ET1

Extreme tablets for extreme jobs

December 14, 2011: 5:00 AM ET

New rugged tablets marry the flair of the iPad to the brawn of a Mack Truck.

FORTUNE - An Apple iPad can be a handy tool to bring to work -- unless, of course, your job is managing an offshore oil rig or handling insurance claims in the middle of a hurricane. Enter a new breed of so-called rugged tablets, designed to meet the computing needs of folks who require something a little more macho than the iPad. Many of these durable mobile devices are designed to withstand rain, snow, sand, and even fungus. But like consumer-centric tablets, they are slim and sport touchscreen capabilities and user-friendly interfaces.

"Since the iPad came out there's been a fascination with lightweight products," says Kyp Walls, director of product management at Panasonic (PC). "We're taking a cue from some of the tablets that have come out in recent years."

Rugged tablets made their debut long before the iPad -- Panasonic has been making a range of thick, durable devices since 1996. But next spring the electronics maker will launch the Toughpad A1, a slimmed-down tablet that runs on the Android operating system and weighs in at 2.13 pounds (heavier than the 1.3-pound iPad 2 but much lighter than traditional rugged tablets). Motorola (MSI) is also experimenting with a trim, tough tablet. In October the company unveiled the ET1, a 1.4-pound device. Despite its relatively petite build, Motorola says the ET1 features an extra-thick layer of scratch-resistant glass and can survive multiple drops.

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Even Texas-based Xplore Technologies (XLRT), which began making computing devices for forklift operators and public safety workers 15 years ago, is looking into incorporating iPad-like features, such as multitouch capabilities, on future Windows 8-powered devices (its most recent tablet, the C5, runs on Windows 7).

The rugged mobile computing market is expected to hit $6.1 billion by 2013, up from $4.6 billion in 2010, according to analyst firm VDC Research Group. But as these devices take on more iPad-like appearances, they run the risk of losing out to, well, the iPad. Industries that need enterprise-grade but not ultra-rugged devices (think retail or health care) are already experimenting with Apple's (AAPL) popular tablet, which is less than half the price of most rugged tablets. Of course, the iPad has its limits -- 32° to 95° F, to be exact. So if your job calls for something a little more extreme, you may want to opt for a device that's a little more durable, even if it is a little less pretty.

This article is from the December 26, 2011 issue of Fortune.

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