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It's a hard-knock life: 3 rugged notebooks take a beating

We dropped, drowned and shook these fully ruggedized notebooks to see if they could hold up. Not all survived.

By Brian Nadel
May 15, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Anybody who has spent any amount of time working on the road has probably witnessed their share of notebook disasters: dropped from a hotel desk, shaken beyond repair in the trunk of a rental car or doused by a knocked-over cup of coffee. Too often, the result is a worthless chunk of plastic, glass and metal.

It's a sad and regrettable fact of mobile life, but some systems just aren't strong enough to stand up to the rigors of travel. And should disaster strike, forget about e-mail, accessing the corporate database, conducting Web research or even checking in with eBay and Facebook. In other words, you're on your own in a cold, cruel world without your most valuable work tool.

Enter rugged notebooks — designed and built to take a beating. "Rugged notebooks are designed to support mission-critical applications and are intended for use in harsh environments," explains David Krebs, mobile and wireless analyst at Venture Development Corp., a Worcester, Mass.-based market analysis firm. When a notebook fails, he continues, the concern is "not so much about the cost of replacing the device, but rather the cost in terms of not being able to perform one's job in the field."

Failure is not an option

According to Krebs, being dropped is the primary cause of premature failure of a notebook. After that, the rogue's gallery of notebook deaths includes getting it wet, letting it get too cold or -- more likely -- too hot, subjecting it to vibration, and allowing dust and dirt to gunk up a system's sensitive electronics.

Rugged notebooks have had those scenarios engineered out of them, resulting in units that can stand up to daily abuse and come back for more.

The market is growing quickly. In 2007, with sales of 575,000 systems, rugged notebooks made up only about 1% of the global notebook market. However, Krebs forecasts growth for rugged systems to top 11% annually, with sales reaching 879,000 systems in 2011.

The various rugged notebooks now on the market differ in many ways. However, they all start with a stout but lightweight magnesium-aluminum frame to hold everything securely in place. All fragile components, such as the hard drive, are mounted on rubber shock absorbers to dampen an impact. Some have their hard drives wrapped in a stainless steel shell. All key electrical components are sealed, and ports have covers to keep the elements out.

The design is topped off with a magnesium-aluminum skin that is 20 times stronger than the flimsy plastic that most notebooks use. Because they generally travel without a bag, most rugged systems have handy carrying handles that can be removed for those who like to travel lighter.

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Computerworld's Brian Nadel tries to break three rugged notebooks.
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A note of caution: There's rugged, and then there's rugged. Some manufacturers sell semirugged systems that have some of the abilities and attributes of these brutes but don't meet the gold standard for rugged systems — that is, the Department of Defense's 810F specification (PDF), which details a torture test for notebooks. Call it the ultimate school of hard knocks.

Gang of three

I checked out three 810F-compliant systems from General Dynamics Itronix, Getac and Panasonic. Besides putting them through standard performance benchmarking, I did my best to break each of these rugged systems. (It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it.)

I dropped them, sprayed them, shook them, buried them in sand, and tried to freeze and broil them. Finally, I tried to drown them (see "How we tested").

The bottom line is that these machines really are tough, but not completely impervious to damage. There were scratches, broken keys and, in one case, serious water damage. However, for the most part, they were able to withstand the kind of damage that most office workers could possibly subject them to.

It's a dangerous world out there, full of hazards just waiting to destroy a notebook. With a rugged notebook in hand, you can say, "Bring it on."



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