Best business-class tablets for the front office and factory floor

1 biz tablets

In this review, we looked at two types of business-class tablets, traditional tablets used by the sales force or other front-office workers, and ruggedized devices that can be used on the factory floor or other back-office environments.

In the front-office category, we tested the Lenovo ThinkPad 10 and the E FUN Nextbook 10. In the back-office category, we looked at the Adlink IMT-1, Arbor Gladius Atom and Gammatach’s Durabook R11.

Lenovo’s ThinkPad 10 is a top shelf business-class tablet for the front office. This is a beauty queen with lots of functionality, including sharp screen, responsive touch screen, comparatively fast Windows 8.1 UI touch response, and slick looks. The ThinkPad also offers a long list of add-ons, allowing you to customize the device for your particular needs.

You might think something called E FUN isn’t a business-class device, but the Nextbook 10 comes with Windows 8.1 and a one-year subscription to Office 365, plus 1TB of cloud storage. It runs Windows apps easily, and comes with a pretty decent keyboard. On the other hand, battery life is relatively low, it doesn’t come with much onboard storage, there’s no Ethernet port and it came in fourth out of five players when it came to performance. Still, for $199, it offers a low-cost way to connect mobile workers. (Watch a slideshow version of this review.)

The Adlink IMT-1, Arbor Gladius 0975, and the Gammatech Durabook R11 are all housed in special cases claimed by their vendors to be adherent to various standards for drop-test survival, plus environmental stresses such as humidity or water. We didn’t test those claims.

030315 tablet net res

The Adlink IMT-1 is an interesting device. It runs Android 4.2.2 rather than Windows. On the one hand, it offered the longest battery life at 6 hours, 9 minutes; on the other hand it was the slowest device by far in our performance tests. We really liked the fact that the Adlink IMT-1 comes with a strap so that you can hold it securely in your hand, almost like a painter holding a palette.

The Durabook R11 delivers the largest screen at 11.6 inches as well as the best performance by far among the five devices tested. In fact, it’s faster than many of the standard notebooks we use in the lab, based on our rudimentary performance tests. It was the only device tested that had a removable battery, which is important in scenarios where the device is used by workers over multiple shifts. However, it costs $2,199, which makes it far more expensive than the other tablets.

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The Arbor Gladius runs Windows 8.1 and delivered the second best battery life in our testing, as well as the second fastest performance. However, it wasn’t all that easy to use.

Here are the individual reviews:

Arbor Gladius

Arbor Gladius arbor.com

The Arbor Gladius showed promise, but we found it difficult to use. It’s an Intel Celeron CPU-powered tablet running Windows 8.1, but only the 32-bit version on a 64-bit capable platform. This 10-inch tablet has four programmable function keys located on its case, with function key-press LED indicators that are helpful.

We were easily able to program the four function keys, and there are some functions that show an on-screen feedback, like a programmed volume control increase. Other function key uses don’t have a visual feedback beyond LED indication that we pushed the button when not on the desktop, a weirdness of Windows 8.1. At least the LED told us we pressed the key.

There’s a hard case to the Gladius, but we found the jack covers on the left side of the case were difficult to open—not a soft hinge like the Adlink IMT-1.

Four ports available are an SD, Mini-USB 2, standard USB-3, and mini-HDMI jack. The power switch is located on the right side, so turning on-and-off doesn’t disturb cables.

We found it difficult to quickly enter text into a field on the Arbor touch screen. The onscreen keyboard is smaller than normal, which is a mixed blessing, as it doesn’t take up as much screen real estate, but it’s comparatively tiny and tough for the fatter fingers among our testers to manipulate accurately.

Using IE was difficult, even after adjusting screen sensitivity controls, and we recommend users obtain a pointy soft stylus for IE use.

No special utilities or customizations beyond a minimal Windows 8.1 program load were found—except for the settings menu that’s triggered by the F4 key.

Overall, we found it to be tough, maybe too tough, but with promise. One internal reviewer said, it has peccadillos, just little things wrong with it that added up to more stress than he preferred.

Lenovo ThinkPad 10

Lenovo ThinkPad

We picked this one as a winner in the front office class category, although it achieves its merit through optional accessories. Lenovo sent it naked, but then sent several accessories that when built-up, produced a device not unlike the specialty-focused devices we tested.

Sometimes, the outcome of the accessorizing wasn’t as good as the build quality of the other devices, but in the all-important category of which tablet became the most used, the ThinkPad 10 dominated. It was swiped frequently.

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Like most of the tablets we reviewed, Lenovo loads Windows 8.1 onto its ThinkPad 10, but Lenovo has apparently mastered it. This is a beauty queen with lots of functionality. Sharp screen, even with glare and ambient light, responsive touch screen, comparatively fast Windows 8.1 UI touch response, and slick looks made the ThinkPad 10 the one we’d give to the sales folks and was voted best to read outside in daylight.

The upsides are its sleekness and look and feel—not its industrial coating. This one needs to be kept in a sleeve when not in use, but will more likely be pulled from a briefcase or messenger bag rather than tossed around in the back office. No special added value software payloads are included, and there is some trialware/bloatware. It’s the lightest of the five tested, and has a more mobile feel.

However, Lenovo includes the Lenovo Companion, which has a user-customization capability, system health indicator, and direct links to Lenovo support details and even Lenovo Blogs. The Lenovo’s onscreen keyboard is large, responsive, and was judged easy to use.

Lenovo also sent accessories. We resisted using these at first, so as to give an oranges to oranges comparison of the tablets, but Lenovo does make a point with the accessorizing options.

As an example, the optional ThinkPad 10 keyboard doesn’t fit as nicely as NextBook’s keyboard, but works just as well. Lenovo’s ThinkPad 10 rests onto the keyboard, where the Nextbook becomes an ersatz hybrid notebook PC with its keyboard.

The Lenovo keyboard is held on magnetically, not unlike Microsoft’s Windows RT tablet setup, and potentially suffers from the same foibles, we feel. In other words, it could detach when folded. The Lenovo has slots for microSD, micro-USB, USB 2, and a micro-HDMI jack.

A general agreement among testers was that it was grabbed more frequently because of its ease of operation, although its jack covers are a bit flimsy, and difficult to open without sharp fingernails. The mini-USB port is not protected by a cover at all.

When we used the outside shell/cover, the touchscreen becomes less, but not prohibitively less, responsive. What was lost in responsiveness is made up for in durability and field use. The optional strap is comfy, can be moved from one of four positions, including right/left handed use, whereas the strap on the Adlink has one position, albeit a comfy one, we decided. When the cover is installed, the mini-HDMI and microSD card accessibility is lost, but use of HDMI can be regained by using the tablet cradle stand.

There is the base ThinkPad 10, which becomes highly accessorized into an industrial, kiosk-like (on a stand) tablet with plentiful jacks. This iterative approach didn’t have some of the strengths and durability imbued by other tablets reviewed here, but came very close. Of the tablets tested, it was certainly the fastest in terms of touch responsiveness and was judged to have the best screen vividness and overall UI usability. If only it had external function keys.

E FUN Nextbook 10.1

eFun tablet

Is it really a business tablet? With a quad-core Intel Atom CPU, the E Fun Nextbook came somewhat close to the Lenovo ThinkPad 10 in terms of performance and responsiveness. The Nextbook is a hybrid, allowing stand-alone operation as a tablet, but arriving with a keyboard that was a solid fit. For $199, it runs Windows apps easily, hasn’t much storage, it’s almost disposable. A business purposed-saving grace, it has business apps—albeit with cloud connection and good for one year before need for optional renewal.

The Nextbook in some ways is bereft of items found in notebooks. There’s no Ethernet here, but the Macbook Air and others now ignore Ethernet. An optional DVD drive, along with a staggering list of other accessories, can be attached. You’ll need an external hard drive, or something to expand the base 32GB of storage via the microSD slot. A 64GB add-on is available from the vendor.

It’s slim, and somewhat bereft of jacks, including only a headset, mini-USB2 and mini-HDMI port. The attached physical keyboard, however, was judged to be the equal of many mini-keyboards we’ve used. The unit, tablet and keyboard, were fairly stable. We found the touchpad for the keyboard as a mouse pointer needed some adjustments among users, and the mouse buttons were a little sluggish.

There aren’t any special added value apps, just a standard Windows 8.1 payload; a one year Office365 subscription with 1TB storage. There’s higher screen reflectivity than the Lenovo ThinkPad 10, but E FUN didn’t send any accessories that would distinguish it or set it apart. This said, as a hybrid machine with fast responsiveness, we found it to be a good general purpose Windows tablet system. With more than seven hours of tested battery life, it can last nearly a full work shift before needing a recharge. Recharge was quick. Need spare batteries? Just buy spare Nextbooks.

There is a front and a backside camera included, with different resolutions, and what we felt were poor white balance and low-light controls. One problem for left-handers is the fact that the tablet has both cameras mounted along the left side of the tablet, rather than the topside of the bezels, front and back.

We liked the Nextbook, although it has a few minor weaknesses, and no really outstanding features, no armor, no padding, no function keys, no stands, no business software payloads, or other features. Let’s call it the winner for generic use. The tablet portion is fine. In reality, it’s a tiny notebook that’s nearly 3 pounds with keyboard. But it’s $199 and has all this cloud stuff!

Adlink INT-1

Ad Link tech Adlinktech.com

The Adlink comes with a large industrial case, with four external function keys not unlike those supplied with the Arbor’s Gladius. Unlike the other four tablets tested, the INT-1 comes with Android 4.2.2 as its operating system.

The function keys of the Arbor don’t have an LED indication of key depression, but the UI will give a feedback of key depression, regardless of the UI state—it pops up over the current application to indicate the key’s been depressed. We like that. They’re programmable, not much tech knowledge is needed to make them dance.

Another advantage we found are that the INT-1’s ports are protected by a more malleable plastic cover (think : more rubbery) that are much easier to manipulate with fumble fingers. They’re not flimsy, and seem unlikely to be easily detached through repeated use (covering and uncovering).

One feature leaped out at us: The Adlink INT-1 has a rear-mounted strap that we found to be very handy. It’s sturdy. We could walk anywhere with the tablet in one secured hand, the other hand free to do things or make entries on the tablet. It’s like a painter holding his palette. It’s balanced, grippy, and made the INT-1 extensions of our body in almost a graceful way, and should fit hands large and small.

The screen wasn’t as impressive as the ThinkPad 10 or the Nextbook. Resolution didn’t look as good, it had less reflectivity/glare, and the touch responsiveness was strong and accurate. It felt good, and the rubbery case seemed to be less rigid than the harder plastic of the other tablets tested, judged as comfy for long use.

LEDs indicate battery charge. Jacks included are: USB OTG, mini-HDMI, mini-USB, microSD and SIM card. It also supports 4G LTE, and WiFi over 802.11 a/b/g/n.

This is the one for the back office, warehouse, health clinic, and general use. Its hand holder becomes quite useful, we found, for general carrying around and utility. It’s strange how such a minor feature can set this device apart from the rest of the tablets tested, but it’s unusually comfy—if not aesthetically pleasing.

Durabook R11

Durabook

The Durabook uses a Windows 7 standard payload although their website says it uses 8.1, and as a result, Windows 7 will possibly be more familiar to users but 8.1 changeovers may already be in the supply chain. It’s also seriously fast, outperforming all the tablets we compared, as well as several notebooks we use in the lab. This tablet performed better than some of our Macbooks and Samsung i7-based notebooks. Antivirus and other daemons could conceptually slow this machine down, but it blazed our browser-Javascript test like no other.

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