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.

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General Dynamics Itronix GoBook XR-1

Along with tanks and submarines, defense contractor General Dynamics also makes rugged notebooks for the military, businesses and public safety organizations, under the Itronix name. The company's best-selling model is the GoBook XR-1. It was the lightest and most powerful system in this group, but it fell short on battery life.

Housed in a pale blue magnesium-aluminum case, the XR-1 has a sturdy frame that is bolstered by plastic bumpers. All of its major components are shock-mounted, the screen lid is sealed, and most ports have doors, although the power connector, the cooling outlet and several ports are only partially covered.

GDI GoBook XR-1

Click to view larger image.

At 2.3 by 11.8 by 11 in. and weighing 8 lb., the XR-1 is the smallest and lightest system of the three. With the handle attached, the XR-1 hits the road with a travel weight of 8.9 lb.

Around the edge of the system is a good assortment of plugs, including three USB ports and connectors for external monitor, modem, headphone and microphone. The system also comes with wired and wireless networking. Like the Getac M230 and the Panasonic Toughbook 30, a cell network data card is an option, but the design lacks a flash card slot or FireWire port, both of which the Toughbook provides. The XR-1 does offer excellent security, with the one-two punch of a smart-card reader and a fingerprint scanner for identifying users.

The XR-1 has been on the market almost two years, and so its 1.83-GHz Intel Core Duo processor is a generation older than the Toughbook 30's. Inside are a DVD writer and a 120GB hard drive, which has a heater for subzero environments. It came equipped with a comfortable 2GB of system memory, and the system can hold up to 4GB of RAM.

Its 12.1-in. DynaView touch screen is fed by an ATI Mobility X300 graphics card with 256MB of video memory, half of which comes from the unit's RAM. Its touch screen worked well in direct sunlight and is great for drawing a map or making sketches in the field. The XR-1 comes with two pens and tethers.

The XR-1 has a loud fan that goes through a diagnostic self-check with a loud blast on start-up, which didn't prevent a noticeable hot spot on the left side of the machine. Still, the system managed to outperform the other two systems when I ran them through the two performance benchmarks: Futuremark's PCMark05 and PassMark's Performance Test 6.1. This bears testimony to the XR-1's efficient electronic design and 2GB of system memory.

On the downside, the system's 7,200 milliamp-hour battery ran for only 2 hours 45 minutes on a charge. That's less than half the Toughbook 30's runtime. It also lacked the M230's LED charge indicators.

In the main event — my customized dropping, drowning, freezing, baking, spraying, vibrating and sandbox tests — the XR-1 suffered minor scratches from the drops, a couple of keys popped off during the vibration tests (they snapped back in), and the cooling fan started making grinding noises after the sand test. It also survived the dunk test, although the light on its AC adapter started to blink, indicating a possible electronic fault.

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Drop-testing the GoBook XR-1 rugged notebook. Click arrow button to play video. (Adobe Flash is required. Some browsers may require two clicks to start the video.)

In addition to Windows XP Pro with Service Pack 2 and software for configuring the smart-card reader, the XR-1 comes with Itronix's Mobile Tools. This set of utilities includes a power saver for controlling how much power each component uses.

The system is covered by a three-year warranty, and at $4,600, it's midrange between the other two in price, despite having the smallest display. All in all, if you're looking for a small, rugged system that values performance over battery life, the XR-1 is your kind of machine.

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