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A buyer's guide to laptops -- from mighty mites to mobile monsters

By Brian Nadel
May 13, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Rugged

There's no denying that notebooks are fragile; normal daily use by an energetic traveler is often enough to trash even the best-made system. By contrast, rugged systems have been designed to be stronger, less prone to damage and more reliable even in the harshest conditions, including extreme heat, cold, moisture or dryness or during heavy vibrations. That's why you see them in all kinds of demanding environments, from police squad cars to construction sites to soldiers' backpacks in Afghanistan.

Panasonic ToughBook 30
The Panasonic ToughBook 30. Click to view larger image.

Rugged machines come in when mobility is a must and failure is not an option. Manufacturers of rugged laptops often put their systems through rigorous testing -- including dropping the system 3 feet, spraying it with water, trying to shake it to pieces and other insults -- to meet the U.S. Department of Defense's MIL-STD-810 criteria for survivability in military operations.

But not all rugged notebooks are created equal. To begin with, there are fully rugged systems, such as the Panasonic ToughBook 30 and General Dynamics Itronix GoBook XR-1, that start with a stout magnesium frame for mounting components that can take the slings and arrows of outrageous abuse and come back for more.

The base and lid are often clad in super-strong magnesium, the ports have doors or rubber seals to keep out the elements, and sensitive components, such as the hard drive and screen, are shock mounted to take a beating.

All that armor adds up to a case that's an inch thicker and often two pounds heavier than comparable non-ruggedized systems. That's why many come with a handle that makes carrying the rugged notebook a little easier.

By contrast, semi-rugged notebooks, such as Dell's Latitude E6400 ATG, may have plastic screen lids and don't cover all their ports. They are also thinner, lighter and cheaper.

Dell Latitude E6400 ATG
The Dell Latitude E6400 ATG. Click to view larger image.

To maximize reliability, both fully and semi-rugged systems often use older and slower (but proven) components. Forget about getting the latest processors or high-speed hard drives; these machines are about reliably getting the job done, even if you have to wait.

Because these are rugged, outdoorsy types of notebooks, their options go beyond what you can get on a normal system. Some have heaters for hard drives and screens so they'll work fine in subzero temperatures, and many have optional backlit keyboards so you can type in the dead of night.

Some, like Panasonic's ToughBook 19, have a touch-sensitive screen for drawing a map of the countryside or marking up a repair manual with notes. Many rugged systems come with a 3-year warranty.

These notebooks don't come cheap. Ruggeds typically cost between $2,000 and $5,000, depending on options, and semi-ruggeds go for about $1,000 less. But if reliability counts for everything, they're more than worth it.

Rugged laptops at a glance

Target audience: Rugged systems can survive drops, sand storms and even the odd spilt cup of coffee, so they're perfect for public safety, military and utility workers, as well as those who are very clumsy.

Panasonic ToughBook 30
The ToughBook has its own handle. Click to view larger image.

Pros: A rugged notebook will continue to work when others give up, reducing downtime and lost data.

Cons: The heavy-duty hardware makes them big, heavy and very expensive, costing several times more than non-rugged machines with comparable specs.

Typical size / weight: 12.0 x 11.5 x 2.7 in. / 8.5 lbs.

Screen size: 12.1 to 14.1 in.

CPU / RAM: 1.6 to 2.3GHz Intel Core 2 Duo / 1 to 4GB

Storage: 80 to 160GB HDD or up to 128GB SSD

Ports and connections: 2 to 3 USB ports, VGA, audio, Ethernet sometimes FireWire

Price range: $2,000 to $5,000 for rugged; $1,000 to $4,000 for semi-rugged

Examples: Dell Latitude E6400 ATG (semi-rugged), General Dynamics Itronix GoBook XR-1 (rugged), Panasonic ToughBook 30 (rugged)

Buying tips: If your work takes you out into the night and cold, get a backlit keyboard and a heated hard drive.

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