Enterprise Mobility & the Connected Worker Blog

The Tablet vs. Purpose-Built Battle

by Connor Burt, and David Krebs | 09/03/2021

Within the mounted forklift computer market, traditional purpose-built computers are facing significant pressure from the emergence of rugged tablets that can function as mounted computers. Customers have caught wind to the trend and there is noticeable consideration for rugged tablets as mounted computer solutions when deciding on what vehicle mounted unit (VMU) to purchase. VMU manufacturers have expressed the demand from customers, saying that virtually all large deals have a rugged tablet option that is considered. The main differentiators that are believed to benefit rugged tablets are the portability (being able to unmount the tablet from the forklift) and the perceived lower cost.

However, the belief that tablets actually offer significant advantages in these categories can be deceiving. The ability to unmount tablets and use them outside of the forklift cabin may seem like a great feature, but many end-users report never using this functionality. Having the tablet unmounted can lead to complications if it’s lost, damaged, or stolen while dismounted from the forklift. Warehouse employees expressed the importance of being able to get in the forklift and go, which can be slowed by allowing the VMU to be undocked. To this point, dock and mount manufacturers have stated many customers ask for tablet docks to be made “un-mountable”. This eliminates those issue previously mentioned, and can increase durability to the overall mount. However, choosing this route completely eliminates the advantage of portability that rugged tablets offer.   

The price can still be a selling point for rugged tablets even if portability is eliminated. The typical rugged tablet will be competitive in price to purpose-built computers, especially for lower-end and mid-range semi-rugged devices.. At the trade-off of durability and overall quality, lower-priced rugged tablets are able to beat out purpose-built computers. However, the pure price of the VMU can be deceiving. The total cost of ownership can quickly snowball with rugged tablets for a number of reasons.

First, the overall durability still favors purpose-built computers. The vibrations from forklifts, since they don’t have suspension systems, can create quick deterioration of VMUs. Purpose-built computers on the market now are built with vibration resistance as a priority in durability requirements. Rugged tablets may be built to withstand vibration to some extent, but they don’t currently compete with purpose-built computers in this department.

Second, the batteries of rugged tablets are typically larger than purpose-built computers at the same price. This speaks to quality favoring purpose-built batteries. Multiple VMU manufacturers mentioned the need to replace rugged tablet batteries multiple times in the same timeframe that one purpose-built battery would last. This can quickly push the total cost of ownership in favor of purpose-built computers.

Third, the need for extra peripherals for rugged tablet-based VMU solutions can drive up the overall price. Mainly, the need for antennas to provide the same Wi-Fi connectivity that purpose-built computers can produce internally is noteworthy. Wi-Fi is the dominant connectivity option utilized in materials handling verticals, and VMUs need to create quality connections when traveling throughout the area covered. To this point, interest in 5G has gained some traction in these markets. This could be an area that tablets capture if they can boast better or equal 5G connectivity to purpose-built computers. Specifically, ports, yards, and construction sites could be areas that see quick 5G implementation given the vastness of area needing connectivity coverage.

With all these points considered, and often expressed by VMU manufacturers when creating deals with clients, rugged tablets deployed as forklift computers continues to gain traction in this market. Noting these key differences can create legitimate selling points for purpose-built manufacturers to leverage against the rise of rugged tablet deployments. Conversely, this can offer direction of where improvements can be made by rugged tablet manufacturers to further the explosion this product offering has seen in the forklift computer market.

For further insight on Enterprise Mobility & the Connected Worker, view our 2021 Forklift Report today.