Choosing hardware is generally constrained by what your software application provider supports, but unless your business requirements are very unique you should be able to find a solution that supports the primary operating systems (OS) in use today (Android, IOS, and Windows Mobile)
Beyond compatibility with your software solution, there are a number of criteria to consider when deciding which hardware equipment best suits your needs in the field:
If you need to scan barcodes, it is important to determine how frequently you will be doing that. If you are scanning only one or two barcodes per customer per stop, perhaps the camera on your device is adequate as there are barcode reading software applications available that can be used with a camera. Typically camera barcode scanning technology reads all the barcodes you might find, including 2D. The drawback to this is the depth of field (how close and far you can read the barcode) is very limited. Since it will read whatever barcode is displayed in the window, if more than one barcode is in view, it can be difficult to ensure you are reading the barcode you desire.
If camera scanning is not adequate for your application, you might choose a device that has a built-in scanner (typically in addition to a camera). On these types of scanners, you have choices you can make based on your needs. Laser or linear barcode scanners only read one-dimensional barcodes, as you might typically see on a shipping container or a retail product. While the barcodes you can read are limited to 1D, the laser or linear barcode scanner is ideal in cases where there is more than one barcode near each other and you want to make sure you scan the one you intend the first time. In addition, they tend to have a greater depth of field (how close and how far you can read the barcode) than a camera would.
The other popular option is image scanning. Image scanning can read both 1D and 2D barcodes from any orientation and has a better depth of field than a camera. With the exception of cases where you have multiple barcodes in close proximity, it is typically the choice for most scanning intensive applications.
On both the Laser and the Imager, there are scan engines that can read large barcodes at very long distances, such as a barcode on a dock door or truck label that might need to be read from 25 feet or more.
Laser and Image scanners are also designed to send the data to the terminal as if it were keyed in. This means that even if the software you chose did not support barcode scanning you can still use these types of scanners with it. As an example, if you had a part number field that your software provider expected you to key data into, a laser or imager could scan the barcode and enter it’s data directly into the field automatically. The scanner could also be set up to add a postamble to cause it to exit the field and go to the next.
If you wish to use something beyond a camera and the device you have does not have a built-in scanner, you still have options. For example, Apple products don’t have a built-in scanner, but there are a number of companies that make “sleds” that not only add a true scanner but also protects the terminal from breakage when dropped. Typically you can also get these “sleds” with mag swipe readers if you want to read credit or debit cards or other security cards. (Note: additional application software and services are typically required to process credit and debit cards.)
There are also Bluetooth scanners that can add barcode scanning functionality to a device. Most devices nowadays come with Bluetooth but there are different versions, so before going this route, test the Bluetooth scanner you are considering with the terminal/smartphone or tablet you are considering.
How harsh is your environment?
If you have a harsh environment, you should lean toward industrial grade terminals, as consumer-grade devices are not likely to provide you with the performance you need. If you decide on the need for a built-in scanner, the choice is already made for you, as most, if not all, devices with an integrated scanner are industrial grade.
Some of the key features that make up an industrial grade product include:
- Drop specification of 4 feet or more
- Outdoor viewable screen
- IP rating of 54 or higher (means it is sealed against various levels of moisture)
- Able to operate in sub-freezing to temperatures over 100 degrees.
- Generally offered with long-term comprehensive service plans to safeguard your investment
Other Features and Choices
Most devices designed for use in the field have a cellular radio, WIFI, and Bluetooth. Regardless of what your application presently requires, it is wise to narrow your selection to devices that have all three types of wireless.
While cellular coverage is becoming more and more prevalent, you should still review the coverage maps for data and voice from the different carriers (such as AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon) you are considering to be sure you will have coverage where you need it. In rare cases, you may find using one carrier in one area and another carrier in another may make sense. While most terminals are offered with different configurations for different networks, you do need to tell your hardware supplier which network the device will be used on. There are also devices on the market that allow you to switch from one carrier to another, but for the most part, those devices are data only, so you would not be able to make phone calls with them. For the most part it is unlikely that you would want to switch carrier networks on the fly on the same device, and while you may not think you ever want to use the device to make phone calls, it would be wiser to have a single carrier device where you have the phone call feature available, even if not turned on. T-Mobile and AT&T use SIM cards to register them on the network. That makes it easier to change between T-Mobile and AT&T networks if ever desired. Verizon and Sprint do not use SIM cards so you can’t change from their networks for the most part.
More and more terminals are coming out without a keypad, just relying on the soft keys on the touchscreen for operation. If you prefer a physical keypad, you will typically lean toward the industrial grade devices where that is common. There are choices as to the keypad layouts, from numeric only to full QWERTY, so ask about the keypad options for any product you may be interested in. Don’t think that the keypad you see on a demo unit is the only one available for that terminal.
More and more devices are coming out with a choice of OS. While all Apple products are only IOS, other devices on the market are available with a choice of Android or Windows Mobile. Which OS you choose is really irrelevant so long as your application will run on it.
The requirement for printers in the field is becoming less predominant than in the past. Terminals allow for signature capture so in many cases electronic documents is all that is needed. Many customers are fine with the electronically signed document being emailed to them if they need a copy. If a paper copy is required, there are many printer options available. In all cases, it is best to use a Bluetooth printer. Other options include WIFI direct and cabled. In all cases, it is recommended that you choose a battery operated printer, even though you will want to mount it in the vehicle and have it wired to a power source, either directly or via its mount. If you just need a small printer to print single copies, you would typically choose a portable printer that can be removed by the user so that he can take it to the back of the vehicle and not have to return to the truck to get the printout. If you need to print a full-size invoice or if you need to print on multi-part forms, as some government regulations require, you most likely would keep the printer mounted in the vehicle as the size would make it awkward to carry.
Here is a list of the typical accessories you should consider for your field mobility application. While the manufacturers typically offer a good selection designed specifically for use with their equipment, don’t feel you have to settle for what they offer. If what they offer is not suitable, there are 3rd party accessory manufacturers you should look into.
- Holsters: You should consider these for both the terminals and also for portable printers.
- Mounts: You should consider mounts, especially in areas where there is a legal requirement to use hands-free devices. Consumer grade devices typically offer only suction cup type mounts. Industrial business class products typically offer mounts that can be physically attached to the vehicle or dashboard and very often have sophisticated power harnesses so that they can be wired directly to the vehicle power. These tend to be better as they are a more regulated power source than simply plugging into the powerpoint (cigarette lighter port).
- Charging options: If you are not using a mount, you can typically still charge the terminal and printer via the powerpoint (cigarette lighter port). Use the manufacturers recommended charger for this or an industrial-grade one. The off-the-shelf lower-cost ones do not tend to work effectively over a long period of time. If you don’t want to charge them in the vehicle, you need to be certain that the batteries in the units are fully charged each day and that they will last a full shift. Even if you are “sure,” I would recommend a spare battery as you don’t want your drivers out in the field with a terminal that has a dead battery. If you are not charging the terminals in the vehicle, you would need to invest in chargers back at the depot so the terminals, printers, and batteries can be charged at the end of the day. Business class industrial equipment is usually available with 4 slot chargers for the terminals and batteries, as well as single slot terminal chargers. Lower class products tend to only offer you a USB charger or perhaps a single slot cradle and few options for charging the batteries outside the device. NOTE: Apple products do not allow for removing the batteries while most other products on the market do. So if you choose Apple, be sure you have a way to keep the device charged at all times.
- Communications options: Even though your devices have a cellular radio and a WIFI radio, there are cases where you may need to upgrade the firmware or application software or retrieve data from a device where the cellular or wifi feature is not operational, so it is wise to have a way of doing this via a cabled connection in the office. While in some cases this can be done with just a simple USB cable, typically you would have a single slot communications cradle. You do not need one for each terminal, but it is advisable to have one at each depot and at a minimum one in your main office or IT department.