(all photos General Dynamics-Itronix)
GoBook VR-2 in a vehicle dock mounted in a law enforcement vehicle. Shows top and rear of unit.
GoBook VR-2 being used in a law enforcement vehicle. Shows front view of unit and DynaVue display.
GoBook VR-2 in a vehicle dock mounted in a law enforcement vehicle. Shows top and rear of unit.
GoBook VR-2 in a vehicle dock mounted in a law enforcement vehicle. Shows front of unit and DynaVue display.
Angled front view of opened GoBook VR-2 with DynaVue logo on display.
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There is no shortage of computers at my house. I have my behemoth primary desktop machine with two monitors, my company laptop hooked to a docking station and a third monitor, an aging and rickety Fujitsu notebook that I travel with occasionally, various PDA-type gadgets, and whatever equipment has been loaned to me for testing and evaluation. The loaned stuff is fun to play with, but I'm seldom moved to get one of my own. The GoBook VR-2 is the first in a while that I didn't want to send back.
The first impression of the VR-2 is that it's heavy and solid. It weights 6.2 lbs. A similarly-equipped Sony notebook weighs about two lbs. less. This one has a built-in handle and it goes clunk when you set it down. The exterior edges have the usual array of ports and computer stuff. The right edge has a slide-out optical (CD-RW/DVD-RW) drive that is not swappable for a second battery or some other device, and two slots that will accommodate a PC card Type I or II, an Express card, or a SmartCard reader. The left side has a ventilation port and jacks for headphones, a microphone as well as a removable HDD. A Kensington-type security lock recess is on the left side, toward the front edge.
The back edge is solid with rubber-covered ports. From left to right, as you look at the back edge, there is the socket for the external power brick, an RJ-45 Ethernet jack that will handle Gigabit (10/100/1000) Ethernet, two USB ports (stacked vertically), an RJ-11 phone jack, a serial port (haven't seen one of those in a while), and a 15-pin video-out socket. There's also another intake/exhaust port for cooling.
I wasn't that impressed with the placement of the ports. The rubber cover over the power input wouldn't go back in after I had the power cable plugged in for a while. This left the port open to the elements and the cover would eventually snag on something and tear off. The USB port cover fit so closely that I had trouble getting a flash drive to stay in there. I also had some concerns that I would forget I had the flash drive stuck in there, and would tilt the computer back or do something else to crash into the flash drive and break it off. If the machine was in a patrol car docking station, the USB ports would be difficult or impossible to use, and there are no other USB ports on the computer. The manufacturer provides a dock for most vehicle installations that includes two USB ports on the front.
The lunchbox-style handle on the back locks in three positions: up, down, and parallel with the case (the way it would be if you were going to carry it by the handle). In the latter position, there are two stiff wire braces to keep it centered. The problem is that the handle still gets in the way of the ports, no matter where it's positioned. If you had to insert a cable with a large or stiff connector, you might be fighting with the handle to get it connected and keep it secured.
On the upside, the port covers are attached by Phillips-head lockdown screws, so if one needed to be replaced, it would be a quick job.
This is a "vehicle-rugged" machine, so don't go crazy running over it with your pickup truck or dropping it into the swimming pool to impress your friends. It probably won't work afterward. The computer is intended to be used inside a vehicle, with limited exposure to the elements. It will likely survive the spilled cup of coffee (although it will need to be cleaned out first) or the drop from waist height onto the pavement, but you're pressing your luck with either one. More common in-vehicle hazards like excess humidity, high and low temperatures, vibration and dust won't bother it at all. As long as it's locked into an approved mount, any collision that doesn't destroy the car won't hurt the computer, either.
Opening up the computer doesn't require undoing any latches. The display does latch shut, but it's a friction fit, which I prefer as long as the hardware is sturdy, and this hardware is. The display hinge is stiff, so the display will stay at the angle you put it.
The top of the display contains stereo speakers, one on either side, facing the user. The sound was much better than I am used to from internal notebook speakers, and was loud enough to be heard in a car.
The 13.3-inch display is bright enough to be readable in direct sunlight (using their patent-pending DynaVue technology), 1024x768 resolution, and touchscreen-enabled. In fact, there's even a little pop-out stylus recessed into the top of the display. You can tilt the display 180 back, so you've got a big, heavy tablet-like console if you're into that sort of thing, but it won't do the rotate-and-fold number that some tablet-convertible computers are capable of. It's pretty clear the design intent is to use the keyboard and touchpad most of the time, with the touchscreen option for relatively coarse tasks like pushing onscreen "acknowledge" and "emergency" buttons.
The display might even be a little too bright. A function key combination increments the brightness up and down, but the dimmest setting was still a little brighter than I would prefer if I was pushing around a patrol car with this in my sight line all night. I'd suggest a user-configurable setting to make the display go much dimmer, maybe automatically after X minutes of idleness. I don't care for shutting the display off entirely, because I want to be able to glance down and see if there are any alerts or other developments I've missed. Have the display come back up to the desired level of brightness when a key is pressed or I touch the display, but make all of these options user-configurable. I can easily visualize a situation where you're rolling up to a call in stealth mode and you don't want your computer going nova when you hit the onscreen "arrival" button.
The VR-2 doesn't have a keyboard backlight, but it does have a couple of "headlights" in the display hinges, controlled by a function key combination. The light intensity is adjustable. This is a nice touch and is better than having to jury-rig an external USB light (which might be a real chore, given where the USB ports are), but a red backlit keyboard would be better. I couldn't get the lights to come on when the machine was connected to external power, so I suppose it assumes if I have a power outlet, I must also have a desk lamp. That wouldn't be a great assumption when working on an airplane with an EmPower connection.
The keyboard work surface is generous. There is a palm rest below the large area that contains the touchpad pointing device and two large mouse buttons. That same area has alongside it a fingerprint reader for added security, but this wouldn't be suitable for transmitting prints for an AFIS check. The keyboard itself is full-size, with a standard 19mm key pitch (the distance of keys from center to center). There are dedicated Shift, CapsLock, Tab, Enter and Backspace (those are oversize), PageUp, PageDown and arrow keys, and dual Control and Alt keys either side of the space bar. It might seem picky to go into this much detail on a keyboard, but those little things matter when you have to use the keys at a less-than-optimal angle, from either side of the keyboard, or with only one hand. One key placement I didn't care for was having the function key (Fn) at the lower left, outboard of the Control key. I was forever hitting Fn when I wanted Control, because that's where the Control key lives on most keyboards.
Here's an idea: since most of the function key combinations work with the F-keys on the top row, put the Fn key there. It could replace the PauseBreak key, which most people have never used. That sure would make it easier to hit the F-keys when you only had one hand to work with. Even better: have a user-configurable software option in the keyboard setup to make the Fn key "sticky," so it stays down until there's a second keypress. Want to turn the sound off? Fn, F10, one finger, done.
The feel of the keyboard is as good as with any laptop I've used. There's good travel and springiness, and I know from previous research that those keys are tested to death. You're not going to wear this keyboard out.
I was very impressed with how fast this machine booted up and got stable enough to get work done. The sample I tested had been used by marketing folks for trade shows, so it wasn't in "as shipped" configuration. GD-Itronix doesn't load up the production machines with the assortment of crapware that comes with every consumer computer sold these days, thank goodness. My machine had Windows XP Pro as its operating system and Microsoft Office 2003. The spec sheet only mentions a choice between XP Pro or Vista Business. For most applications that a police agency would use, it wouldn't matter, anyway.
Lots of wireless options
You will have to work at it to come up with a wireless network this machine can't link into. It will handle 802.11a, g and n (that's three progressively faster types of what everyone else calls "Wi-Fi"), Intel PRO/Wireless 4965, EVDO, HSDPA, and Bluetooth. All antennas are built into the box, so there's no projections to get caught and hung up on. Also integrated is GPS, which came up and located me almost instantly when I loaded the application--and I was indoors. A Garmin consumer GPS took two to three minutes under identical conditions.
The supplied processor is an Intel Core 2 Duo T7500, running at 2.2 GHz. Standard memory is 512 MB of DDR2 RAM, but my sample had 2 GB installed. The standard hard drive is 80 GB running at 5400 RPM, with an optional 120 GB drive or a flash memory 64 GB drive available. Also optional is a heater unit for the hard drive, which would be a fine idea if the machine was going to be deployed in cold climates.
The standard battery has a capacity of 47.52 watt-hours, which translated to 2:48 hours of use with Wi-Fi on, the display at max brightness, and a continuous anti-virus scan running to keep the hard drive and processor busy. Those wouldn't be shabby numbers for a consumer machine. Optionally available are batteries with 59 and 71.2 watt-hours, respectively. More watt-hours usually means a bigger battery and more weight. If you go for the extra battery power, make sure whatever mount you might be using will accommodate it.
On balance, the GoBook VR-2 is as good a ruggedized computer as any I have seen, and all those wireless options make it exceptional. This is an excellent choice if you need something sturdier than a consumer laptop or for vehicle-mounted applications, but don't anticipate taking it into combat in a country whose name beings with an "I" or ends in "-stan." I recommend it.