Reviews: Hardware (Devices)

Intrinsyc CerfPod

     Ever wonder how companies develop the operating systems for their devices? One great way to refine the Windows CE OS is using the Intrinsyc CerfPod to develop your CE based product. The CerfPod give developers everything they will need to test new builds of CE created using Platform Builder as well as the ability to modify hardware to suit their specific needs.
    The CerfPod comes in a huge box.  This is good since it is the price of a good quality desktop computer.  Incased in the pink packing foam is the aluminum base and the LCD/breakout board.  The LCD is surrounded by the same blue aluminum as the base, making for a very sturdy product. Exposed on the back side of the LCD is the CerfBoard and the breakout board.  The CerfBoard is Intrinsyc's main hardware product, and is the basis for all their devices. The CerfBoard is really a "one board computer", with the processor, RAM, ROM, expansion slots, network, and USB connection all right on one board.  The breakout board is what the CerfBoard is mounted on.  The breakout board contains many things including three serial ports, power switch, DIP switches, and various other connection and configuable parts.  One cool thing about the design of this product is that the LCD can be mounted either in a portrait fashion or landscape.
    I was very impressed with the included manuals.  They were very helpful in setting up the CerfPod and were also a help with connecting another Intrinsyc
product, the CerfCube (though the should be since both contain the same CerfBoard). The CD also has some nice tools and I especially like how code examples were included.
    Setup is very easy.  Plug in the power, network, and serial connection, then power it up and connect it to the base. Hyper Terminal setup is very easy since it is in the manual, but make sure to connected with an NT or 2000 system.  You actually don't even have to do that and can start using the device via the LCD.  The Windows CE desktop on the CerfPod looks much different then a Windows CE 3.0 PDA (Pocket PC).   It has a start menu on the bottom task bar along with My Computer, a Recycling Bin, IE, Media Player, and other apps on the desktop.
    Using Microsoft's Platform Builder, the CerfPod can become or do anything you want.   The system accepts new "versions" of CE deployed through Platform Builder.  Platform builder allows you to decided on what options will be included in your version of CE and how they will work.  For instance, say your company likes the idea of the CerfPod's design and decides to produces a small number of a similar product using the CerfBoard.  (Technically, a large number of devices could be produced using the CerfPod and CerfBoard as a platform for development.)   They would use the CerfPod to configure the board to support what they needed.  If they wanted it to support an attached keyboard, they would include that component.  They could also include components like Pocket Word, Excel, or Active Sync connectivity.  Once this OS is built, it can be deployed to the CerfPod and tested.  In smaller scale operations, the OS image could be deployed to the main board and then that installed to the new device.  Though this is not every step of the process required, it is a general view of what could be done. b Of course companies like Compaq would never use this to deploy iPAQ boards, but they could use a CerfPod for testing and development.  This product would be perfect for companies that wanted to use the CerfBoard in an integrated solution within their company.
    There are a few things that haven't been included that could be a vital part of a device.   One is a hot swappable CF slot.  Powering down and restarting only takes a few seconds, but this still is a nice feature.  Another slight CF problem is that the slot only supports 3.3V cards.  This isn't a huge probably since most cards are 3.3V based, but future cards could have problems.
     Since I am not a hardware developer, it is more difficult for me to use this like a hardware developer/engineer would.  I do have some opinions on the usability of the product (above), as well as some more about simple use of the product.  The first thing I notice is that Intrinsyc includes everything.  Crossover cable, network cable, serial cable, power, and even a stylus.  USB is the only cable not included, though this is only really needed in more specific cases.  The aluminum shells of the base and around the LCD is of great quality.  Of course I didn't test it's durability, but I am sure that it would take a hammer to damage the shells.  I really like the inclusion of the ability to turn the LCD to be horizontal or vertical.  Depending on what you are developing for this is critical and is simple to change the digital configuration in Platform Builder. Behind the LCD, the breakout board and CerfBoard is totally exposed.  This isn't that bad in most cases, though could be a problem is you are moving the CerfPod often.  All the ports, switches, and connections are positioned well for easy access except for two.  Since the CF slot is on the bottom of the CerfBoard, you really have to take off the board to get a card in or out of there.  The other port that is positioned bad is the network port.  Plugging in is fine, but it was more difficult for me to unplug. In some ways, it would be nice for the port to be flipped so you could get out the cable easier, though since the board is was not build for the Pod but the Pod for the board.  (As a note, the board could be flipped by the user but the user upside-down for CF access or better unplugging abilities for the network cable.)
     The CerfPod is priced near $2000, which seems like a lot for someone like me who would only use it at home and for fun, but really I think this is a very economical price for a business.  It is just priced nearer to a higher end desktop computer or an average laptop, which is what a home user might think of, but really this is a "Reference Platform" (or a testing/building station).  Considering some business software is more then twice the price of this product, I feel this is a very good deal.  With more and more OS's on the horizon, it is good Intrinsyc decided to make this product for development of CE based solutions.  Any hardware solution developer looking to develop a very small product the packs a punch, they defiantly should look to the Inrinsyc CerfPod for a fantastic development environment / Reference Platform.

Dave's Score - 8.0
This means, not exactly the "must have item of the year," but is cool and well developed.  Though this product is overall a good deal, it is more suited for someone with specific needs.  ** Specific note on this item: This product is for a developer, and would rank higher to a platform developer then to even a PDA power user. **

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