Tough-Enough Tech

Tired of frail, disposable gadgets? Then try this indestructible PDA -- even underwater.
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Sometimes I hate this tech stuff. Honestly, I do.

Even my absolute, all-time favorite gadgets -- the Runco CinemaWall Plasma TV, the Lotus Elise pocket sports car, the Voodoo Omen PC and MBL audio components -- are merely the best compromises I can find.

Sure, I love the idea of a movie theater in my home, a race car in my garage, a personal computer finished in gold, and a sound system that would have frightened a deaf and aging Ludwig Van Beethoven.

But even these best of the best gadgets are still mostly total ripoffs.

There are always problems: A plasma screen fails. The steering wheel is too small. No matter the PC, Microsoft Word still has those idiot "style sheets" that mess up my documents. And even if you spend $250,000 on speakers you still have to run $30,000 of cable to and from the units.

It's a high-end rat's nest.

The upshot of my gadget rage? The electronics in my life take a terrible beating.

I'm like that evil, messed-up neighbor in

Toy Story

. I specialize in a brand of extreme patina that roughs up my electronics like a Kenny Rogers fast ball.

I beat 'em. Scratch 'em. Leave 'em outside.

You name it, my gadgets suffer.

So when I come across a new player in the so-called ruggedized gadget market, I pay attention.

I may be tough on tech, but I still want the stuff to last.

Ruggedized electronics are computers, phones and other peripherals built to be water-resistant, shock-resistant, dust-resistant and all-around tough enough to take the abuse of someone like me, a solider in the field or maybe even a zoo animal.

The established players in ruggedized gadgets are large electronics companies like

Panasonic

and

Sprint Nextel

(S) - Get Report

, which offer a line of military-grade computers and phones as niches within their overall product lines.

But about a month ago, I discovered a small outfit,

Tripod Data Systems, which makes a very sexy, uber-tough personal data assistant called the Recon.

Hanging Tough

Now, a word about ruggedized gear: If you are looking for the next incarnation of slim-tech like the

Motorola

(MOT)

Razr, or you are counting your pennies, ruggedized electronics are not for you.

My Recon, for example -- which came in a decent matte-gray finish -- is about the size of not one, but a half-dozen cans of Spanish anchovies, which puts the unit at two pounds.

And this PDA costs -- drum roll, please -- $1,698.

Oh, and you'll also need a spare battery or two, about $90 each, to make the thing really work.

I think the price is reasonable. But hey, that's me.

So what do you get for all that bulk and coin?

Utter security in knowing your electronics are bash-proof.

I had the time of my life proving just how tough the Recon was. I hammered the heck out of the thing. I dropped it. I played fetch with it and my dog Dexter. I rolled it down the steps into my stone-floor basement.

Trust me, nothing is more satisfying than throwing a $1,700 piece of electronics at your friends and not worrying one whit whether you will break it or not.

And as seriously overweight as the Recon was, it has a marvelous retro-heft to it. Like the original Western Electric rotary phone that didn't do much more than ring, the Recon has an old-school analog vibe -- a seriousness and value -- usually absent in cheap plastic modern digital electronics.

And talk about making a style statement.

When I pulled the Recon out at a show taping, not only did I have a grand time dropping it, everybody else there did too. The thing was the gadget-of-the-moment -- and this was in a room full of gadgets and nerds. That's darn cool.

Indestructibleness aside, the Recon is not a bad PDA.

The need to make a gadget tough enough for rain and snow forces designers to cut the techno frills. Buttons are simple. Commands are easy. (It's so simple, in fact, that I would recommend it to the less tech-savvy in a minute.)

The unit runs the Windows Mobile operating system, which handled my stories, scripts and business projections just fine. It syncs to a computer well enough and there are some nice connectivity options: a wireless connection, a universal serial bus connector and even an old-school serial connector for those aging peripherals.

The unit also runs a reasonably fast Intel processor, has enough memory and supports not one, but two, compact flash cards. Total storage goes up to about 16 gigabytes of memory, or enough room for thousands of songs.

And the company claims the unit is water resistant to one meter for 30 minutes.

I tried mine in the tub -- what is more fun than reading your email while soaking away the stress of the day?

However, the Recon is far from perfect. The stylus stinks. It's clumsy and so easy to lose that there's a hole in it so you can tie it to the unit.

Getting at the memory slots requires unscrewing two screws. That's fine, but the included stylus did not have the torque to do the job. Wireless networking was also unreliable, and the screen protector made the unit sometime impossible to control.

But in spite of these problems, there is no denying the big, dumb, ugly-American loveableness of the Recon. Sure, you'll have to bulk up at the gym to carry the thing, but the Recon is a beefy, yet stylish, way to carry your data in utter safety.

Think of the Recon as the Hummer of personal data assistants: You hate to love it. But you love it all the same.

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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.