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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Panasonic Toughbook 30

It's easy to see why the Panasonic Toughbook 30 is the market leader for rugged systems. On top of being the most up-to-date system of its kind on the market, it delivered more than 7 hours of battery life and stood up to the torture tests. On the downside, it fell short on performance.

With its handle in place, the silver and black Toughbook 30 measures 2.8 by 11.9 by 11.3 in., making it the thickest of the bunch; like the others, you can cut an inch off of its depth by unscrewing the handle. It weighs 8.4 lb. with the handle — just a few ounces more than the XR-1, which has a smaller screen. With its AC adapter, the Toughbook 30 has a 9-lb. travel weight.

Panasonic Toughbook 30

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Arguably the most carefully engineered notebook reviewed, it has a magnesium case and shock-mounted components; doors or covers seal all its openings. Even the system memory modules are held in place with rubber bumpers, and the display has a replaceable plastic screen guard.

Inside is a 1.6-GHZ Core 2 Duo processor backed up by an 80GB hard drive and 2GB of system memory; the system can hold up to 4GB. Its 13.3-in. display has an antiglare coating and did well in direct sunlight. It has the latest Intel 965 graphics controller, which can borrow up to 384MB of system memory.

While its array of ports can't touch that of the M230, the Toughbook 30 has what's needed on the road. There are three USB connectors, audio jacks for a headphone and microphone, and ports for a serial connection and an external monitor. While it's the only one of the three to include an SD flash card slot, FireWire connector and an Xpress card reader, the Toughbook 30 lacked a fingerprint scanner or smart-card reader; adding both costs an additional $140.

Communications are covered with a modem, wired LAN and wireless networking. Although all three systems offer a cell network data card as an option, the Toughbook 30 was the only one to include it in the test unit. The Sierra Wireless radio quickly connected to Sprint's EV-DO network and was able to download data at 520Kbit/sec. and upload it at 154Kbit/sec. — more than enough for all but the biggest mobile data hogs.

The thing that really stood out, however, was the Toughbook's battery life of 7 hours 20 minutes — more than twice that of the XR-1. It lacks the LED charge indicators that the M230 has.

It's unfortunate that the price to pay for this long battery life is subpar performance. Despite having the newest hardware and design, the Toughbook 30 lagged behind the field, with the slowest PassMark Performance score and the middle score on the PCMark05 benchmark. Still, it never left me hanging or froze up.

In spite of dousing, dropping, burying, cooking, freezing and dunking it, the Toughbook 30 came back for more. I found no damage after any of the tests, although the cover for the power connector broke off after being baked, indicating that the plastic used softens when heated.

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Drop-testing the Panasonic Toughbook 30. Click arrow button to play video. (Adobe Flash is required. Some browsers may require two clicks to start the video.)

On top of Windows XP Pro with the Service Pack 2 updates, the system came with a good assortment of utilities, including a great program called Panasonic Handwriting for scribbling, sketching or writing on the touchpad. My favorite was the utility called (appropriately) Battery Calibration, which makes sure you get every minute out of the power cells.

According to Panasonic, you'll find the Toughbook 30 on duty in Afghanistan, Iraq and America's urban battlegrounds. It performs under the most stressful conditions and keeps running. At $4,773 (including the wireless modem), it's the most expensive of the group, but it proves the saying, "You get what you pay for."

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