Symbol MC50 Enterprise-Class Pocket PC

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INTRODUCTION

    If you’ve followed my recent blog, you know that when I agreed to take a look at the Symbol MC50, I didn’t know how I wanted to approach writing about it. It is a ruggedized PDA, designed to function well in many different vertical markets. It is not designed or packaged as a consumer device, but it does have some application outside of the vertical markets that it has been designed for. The Symbol MC50 is what Symbol calls an "Enterprise-class" Digital assistant (EDA). It offers a lot in terms of ruggedness and stability and has the flexibility to handle nearly any type of task you can think of and many you’d never think of. Do you need a ruggedized handheld? Read on to find out if the MC50 is for you!

ENTERPRISE-CLASS

    As I mentioned, Symbol likes to refer to the MC50 as an “Enterprise” Digital Assistant to distinguish it form consumer-class devices. It’s important, therefore, to understand that its purpose outside of traditional PDA type usages is to also be used with special, vertical-market applications, and be used in environments not normally kind to sophisticated electronic devices. It has been tested under very heavy duty cycles (I believe, for example, keyboard testing was in the millions of key presses).

(most images link to higher resolution)

Here is the MC50 with keyboard option.

…and in its cradle.

This is the MC50 with PIM option.


    For those of you who missed the blog, let me explain that a

vertical market

is one that is geared toward a specific industry, not the general consuming public. An example of a vertical-market product would be a gas pump. You wouldn’t sell one to the average guy on the street, rather it is geared toward the oil industry. That means that gas pumps are generally created for that particular vertical market.

    With stability as a focus, the MC50 runs an optimized version of Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition – why? – as many WM 5.0 users will tell you, WM 5.0 has rarely been optimized well yet and is often slower and less stable than WM 2003SE. Ask people who have upgraded their Dell Axims or HP 4700s if this isn’t the case! Symbol states that the optimized OS on the MC50 (running on a 520MHz PXA270 processor) is faster than some 624MHz devices. Having the MC50 and a 624MHz PDA at my disposal I can confirm this is true for the few applications I looked at. The stress is on stability, compatibility, and optimization over features – but don’t think that they skimped on features!

The MC50 (with keyboard option), case, cradle (with extra battery slot) and AC adapter.

SPECIFICATIONS

   The Symbol MC50 as my unit was configured, comes with an nice array of features including:

  • Window 2003 SE
  • QCGA 240×320 screen (Glass – Analog with resistive touch)
  • 64MB RAM / 64MB ROM
  • Intel 520MHz processor (PXA270)
  • Built-in keyboard (37-key QWERTY – PIM available instead)
  • WiFi (802.11b)
  • SDIO slot (with secure cover)
  • 1560mAh battery (3600 mAh extended battery also available)
  • Speaker/microphone, headset jack (VoIP ready with correct placement of mic/speaker, supports full duplex record/playback)
  • USB 1.1 and RS232 (serial) connections (via a special interface)
  • Camera or scanner

The cradle has an extra battery compartment.

   The list of specifications doesn’t really give you the complete picture of how versatile the MC50 is. It can be configured with or without the keyboard. It can be with or without a credit card scanner. We talk more about some of the options shortly.

   The specifications also don’t give you a sense of how much effort has gone into optimizing the OS and processor so that it feels much snappier and faster than its processor would indicate. The OS "feels" as solid as the hardware itself.

The couple flavors of the MC50.

   But exactly what kinds of things did they do to make it rugged? How many ways can you dress it up? Read on to see!


ROUGH AND READY

    Physically, this thing is built like a tank. To start with, almost every possible opening has a cover. Even the SD card slot has a protective cover. There’s a wide elastic strap on the back of the device that you slip your hand through to make it more difficult to drop the unit.  But if you do decide to drop it, its been extensively drop-tested. They also went so far as to make a special set of connections so that when you attach peripherals to the device they will not easily break the device should everything accidentally be dropped. On top of all that, there’s also the capability to tether the stylus to the device so you won’t accidentally lose it!

The backside of the MC50 has a hand strap above the battery compartment.

    I think it bears repeating that the rugged nature of the device has been extended to the OS and usability as well. A sense of solidity goes throughout this device – inside and out.  The applications and drivers are tested thoroughly with the OS.  All the parts of the OS are designed to work as smoothly and solidly as the hardware.  The Symbol MC50 is a device that takes a licking and keeps on ticking!

LET’S CUSTOMIZE AND ACCESSORIZE


    The MC50 can be customized many ways.  There are universal cable adapters available to provide a variety of connections as well as add-ons like a magnetic strip reader for applications like credit card processing applications.  There are also a variety of battery chargers and cradles available to allow you to charge multiple batteries and provide USB connectivity to your PC. There’s even an option to add GPRS service to the device for long-distance data access (same as your cell phone uses).


   

Here is the MC50 in use in retail environments.

TAKING IT TO THE ENTERPRISE

    I’ve talked about the differences of ruggedized devices and the customization offered by EDAs like the Symbol MC50 to make them suitable in specialized environments and vertical markets.  Now let’s talk a bit about how they may also play a role in more traditional PDA territory – the corporate office.

Here’s another shot of the MC50 with cradle.

A shot of the device being used to scan an object.

    When we talk about the “enterprise,” we’re talking about any business environment, not just the corporate office.  The point of a mobile device is to extend your ability to collect and use information into areas where a traditional computer might not me convenient or appropriate.  That environment could be a shop floor, where you’re using the bar coding capabilities to scan parts in a bin, it could be in a restaurant allowing wait staff to take your order and have it directly placed with the cooking staff, or it could be a sales floor, where, during a Christmas rush you can check out credit card orders on the sales floor rather than making people stand in a long line. The MC50 has the durability and features and can be customized for all of these types of locations. But let’s get back to the traditional office environment? Is there value there as well?

Here’s the magnetic card scanner option.

    If you’re at all like I am, you may be a bit hard on your devices.  They go through a lot more duty cycles with me than perhaps your average consumer.  I burn through devices quickly.  The battery starts to hold a charge less, buttons don’t press correctly over time, and the case may develop a crack.  There are a wide variety of things that fail over the span of a year to two. 

This is the left and right side of the MC50. Note the volume control toggle.

    A ruggedized device has some potential value in my daily environment.  How many of you have cracked the case or even the screen on your device from dropping it or banging it into something?  Ever spilled coffee or a soft drink on any of the electronics in your office?  In my experience, corporate users can be as hard on their electronic devices in the office environment as that same equipment would see on the factory floor or in an outdoor environment. The funny thing is that we don’t perceive the corporate office environment as being harsh as it really is (many of you in IT support departments can probably confirm what I’m saying!). Throw in the the VoIP optimized features of this device (things like a properly placed mic and speaker so you can use it as a phone) and you have an even better fit in a traditional corporate environment.

The top of the MC50. You can see the screwed-on SD card cover and the scanner.

Comparison shot: The MC50 (middle) flanked by the HP iPAQ hx4705 (left) and the Cingular 8125 (right).

The MC50 (bottom) topped by the HP iPAQ hx4705 (middle) and Cingular 8125 (top).

So it’s got a lot of flexibility and features – is it a perfect device? Read on to see what I found…



A FEW PLEASANT SURPRISES – A FEW CONCERNS

    At this point, let me point out that I was working with an evaluation unit – expectations are a little different than they would be with a packaged, consumer unit. I was impressed by things like the laser guides when shooting a picture with the camera — of course this turned out to be because the attachment is really the image scanner (mainly for use with barcodes and grayscale imaging). There is another variant available that offers a 1.3 megapixel color camera instead.

    Another nice things I noticed was the ample 1560mAh standard battery. It’s powerful enough to get you through a workday under most workloads. If not, the extended battery is massive at 3600mAh. The charger also allows you to hold a spare so one can charge while you’re using the device!

    The big thing missing, in my opinion, was Bluetooth. Symbol deliberately opted not to include Bluetooth in this device. I believe it may be market segmentation decision since its sibling, the MC70 offers cellular services (EDGE), 802.11a/b/g wireless as well as Bluetooth (v1.2) and a faster 624MHz processor. You can, of course, always add Bluetooth into the mix (or GPS or many other services) by adding it in as an SDIO card, but, of course, that will limit your storage options.

    Also of note, the battery lock mechanism threw me for a loop a couple of times. It’s easy to get it set in the wrong position so that the device will not turn on. (HP iPAQ hx47xx users have a similar mechanism on the bottom of their devices.)

    All things considered, these are minor quibbles over a solid device and available, if needed in the higher model (or as third party add-ons). It would be possible to argue that at this price these things should be included, but I suspect the value is in the solidity.

HELP AND SUPPORT

    If you purchase the MC50 how do you get help? Well normally, with enterprise devices, you get your support by purchasing a maintenance contract (usually through your VAR (value-added reseller) or possibly directly from Symbol). Symbol does have a web page with contact information for sales and support contacts available here.

HOW DO I BUY ONE?

    So you’ve decided that you need to get these for your company, or maybe you just want to have a device like this for yourself. How do you go about getting one? Like many ruggedized devices, the Symbol MC50 and MC70 are generally sold by a direct sales force or maybe even through a VAR. You can’t just go to your local electronics store to see one of these. They are not packaged or priced or geared toward the consumer market. So can ordinary consumers buy them? The answer is pretty much “yes”. A quick search of eBay today found a number of vendors who will resell vertical market devices including the Symbol MC50 and MC70 line. The MC50 on eBay is selling for between $425USD and $1075USD depending on the seller and the configuration of the device. I found the MC70 running from $1600USD to pricepoints above $3000USD. If you choose to buy a device this way, be aware that these aren’t consumer devices. You most likely need to decide how you want it configured up front and you have to remember that they don’t necessarily come with the complete suite of applications you’re used to finding. In other words, you might have to do a little leg work or pay more to do things you’re used to doing with a PDA and the price may be a bit higher than many of us would pay as individuals. Again, you’re paying for the durability.

    For enterprise users or industry users who may be looking at a purchase for their company, there may well be enough value added to make the case for purchase. You can contact your local Symbol sales rep, available on the list here. More specific information on the MC50 can be seen here and the MC70 here.



PROS


  • Very rugged and durable


  • Optimized for speed and stability

  • Many configurations available

  • Excellent battery capacity

CONS


  • No Bluetooth


  • 802.11b only (no g or a)


  • Expensive

Value
Ease
of Use
Features

Overall

OVERALL IMPRESSION

    Overall, I really like this device for what it’s intended for. Reading about the specs can’t give you a proper sense of how solid this device is or how snappy the OS and installed programs feel on it. Much nicer than you’d expect from a consumer machine with these specifications. Note, however, if Bluetooth or 80211a/g are important, check out the big brother of the MC50, the MC70. Although the price of these certainly isn’t geared toward a typical consumer purchase, if you have the means, I’d definitely recommend checking one out!


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