- Editor's Rating
- Great inking
- Sleeker than your average rugged convertible
- Lots of nice extra features
- Not especially tough
- Touch calibration quirks
- Tablet orientation clunky
- Trouble seeing display in bright light
The GammaTech U12C isn't the most powerful or hardened, but its strengths include excellent inking capabilities and a wealth of extras.
The GammaTech U12C rugged convertible is a Durabook designed for heavy use in the field, with resistance to shocks and the elements. Sporting a number of features and a slick, metallic design, the U12C offers respectable performance in a package that is more portable than your average rugged tablet. But at what cost?
- Windows 7 Pro
- Intel Core i5-540UM 1.2GHz Processor
- 12.1-inch WXGA (1280 x 800) Convertible TFT, backlit LED
- 4GB DDR3 RAM (expandable up to 8GB)
- SATA 320GB HDD (optional SATA SSD backup drive)
- Integrated 1.3 MP camera
- 10/100/1000Mbps Ethernet
Mini Express Card slot for WLAN 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi
Bluetooth 2.1 +EDR (optional)
- 12.91 x 10.9 x 1.57 inches
- 5.5 pounds (with standard battery)
- MSRP: $1,699.00
BUILD & DESIGN
The U12C is not nearly as chunky or as boxy looking as some of its fellow rugged tablet PCs, as it sports a sleeker and slimmer design than you may expect. The exterior is what GammaTech refers to as “stylish rugged” and is made of magnesium alloy, with other parts of the machine being polycarbonate and plastic. The exterior casing feels somewhat light and hollow, almost as if the device is pretending to be something it’s not. The silver finish on the outside makes it look as if this thing is protected by something tough and durable when really it’s cheap material and makes for a machine not nearly as tough as its competitors.
The U12C was able to take mild abuse, like being dropped on the floor or kicked around (albeit somewhat carefully), but I wasn’t about to push it any further. GammaTech claims the U12C is certified to pass certain MIL-STD-810G tests (which gauge the machine’s resistance to drops, liquid/spills, and vibration/shocks), but I’m not sure I would ever want to expose the machine to especially intense conditions.
Granted, the slimmer profile, lack of boxiness, and lighter material does make for a more compact and somewhat lighter device than other heavy hitters, like the ultra-durable Getac V100. On the other hand, that’s not the point of a rugged tablet PC; the point of having one of these machines is so you can have it in much more demanding and dangerous environments and not have to worry so much about its well-being. I don’t feel like that’s the case with the U12C.
On a better note, the metal buckle that seals the device shut (or keeps the screen locked in place when flipped around in tablet mode) seems quite durable and heavy-duty, and the rubber feet and corner caps are of decent quality.
The U12C has seven different, physical shortcut buttons — which are located on the frame just beneath the display itself — in addition to the power button. One is to rotate the screen 90 degrees clockwise (for when you want to switch to tablet mode, more on that later) and there are also buttons for locking the computer; putting the display into sleep mode; a variable key that can be set up to launch a specific program with one touch; a quick on-screen menu with wireless, Bluetooth, battery information, and settings for the variable key; and brightness up and down. They all come in handy, especially when in tablet mode and access to the keyboard (and subsequently, the function keys) is blocked.
In another nice touch, the U12C comes equipped with a fingerprint scanner, located on the right edge of the screen. It was incredibly easy to set up and use, unlike some fingerprint scanners that I’ve seen in the past, which can be very picky. The included software was user-friendly and simply asked that I swipe one of my fingers a few times so it could store it (and then, in a darkly humorous move, asked that I store another fingerprint in the event of an injury), after which, it was ready to go. Since then, when I boot up the U12C, I only need to swipe my index finger once on the scanner and it automatically logs me in. I’ve never had to swipe twice due to any sort of failure to properly read the print.
The U12C can be toted around by its comfortable, heavy-duty rubberized carrying handle. It has a sturdy hold on the device — I never felt like the handle was going to snap, suddenly putting the computer’s shock resistance to the test — and is smartly designed, pulling out and locking into place when being used. When you’re done carrying it around, the handle can be pushed back in to cut down slightly on its profile.
The U12C is a far cry from being the toughest rugged tablet PC out there, but it does meet a number of tests for protection against drops, shocks, spills, and dust.
The rugged tablet shipped with reliability test guidelines that stated the machine should be resistant to vibrations, drops up to four feet onto a 2-inch thick plywood surface over concrete, and spills up to 100cc (though the test provided only checked against water). All input and output ports are dust resistant thanks to their covers, and battery protection comes by way of double protection smart battery circuitry, which prevents damage caused by current or voltage surges and overheating.
Pen and Inking Capabilities
For the most part, operating the U12C with the active pen was a dream. It was responsive and the screen could detect the pen from about half an inch off of the screen, so there were never any issues with sensitivity or detection. And for users who don’t feel like taking out the pen every time they want to press a button on screen, they also have the option to use their fingers instead of the pen; the touchscreen display can detect both.
Writing was an especially smooth experience and the handwriting detection was surprisingly good. I say that because I have truly abysmal penmanship, so I couldn’t believe that roughly 97% of the time, it properly decrypted my chicken scratch into the text I wanted. The only time it would get occasionally tripped up was if I started to get really lazy and negligent with my writing, to the point of stringing my letters together without lifting the pen, forming an ugly, haphazard version of cursive. Even then, the transcribing mistakes were few and far between.
Everything felt very natural with the inking capabilities and software, as well. The screen of the U12C features palm rejection, so I could comfortably rest my hand on the screen while scribbling away without any issues. Also, I didn’t feel like I had to pace myself or write slowly to ensure that the U12C would keep up with me; I was able to write easily at my normal speed. Even corrections were intuitive, with simple strikeouts deleting words (or individual letters) or using curved lines to connect two separate words into one.
The only issue with the pen and touchscreen were some occasional calibration issues that I experienced, which were not always consistent. Sometimes, everything lined up just fine and where I placed the point of the pen on the screen was, more or less, where the cursor would click. Sometimes, however, it seemed to be off by an eighth of an inch to one side (or above or below where I wanted to click). It was very puzzling because the calibration would sometimes be different each time I booted it up.
One time the cursor was extremely off by nearly half an inch (to the point where I was continually missing buttons that I was trying to click on), so I tried to use the U12C’s calibration software to fix the issue. It wouldn’t work, however, as I tried tapping and holding on the on-screen crosshairs as I was instructed, only for it to fail to register and eventually, the program would just shut itself down. But by the next time I had booted up, everything was copasetic and my pen was back on point. It was very confusing, posed an issue of inconsistency, and, possibly the most troubling, showed me that the recalibration software was faulty and couldn’t be counted on when it was needed.
Other than those occasional and inconsistent quirks with the calibration, I loved working with the pen. While I wish it would snap a little more securely in place when holstered, the pen itself is lightweight and comfortable to hold (although the function button on it doesn’t give a very responsive click when pressed, sometimes causing confusion over whether or not it’s actually depressed), sensitivity and detection were great, and jotting down notes on the touchscreen was a very natural-feeling experience.
Display and Speakers
The U12C sports a 12.1-inch, 1280 x 800, LED-backlit display, which has the capability to produce a very comfortable level of brightness, albeit at the significant cost of battery life. On a mid-range brightness setting, I could still see the picture pretty well, but out of curiosity, I kicked it up a few notches. It made the image crystal-clear, but I watched the percentage of remaining battery plummet at a much faster rate than it had been going previously. The quality and brightness of the display is definitely sufficient, if not good, but if you find yourself in any situations with serious glare or lighting issues and you need to ratchet up the brightness a little, prepare to sacrifice some battery life.
The matte finish on the screen helps fight off glare to some extent, but not as much as I would have liked to see on a machine that is designed with mainly outdoor use in mind. Even under the fluorescent glow of the lights in our office, I occasionally found myself notching up the brightness to help see the picture. It wasn’t awful, and it was certainly much better than the glare on the glossy finish on the screen of my regular laptop, but it wasn’t the best I’ve ever seen, either.
The quality of the display may be decent, but its actual build kind of irks me. As is the case with all convertibles, the display rests on a swivel joint that allows it to be spun around and flattened out over the keyboard to be used as a tablet. With the U12C, though, the display can only be turned in one direction. Some tablet PCs allow the display to swivel in either direction and without that ability on the U12C, I realize now how much I miss the convenience of that design.
One of my biggest issues with the screen, however, is how it doesn’t reorient itself when swiveled around and used in tablet mode. This is, of course, due to the lack of an accelerometer, which I understand is not standard issue for convertibles. The solution that GammaTech and others propose is far from elegant though. Among the shortcut buttons adorning the border around the display is one for manually reorienting the screen. Pressing this button turns the display 90 degrees, but only in one direction (clockwise). It’s bad enough that users have to manually change the orientation of the screen, but to have to sift through multiple orientations before finally landing on the one you need is a hassle. This becomes an especially cumbersome process when switching frequently between tablet and notebook modes.
I should note this feature is common with convertible laptops, and not unique to GammaTech’s, but in the face of competition from sleek Windows 7 slates, its high time convertible makers address this usability issue.
There is a 1.3-megapixel webcam built in to the U12C, which could come in handy for video conferencing while on-site. The only problem is that it doesn’t properly reorient the picture when in tablet mode, much like the display itself. If you activate the webcam while in tablet mode, not only will the picture be sideways, it will stay 90 degrees off even if you revert to standard laptop mode and reorient the screen. It’s a plus that the U12C comes with a webcam, so maybe it seems nitpicky of me, but I still think that it should be made to reorient the picture when the convertible is inevitably used in its tablet mode.
The U12C also features dual (stereo) speakers on its bottom, which I was surprised by, since being able to jam out to your favorite tunes isn’t exactly a priority with a rugged convertible. It’s not like they produce Bose-quality sound or anything like that, but they’re still nicer than what you’ll find on some other convertibles (many of which have only a mono speaker), so it was a pleasant surprise.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The keyboard on the U12C is not just of poor quality for a rugged convertible, it’s of poor quality for a computer, period. The keys feel cheap and lightweight, the Enter key is tiny (often resulting in me accidentally hitting the apostrophe key instead), and most importantly, it’s springy and flexible, especially towards the center. Such a bendy, flimsy build shouldn’t be found in a rugged convertible, of all things.
The touchpad, on the other hand, is great. It’s a comfortable size without taking up too much real estate, it’s got decently sized buttons, and it sports a nice bumpy sidebar for touchpad scrolling. It feels comfortable and it’s responsive, and that’s all you need from a touchpad.
The U12C comes outfitted with a respectable variety of ports, all of them securely covered and protected by either rubberized or snap-in-place plastic covers. On the machine, you can find two USB 2.0 ports, a Smart Card port, an SDHC card slot, an ExpressCard slot, an ESATA port, microphone and headphone jacks, an Ethernet port, DC-in jack, an 84-pin docking connector, and an external display (VGA) out.
There is no optical drive on the U12C, but I wouldn’t expect there to be one. It would only add to the weight, heat, and noise of the device, and for a machine that is intended for use outdoors and on construction sites and the like, it’s not terribly necessary.
The hard drive, RAM, communications ports, and battery are easily accessible from the bottom of the machine, with each component in their own segmented sections. Removing the battery is a simple and hassle-free process, but accessing the hard drive, RAM, and communications ports is a little more complicated as they require a screwdriver. Still, this helps keep the hardware secure and safe from the elements, so I can’t complain too much. Just the fact that I can get to the hard drive from the outside at all is convenient enough.