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Gear Test: TDS Recon 400

The TDS Recon 400, manufactured by Tripod Data Systems of Corvallis, Ore., is a rugged, all-climate hand-held computer, or PDA, designed to withstand the marine environment.

The “In Depth” section of the September 2005 issue of Soundings described a new search-and-rescue tool that may be phased into mainstream use by the Coast Guard. The TDS Recon 400, manufactured by Tripod Data Systems of Corvallis, Ore., is a rugged, all-climate hand-held computer, or PDA, designed to withstand the marine environment. I was intrigued by it and was able to get one from the manufacturer for review. The Coast Guard is using the Recon aboard some of its SAR vessels in an effort to increase efficiency when responding to emergencies.

 With the GPS-equipped Recon 400 connected to a satellite phone aboard the SAR vessel, the Coast Guard base station can e-mail updated position information and revised search patterns directly to the Recon on the rescue boat, displayed on the unit’s 240-by-340-pixel color screen.


This eliminates the time-consuming process of hand-transcribing data to the boat’s navigational charts, freeing the crewmember for other critical duties on board.

The Recon has applications and features that may be of interest to recreational boaters, as well. In addition to functioning as an extremely rugged Windows Mobile Pocket PC-based PDA, the GPS-equipped Recon, when using the TDS TerraGuide software, allows you to download Maptech nautical charts, NDI Ocean Charts (BSB format), and U.S. Geological Survey topographical maps from your computer. With the software running on your computer, you can zero in on a region or locale, select the maps, and upload them into the Recon’s flash memory (128 MB available) or to an optional CompactFlash card. You can then plan a route, mark the waypoints, and plot your position in real time.

I was impressed with the Recon’s rugged, weatherproof construction. Despite its overall size of 6.5 by 3.75 by 1.75 inches — 2 inches taller, 1 inch wider and 1 inch thicker than my iPAQ — the ergonomically designed unit fits comfortably into my hand and is easily operated. There are six control buttons on the front panel — four of them user definable — and a rubber-coated four-direction control. The bulk and protection of the unit is created by its polycarbonate shell and removable rubberized end caps. The lower-end cap is referred to as the “Power Boot Module,” which incorporates a USB, 9-pin serial and external power connections along with the standard power for the Recon, a 3,800 mAh niMH rechargeable battery that the company says provides 15 hours of continuous operation at room temperature. After eight hours of operation, my test unit indicated about 30 percent power remaining.

The Power Boot Module can be changed easily in the field for one that is freshly charged, or replaced with an optional AA battery module for eight hours run time with alkaline cells or 16 hours with lithium batteries, according to the company. Although the Power Boot Module is designed to seal the Recon, none of the external connections were covered on my test unit. It seems to me that constant exposure to salt water would have an effect on the connections over time.

The standard “CF-Cap” on the unit top is designed to cover the two CompactFlash slots when small- to medium-size cards are used, such as WiFi and Bluetooth networking cards. The extended CF-Cap will cover the larger GPS module, and increases the overall unit length to more than 8 inches.

The manufacturer provides clear, self-adhesive screen protectors for the recessed front panel display. Their installation didn’t hamper the display’s responsiveness in any way. I found the 2.875-by-2.125-inch sunlight-readable color TFT display adequate for use in daylight, but the contrast and color of my test unit weren’t as vivid as those on more conventional PDAs that I have used. This may be due in part to the additional protection provided to the screen.

The Recon is said to be waterproof to IP67 specs (sealed against accidental

immersion in 1 meter for 30 minutes) and to meet military specifications for drop (26 drops from 4 feet on plywood-

covered cement), in addition to vibration and temperature extremes. Although my testing wasn’t quite as rigorous, I did repeatedly drop the Recon on a fiberglass deck without any hint of damage to the unit or incurring any operational glitches. Submerging the unit and leaving it under running water were equally uneventful.

Overall, I found the Recon 400 to be a well-designed and constructed hand-held computer that should survive in the marine environment. The limited instruction booklet assumes the user is familiar with standard PDA operation, but additional technical support is available from the manufacturer.

Designed to military specifications, the Recon is pricey compared to conventional PDAs or hand-held GPS/plotters. I’m not certain I can justify the price for my application, but it certainly would be nice to own. Retail pricing starts at $1,499, and the Recon 400is available directly from TDS or online at several specialty Web sites. Contact Tripod Data Systems at (541) 753-9322 or visit for more information.