You are here

GIS Tablets: 7 Questions You Were too Embarrassed to Ask

To clarify, this is not an article about maps inscribed on stone or clay — BUT thinking about such tablets does make me think about the earliest days of shared access and mobility! Babylonian Map of the World - GIS TabletsA map on a large stone tablet would be too heavy to haul around. If that were your only cartographic medium, you might start thinking about cloth as an alternative, encourage folks to come to your location for viewing, or start thinking about how to get your map onto a smaller stone — whether by reducing size of the map, by presenting a smaller portion of the map, or by seeking out a smaller, lighter-weight, more portable stone. Which brings me forward again to the tablets of today — and how they enhance your GIS work!

1. What is a tablet?

A tablet is a mobile, personal computer that is larger than a smart phone and typically smaller than a notebook. Tablets have a touch interface. This allows for input directly via the screen as opposed to via mouse or keyboard (i.e., a keyboard with actual keys on it). Tablets do offer a virtual keyboard because virtual keys can be activated via screen touch. This is true whether you use fingers or a stylus. And although tablets can be used to take notes, they’re not considered notebooks because of differences in form factor.

2. What is form factor?

Form factor relates to the size and shape of a hardware device. Notebooks are rectangular. They also all take on a clamshell-form, which means they open to a screen at the top and keyboard at the bottom. Within the notebook family, form factor may vary based on differences in size, thickness and weight (e.g., Ultrabooks and Netbooks).


Clam - GIS TabletsTablets cannot be opened like a clam because their form is flat and they provide a screen only. And to keep you on your toes, know that there are also convertible tablets. These can function as a standalone screen or as a notebook with a physical keyboard. As soon as you remove a keyboard from a convertible, the screen you’re left working with, though potentially same in dimension as a notebook, will technically result in a lighter and thinner amount of hardware overall. Thus, tablets are typically considered smaller in size than notebooks. Still with me? 

3. When is a device considered mobile? 

In this age of the Holocene Epoch, we all know we can throw a desktop into the back seat of a car. So these devices are technically portable. But they are not what I think of when I consider true device mobility. With a laptop, I can easily sachay from kitchen table to bean bag or to sunny deck chair, drink in hand, in a single trip. Sounds mobile to me! I must admit, though, that that sort of laptop maneuver is most often done with a mouse or power cord tucked under my arm, using both hands on the device to ensure I don’t drop it, and requiring a second trip to grab that drink so there’s no spill.

Devices that are truly considered mobile are wireless, can easily be held with one hand, and have an operating system that supports mobile applications. Mobile devices include tablets, smartphones and other smart devices such as phablets (if included for no other good reason here, it’s phun to say). Needless to say, tablets by definition are mobile! 

4. Why would I want to put GIS on a tablet? And what is special about GIS Tablets? 

GIS Tablets

At first blush, the reason why is less about GIS tablets specifically and more about going mobile. Let’s remember that the intent of GIS is to capture, store and display data that’s related to locations on the earth’s surface. Also, most of the surface we’re interested in is outside and not typically within a short distance of where we start our business day. This is certainly of no surprise given the heart of GIS is geographic in nature. What is newsworthy is the ever-increasing convenience, accuracy, reliability and ruggedness of methods for taking maps out into the field in a digital (as opposed to paper) form. Enter GIS tablets. There are advancements in how quickly and efficiently those methods can be used for spatial reference and the collection and immediate association — via digital input — of field observations that impact the data we initially brought with us. This is what makes GIS tablets so powerful and why you find them so often with field crews. 

A few benefits of using GIS tablets:

  • Efficiency gains resulting from fewer process steps, less redundancy, and higher work accuracy – This is realized via tools such as guidance to a work location using GPS-driven routing as opposed to human-powered map interpretation, and the integration of data entry forms and geodatabase on a single device (your GIS tablets)
  • Lower cost opportunity – For example, in the case that application requirements and business policy allow for a BYOD (bring your own device) implementation approach or by reducing drive time costs as a result of field staff getting to the correct location the first time, every time
  • Public participation – Through mobile apps designed for reporting the location of maintenance issues such as potholes, trees down, or street lamps out.

5. Why go mobile with tablet versus smart phone or GPS device?

apples vs oranges - GIS TabletsAll three devices types have their merits. Consider factors that vary between them when you are considering going mobile. These factors include:

  • GPS capability – Since today’s tablets and smart phones contain a GPS chip, a GPS device is not required for locating purposes.  However, for some field purposes, it may be advantageous to connect to or use a GPS device to support higher accuracy positioning. That's because these devices tend to contain more powerful GPS chips.
  • Screen size – The larger screens that tablets offer allow for more data to be displayed, more room for sharing app with keyboard, and improved legibility without the additional zooming in, which might be required on a smart phone. The tradeoff is size of the device (i.e., a tablet won’t slide into a pocket like a phone will).
  • Ruggedness – When devices go out into the field they’re exposed to a greater risk of damage than typically encountered indoors. This is particularly true if they’re not meant to remain mounted to a vehicle dashboard. Consider whether your device type is designed to withstand dramatic temperature changes, intense sunlight, moisture, drops onto pavement or into the mud, a bumpy ride, or high-frequency use. Many utilities opt to ruggedize their GIS tablets. 
  • Battery life – Understand how long the type of device you’re considering can remain untethered in the field before the power will die. Consider your options for auxiliary power if needed (e.g., battery packs, chargers, power banks).
  • Storage space – Think about the optimal storage requirements for your mobile application and how much data the device will need carry out to the field and bring back. Consider this both daily and over time.
  • Processor performance
  • Device cost per unit and reliability track record

6. So, what exactly is a GPS device?

GPS triangulation - GIS TabletsA GPS device receives information from GPS satellites to calculate its location. These devices have been around for a while, ranging in simplicity from small, recreational hand-held hiking tools (with push button waypoint-entry interfaces and more time needed to acquire their multi-satellite-fix for triangulation) to more sophisticated devices (such as those on-board automobile systems).

So, you now might ask: Don’t GPS devices crossover with smart phones and tablets?  And I’d say, “Sort of.” Meaning that it is their capabilities that do. See question 5 above.

7. How do I choose from among the many GIS tablets in use today?

I’d combine an assessment of basic tablet characteristics — contour, thickness, weight and size — with an assessment of the characteristics of tablets designed specifically to withstand outdoor use.

  • Contour refers to shape (e.g., tapered versus squared) and materials that form the case or edge of the device. Both of these dictate how well the device conforms to a hand.
  • Thickness ties into how easy it is to hold the device and helps establish its resistance to flexibility.
  • Weight primarily comes into play if the tablet will be held for an extended period.

As you refine your list of GIS tablets, the impact of the above characteristics will draw an "Aha!" upon actual handling of the device. Handheld assessment is a must.

GIS tablets can be found in a myriad of sizes ranging from 5+ inches (which are perhaps less common these days as smart phone screens continue to expand and transition into that phablet space) on up to 13 inches and beyond (reaching to what I’d call TV-caliber size). Look for the size that will optimally provide the display-area extent and legibility (think text and object size plus resolution) that best serves effective use of your field application. Keep in mind that if the end-user viewing experience is not ideal, it’s bound to slow down work performance.

GIS tablet - GIS TabletsAnd in anticipation of that field trip consider a few more variables about GIS tablets:

  • Sunlight readability – including glare and reflection resistance
  • Robustness of capacitive touch features – these may range from an ultra-sensitive ability to detect glove-covered finger taps through to availability of locking mechanisms to prevent unintended touch activation
  • Battery capacity – further to my earlier comments about battery life, know that some tablets support a hot-swap capability i.e. allowing for batteries to be switched out without turning off the device
  • Ruggedness – as previously mentioned, be sure to investigate tablet casing options, temperature exposure thresholds, shock absorbency
  • Vehicle mounting options
  • Carrying case / shoulder strap needs
  • Peripherals support – if/as needed to activate cellular use or barcode scanning

All things considered, remain cognizant that no matter what GIS tablets you consider, the success of the device is dependent on quality and effectiveness of the software solutions and data that will reside there.

Author Information

  • Diane Causey

    Diane Causey is a Senior Consultant at the Utility & Telecommunications GIS consulting company SSP Innovations in Centennial, Colorado. She is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) with over 20 years of GIS project experience in roles related to project management, requirements elicitation, quality assurance, knowledge management and document quality control.

    See all items created by this author >

    Connect with me on:

Category Tags:

Diane CauseyMobile

Add new comment