inputs from my fingers. Panasonic has dialed in “Rain Mode” on the FZ-A3!
Panasonic’s device specifications state that this tablet will operate down to -20 °C. I was able to test it down to -28 °C as I have a freezer that operates at this temperature. I left it turned on with the display off for an hour in the freezer. It was still functioning just fine – even with water droplets frozen on the display. I don’t know what the true operating limit is but I can say with certainty that it is significantly colder than what the specs state!
This tablet can be equipped with a barcode reader, Smart Card reader or a second USB Type-A. Extended life batteries are another option. Personally, I would prefer an extra set of the standard batteries to minimize the weight of the tablet.
As far as 10-inch Android tablets go this one is fairly expensive. The suggested retail price is about $2700 US. I was able to find it for under $2200 US online and I expect that businesses will be able to negotiate even better prices when purchasing in quantity.
I think when you factor in worker productivity and the five- or six-year usable life of the device it’s a bargain. Where this mobile device really pays its way is when worker productivity and data loss prevention is taken into account. There are no worries that productivity will be impacted by device limitations or data losses due to the failure of the device.
I would love to have one for field work!
Brian Saunders, RPF