Integrating Research and Education > Teaching with GeoPads > How to Use GeoPads > Selecting Hardware and Software

Selecting Hardware and Software

First, GeoPad, is not a specific brand or device, rather, it is a short-hand term coined to refer to the general combination of information technology that we feel has reached a level of maturity which provides attainable improvements and enhancements in teaching and learning for the Earth sciences, particularly in the field. A "GeoPad" is a pen-enabled computing device (i.e., a Windows XP Tablet PC) that is ruggedized, water-proof, and dust-proof and provides an outdoor-viewable display, wireless networking, and GPS. It has sufficient memory, disk space, computational horsepower and screen real-estate, to support the desired activities. It can run necessary software including GIS and an electronic notebook (i.e., OneNote), which provide a place to record, manipulate, and interpret data and observations in a variety of unified spatial and temporal contexts. Also, it is composed of readily available, off-the-shelf components, which can be easily incorporated into existing teaching and information technology support infrastructures.

Second, the specific hardware and software you select should be dependent on the learning goals and outcomes you plan to address through GeoPad-enabled activities. Budgetary constraints are also often an unwelcome, but important factor.

The basic design requirements of the GeoPad and GeoPocket are derived from the needs of students and instructors for field-based access to information technology. These requirements lead to two basic overall goals:

  • to augment the time spent in the field and not detract from educational or research activities, and
  • to maximize usability while minimizing the need for information technology know-how

To meet these goals and satisfy an appropriate set of requirements, we suggest considering the following key characteristics in selecting hardware and software for GeoPads and GeoPockets. The list we generate at this workshop is based on a wide array of experiences. Cost itself is certainly a key criteria as well, though it can be highly variable depending on what trade-offs you are prepared to make.

For a comparative review of field-based information technology, see: Clegg, P., Bruciatelli, L., Domingos, F., Jones, R.R., DeDonatis, M., Wilson, R.W. , 2006, Digital geological mapping with tablet PC and PDQA: A comparison, Computers & Geosciences, v. 32, p. 1682-1698.

Open-source versus proprietary software

  • MapWindow provides a good Windows-based Open Source GIS that mimics the ArcMap format. At present, there is no field mapping or tablet functionality. There is a demonstrated need to develop this capability if anyone in the community has the experience and desire to do so.

Generalized versus niche software (i.e., ArcGIS versus MapIt, GeoMapper)

  • Advantages: students learn to use common software they are likely to encounter in the future, often fits into existing campus IT support infrastructure
  • Disadvantages: generalization obscures domain-specific features and needs


  • The unit has to functional under typical field conditions, so it should be water-, sweat-, dust- and drop- resistant.

Outdoor-viewable screen

  • Readability of the display in full sunlight is a must (current technology isn't perfect in this area yet)
    • Low-contrast images, such as aerial photos present a much greater challenge then black-and-white text or USGS topographic maps.

Intuitive, pen-based user interfaces

  • Making maps and sketches are inherently drawing process and much easier to accomplish with a pen than a mouse; keyboards were rarely desired in the use cases we've explored, as data collection and general operations are well-supported using pen-based input.

Screen Resolution

  • Sufficient viewing area to provide an appropriate level of contextual information; we suggest a minimum of 1024 x 768 for students still developing their spatial reasoning skills.
    • A good rule of thumb is to view the real geologic map for an area to ensure that when you are zoomed out far enough to see the whole field area you can also still view sufficient details.
    • Viewing documents and figures in the field from references also generally requires a screen that can display close to a full page of journal text.


  • Sufficient memory to eliminate disk-swapping with multiple applications open
    • 1GB is a good rule of thumb today, however, the memory requirements for applications of each subsequent generation are generally greater than the last, so plan appropriately for the future by either buying more RAM upfront or ensuring that more RAM can be added later on.
  • Sufficient computational horsepower to support advanced data analysis and interpretation
    • 1GHz Pentium III M proves sufficient for the needs of 2006 students, however as IT evolves the need for faster processors is sure to follow.
  • Sufficient graphics capabilities to support advanced 3D visualization and data exploration.
  • Sufficient disk space to hold the necessary background materials. This can be highly variable depending on the complexity of the supplemental information you choose to provide, such as video, spatially-extensive data sets, reference papers, digital texts, etc.

Customizable GIS

  • Simplifying user-interfaces and stream-lining the mapping process is important for non-GIS-savvy users.

Wireless Networking

  • Wi-Fi
    • Used to support real-time collaborative activities, data backup, data sharing, distribution of materials
  • Bluetooth - by using this technology, users can have all computers coordinated.
    • Used to connect peripherals, such as GPS, audio headsets, digital cameras, data loggers

Data ports (e.g., USB, Firewire, serial, PC-MCIA, CF, SD)

  • Useful for non-networkable peripherals, such as analytical equipment
  • An inexpensive, quick field back-up solution is a USB flash drive


  • Hands-free harness
    • Increases students' stability on uneven terrain
    • Reduces chances for accidentally dropping a GeoPad
    • Ergonomically designed for extended periods of wear
  • No cables policy
    • Eliminates accidents related to snags or getting tangled up


  • Water-proof paper for color inkjets (sweat as well as rain)
  • Large-format paper to simultaneously display sufficient extant and detail

Other Considerations

  • Familiar vendorâ€"Using standard, readily-available, off-the-shelf components from a vendor whose equipment and service you are already familiar with helps ensure an easy fit into your existing IT-support infrastructure.
  • Minimize customizationâ€"For non-computer savvy audiences this enables rapid adoption and integration into existing education and research programs by supporting a low IT-knowledge entry threshold.
  • Powerâ€"Ultra-quiet, electronic-equipment-sensitive generator, gas can, external chargers, power strips, extension cords; We wanted users to be able to work in the field all day without carrying around a heavy unit or a stack of spare batteries. We also didn't want to be running a generator all night charging batteries. So it's a trade-off between battery -weight and -life here. A handy feature offered with some units is a separate, external battery charger that handles two batteries at once, which allows a user to keep working elsewhere, while two spare batteries are being charged. Also, set the power schemes; field-use shouldn't need wireless; base-camp might need wireless; and, disable resume passwords to save time and frustration (unless you really have critical info on-board).
  • Hardware upgradesâ€"Cost represents a significant constraint on large-scale adoption of IT in field-sciences, therefore, purchasing equipment with a history of upgradeability and a clearly defined path for doing so is important. Being able to purchase incremental upgrades, when significant advances in technology become available, rather than replacing entire units, is an important mechanism for minimizing the long-term costs of IT-enabling field science.
  • Warranty durationâ€"Outdoor-usable computer equipment comes at a premium price, and budgets for field courses are generally tight. You want to maximize the usable life-time of the equipment you purchase, so you may want to consider extended warranties. We hope to get a minimum of four to five usable years out of our equipment, and have settled on three-year warranties as our target.
  • Repair policyâ€"Some units do not have any user-accessible components (e.g., Xplore's iX104) and must be sent in for repairs or even upgrades. Some manufacturers, such as Panasonic, will immediately ship new equipment out, rather than have you wait for you own to be repaired; for example, if you break your screen, you can hang onto your hard drive, send the broken body in, and stick your hard-drive in the new unit when it arrives, thereby, minimizing your down-time.
  • Additional, non-IT equipmentâ€"Deploying information technology in the field can require additional support equipment, such as generators (and fuel), external battery chargers, extension cords, power strips, printers (and related supplies), spares, etc.

Other Useful Information

  • Walcott Scientific ( –a website with useful information about rugged tablets, notebooks, handhelds, GPS receivers, software, and a variety of help sheets, tutorials, and links to related resources.