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July 07, 2004
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Rugged Notebooks: Putting Four Rugged Computers to the Test

Tired of flimsy notebooks that can’t take the heat? We test four rugged systems that are built to last.

By Rich Malloy
Laptop Magazine

Handle Without Care
Rugged notebooks are the Abrams tanks of the portable PC world: they usually feature sturdy magnesium cases with rubber bumpers outside and well-cushioned innards. Keyboards are hermetically sealed to protect against spills, and all connectors are equipped with water- and dirtproof covers. Their displays are designed to be readable even in direct sunlight, and most are equipped with touchscreens to allow easy clicking in tough conditions.

Of course, all this protection does not come cheap. The typical price of a rugged notebook is more than twice that of a standard one. But since rugged systems last three or four times longer in the wild than their wimpier cousins, they quickly begin to pay for themselves.

Rugged systems also tend to eschew the latest and greatest processors. Their role is not to be the fastest number-cruncher, but to avoid being crunched themselves.

The most grueling application for these devices may be military patrols in Iraq and Afghanistan, but there are dozens of other uses, ranging from agriculture to zoology. Besides the military, the most common applications for these sturdy systems include law enforcement, telecommunications, and healthcare.

For this test we gathered three of the most popular ruggedized notebooks—the Itronix GoBook II, the Panasonic Toughbook CF-29, the Rugged Notebooks Rough Rider Junior Model W130—plus one rugged Tablet PC, the Xplore Technologies iX104-TPC. On the inside, these systems had similar specs. The biggest difference was the processor, which ranged from a sluggish Pentium III M to a relatively speedy Pentium M.

Chill, Spill, Bake, Break

Because these notebooks are so rugged, we supplemented our normal performance and battery tests with a grueling gauntlet of durability trials designed to see whether these systems could meet the U.S. military’s supertough specifications. We froze the notebooks, subjected them to a simulated rainstorm, baked them for an hour, and dropped them three feet onto a layer of plywood over concrete. (See Don''t Try This at Home for all the gory details.)

With some notable exceptions, these notebooks did fairly well. Of course, the system with the Pentium III M processor fell way behind in the speed tests, but the others were relatively powerful. Two notebooks had battery problems in the freeze test, but only one notebook suffered lasting damage: a failed screen backlight following the drop test. And when all the dust settled, one rugged system clearly stood above all others.

As more and more laptops venture out into the cruel world, the market for rugged systems will grow. To find evidence of this trend, you need look no further than the recent entrance of Hewlett-Packard into this market. This PC giant has developed a rugged notebook in collaboration with Itronix, and some similar systems will surely follow.

You don’t need to be a field worker to own a rugged laptop. You just need to be someone who wants their investment to stand up to the bumps, falls, and spills of the real world.

Don''t Try This at Home
All of the notebooks in this group claimed to conform in whole or in part to the MIL-STD 810F Military Environmental Test Standard. So we performed four tests that either equaled or approached the level of abuse the military expects of its equipment.

Chill
We froze each notebook for one hour at 10° F. We then removed each system from the freezer and immediately powered it up. The military demands its equipment to operate at -4° F, but we can''t imagine people, let alone computers, working at that temperature.

Spill
We dripped 200 ml of water (about six ounces) from a height of two feet over a period of two minutes on the keyboard and wrist rest of each notebook. Each system was off and all ports were sealed shut. In the case of the Tablet PC, we dripped the water on the screen. This volume of water approximates the four inches of rain per hour outlined by the military specifications. Although six ounces does not sound like a deluge, it was more than enough to saturate the keyboard surface.

Bake All of the notebooks in the group specified a maximum operating temperature of 140° F or higher. But because there is a small but finite possibility that some Lithium batteries may undergo "thermal runaway" at these temperatures and burst into flames, we chose a safer test temperature of 120° F. We baked each notebook at this temperature for an hour, removed it from the oven, and powered it up.

Break For our drop test, we performed one drop of three feet onto a one-inch layer of plywood over concrete. We built a special drop-test machine that ensured that each notebook would fall precisely on its spine.

Note that even our lower-impact tests are beyond the capabilities of all mainstream notebooks, so get your laptop out of the oven before it melts.

Itronix GoBook II
Of the rugged notebooks in this group, the Itronix GoBook II probably has the most features. That shouldn’t be a surprise; with a weight of 7.9 pounds, this laptop was also the heaviest of the group.

The most striking feature on our test unit was the optional Bat Hook handle, which attaches to the spine of the notebook for easy carrying. This curved handle can also slip over a steering wheel, providing a unique and passable laptop desk.

On the right side of the display there is a flexible rubber wireless antenna, evidence of this system''s impressive communications capabilities. Itronix designed the GoBook II to support no less than three simultaneous wireless modes. A typical configuration may be a wireless LAN, a cellular wireless modem, and Bluetooth. The GoBook II also has a modular internal design that enables users to upgrade to newer wireless adapters as they become available.

One particularly field-friendly feature is the optional backlit keyboard. For government security work, there is a removable hard drive, ingeniously located right behind the notebook''s battery. Our test unit featured a 1.7-GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB of DDR memory, a 40GB hard drive, and a DVD drive safely ensconced behind a waterproof door.

Prices for the GoBook II start at about $4,000. Our test unit, which featured an optional transmissive display for better performance in direct sunlight, a backlit keyboard, a wireless LAN adapter, a Sprint wireless modem, and the unique Bat Hook handle, costs $6,073.

Tough Enough?
Although the GoBook II looked stunning on paper, it stumbled in our tests. Its Pentium 4M processor garnered an average score for performance, but its battery endurance of not quite three hours was the shortest of the group, despite the notebook''s ample weight. Later, in our freeze test, the GoBook''s battery lost power. Fortunately, when the system warmed up a bit, the battery returned to normal.

In our water-torture test, the touchpad refused to function while inundated with liquid. Only when we wiped all the water off did the GoBook start to work again. By contrast, the touchscreen worked quite well with our wet fingers.

The GoBook had its most serious setback in our drop test. After our three-foot fall, the screen backlight no longer worked. In bright light, we could estimate what was on the screen or we could hook it up to an external monitor, but we could no longer use the notebook effectively by itself. This damage was surprising because the display is secured to the main unit with three sturdy-looking hinge modules, which would seem to protect the screen.

There’s a lot to like about the Itronix GoBook II, particularly its prodigious wireless capabilities. But given its test results, we don’t think this system is worth the high price.

Itronix GoBook II
Rating: Two Stars (out of Five)
www.itronix.com

Pros

  • Supports three wireless connections
  • Removable hard drive
  • Steering-wheel hook built in

    Cons

  • Battery faltered in freeze test
  • Screen backlight damaged during drop test
  • Lowest battery endurance
  • Heavy

    Panasonic Toughbook CF-29
    Panasonic Notebook The Japanese giant Matsushita has been producing rugged notebooks under the Panasonic banner since 1996. That company''s line of Toughbooks has been particularly popular among police departments, where it claims to have 80 percent of the market.

    The newest Toughbook, the CF-29, features a solid-looking magnesium alloy case. Inside our test unit was a 1.2-GHz Pentium M processor, 256 MB of memory, and a shock-mounted hard drive. Our unit also included an optional touchscreen and a stylus. Unfortunately, there was no tether or garage for the stylus (a tether is available).

    The only other fault we could find with the Toughbook CF-29 was its touchpad. For some reason, Toughbooks have always had sluggish touchpads. Simply moving the cursor across the screen required a slew of finger movements.

    Tough Enough? Powered by its Pentium M processor, the Toughbook CF-29 raced through our system performance tests, garnering the highest scores of the group. Also, its battery endurance was sublime, at just over 6.5 hours.

    In our durability tests, we saw only one problem. After freezing, the battery had somehow become loose. After we reseated the battery and secured it, though, the system worked fine. The Toughbook CF-29 was particularly good in the rain. Even though it was soaked, the touchpad worked without a hitch. (By contrast, the two other touchpads in this roundup seemed hydrophobic.)

    The Panasonic Toughbook CF-29 is an impressive system. With a starting price of $4,000, it offers excellent performance and impressive durability.

    Panasonic Toughbook CF-29
    Rating: Four and a Half Stars (out of Five)
    www.panasonic.com/toughbook

    Pros

  • Fastest performance
  • Incredible battery life
  • Unmatched durability

    Cons

  • Sluggish touchpad

    Semi-Able to Take a Beating
    Rugged notebooks are built to take all sorts of abuse, but for many, rugged systems look a little too much the part with rubberized bumpers, metal reinforcing, and often a suitcase handle that makes the thing look more like a bomb than a computer. Professionals who work out in the field—but not in the most hostile of conditions—might do just as well with a semi-rugged system.

    Fully-ruggedized systems need to meet military classifications, including the ability to withstand a three-foot drop, a few inches of rain per hour, and extreme hot and cold temperatures, but these rigid guidelines do not apply to semi-rugged systems.

    The leader in semi-ruggeds, Panasonic, classifies a semi-rugged notebook as having a magnesium casing and cushioning that allows the LCD and hard drive to free-float in the chassis, absorbing the shock of a one-foot drop.

    Other than a lower price, the main benefit of a semi-rugged system is that manufacturers are able to build systems with more up-to-date specs, including faster processors. Faster processors tend to run hotter, but since a semi-rugged doesn’t have to be hermetically sealed, it can rely on a fan and vents to keep everything cool. Not all semi-ruggeds use fans, however: Panasonic’s W2 notebook uses cooling technology developed on their fully-ruggedized systems instead.

    A semi-rugged system simply offers a little more protection against everyday wear and tear than regular notebooks. According to Rance Poeher, president of PCSC, Panasonic’s Toughbook division, semi-ruggedized business accounts for about half of its business. "Customers are looking for something more durable than our plastic competitors."

    Panasonic’s Toughbook line of rugged and semi-rugged notebooks appeals primarily to government, military, and enterprise contracts, but small businesses and demanding individual users are showing interest. Now a handful of other notebook suppliers are starting to get in the game, including Twinhead and Rugged Notebooks Corporation. Here’s a look at the latest semi-rugged offerings.

    Panasonic Toughbook W2 Can a semi-rugged system actually look cool? It can if it’s this Panasonic, which comes with a top-loading DVD drive and weighs only 2.8 pounds. The magnesium-alloy case and shock-mounted hard drive give you all the durability you need for turbulent flights and bumpy roads, and an ultralow-voltage 900-MHz Centrino processor ensures you’ll have plenty of time to work (or watch a DVD) after you’re done checking your e-mail. Throw in a three-year warranty and you’ll rest easy with this tough ultraportable.
    www.panasonic.com

    Twinhead N15RN
    Among the first commercial options for the semi-rugged market, the Twinhead N15RN comes with an Intel Pentium 4 1.8-GHz or Celeron processor and specs you would expect to see in a conventional notebook. What’s different is that the magnesium casing is a bit heavier and much more durable. While the unit is not fully sealed, it features a keyboard that can withstand the occasional overturned latte.
    www.twinhead.com

    Rugged Notebooks Hawk
    With a design identical to the Twinhead’s, the Hawk offers a few extra features that that make this system more attractive to field workers, including an optional transflective LCD that blunts outdoor glare, and a touchscreen for quick-and-easy data entry.
    www.ruggednotebooks.com

    Rugged Notebooks Rough Rider Jr.
    If you can imagine such a thing, the Rugged Notebooks Rough Rider Junior is the ultralight of the rugged notebook class at 6.2 pounds. The Rough Rider packs in a lot of features, including a magnesium alloy case, a 1.1-GHz Intel Centrino Pentium M processor, 256MB of memory (expandable to 1GB), a 40GB hard drive, and a 12.1-inch display that doubles as a touchscreen.

    Like all the other notebooks in this group, the Rough Rider sports a variety of communications options. In addition to the relatively common modem and wired LAN adapter ports, our test unit featured standard WLAN. There is also an optional cellular modem available. On the back of the display is a small antenna that can be extended for better signal strength.

    Of course, the small size does have its drawbacks, but in this case it’s just a minor one. The Rough Rider has only a single Type II PC Card slot and thus is unable to accommodate thicker Type III cards.

    With retail prices starting at $3,499, the Rough Rider is the most affordable notebook in the group. For those on a tight budget, Rugged Notebooks makes leases available.

    Tough Enough?
    The Rough Rider did quite well in our speed tests; this model placed a close second behind the Panasonic Toughbook CF-29. The Rough Rider also took second place in our battery test, where it endured for almost five hours.

    In our durability tests, the Rough Rider was equally impressive. The only problem was the touchpad. As was the case with the Itronix GoBook II, the touchpad failed underwater: we had to wipe the water away to get it to work correctly. Fortunately, the touchscreen remained responsive.

    If you want good performance, ruggedness, and portability in a value-priced package, look no further than the Rough Rider Junior.

    Rugged Notebooks Rough Rider Jr.
    Rating: Four Stars (out of Five)
    www.ruggednotebooks.com

    Pros

  • Light design
  • Fast performance
  • Good battery endurance
  • Relatively affordable

    Cons

  • Touchpad had problems in water

    Xplore iX104-TPC
    Being the only Tablet PC in this rugged crowd, the Xplore iX104-TPC was easily the lightest system of the group. Of course, that light weight comes at a price. There is no keyboard, and the Tablet''s 10.4-inch screen is the smallest in this roundup. Out in the field a keyboard could be a liability anyway, and a 10.4-inch screen just might be all you need.

    Compared with the other systems we tested, this Tablet was hobbled by a relatively old Intel Pentium III Processor-M. Despite a complement of 256MB of memory (expandable to 512MB), this device could not compete with the rugged systems powered by later-vintage processors.

    The iX104 includes support for simultaneous WLAN, Wireless WAN, or GPS connectivity. There is a PC Card slot for this purpose, along with two internal antennas. Our test unit also included an optional 802.11b WLAN adapter.

    Once the Tablet is on, you can use the power button to turn off the screen backlighting, which might come in handy during a nighttime stealth operation.

    In addition to the standard set of connectors, this Tablet includes two sealed 10-pin USB ports for use with Xplore''s expansion modules. This enables the system to be used with a range of external accessories such as car mounts and desk stands. Our test unit, in fact, arrived with a nice looking desk stand that doubled as a docking station.

    Tough Enough?
    Owing to its relatively dated Pentium III Processor-M, the Xplore Tablet lagged way behind in our system performance tests. But despite its small size, this Tablet’s battery lasted just short of four hours.

    In our durability tests, the Xplore had only one problem: the battery died after being frozen. Even the LEDs would not work. It did, however, spring to life when we tried to power up with the AC adapter, and once the system warmed up a little, the battery revived.

    Given the difficulties most of the notebook touchpads had with our rain test, we were a bit apprehensive about how the Tablet PC stylus would work while soaked. Despite being covered with a layer of water, the Xplore’s screen worked fine. In fact, it was quite amazing to use the stylus in what was effectively a small puddle.

    Comparing the Xplore iX104-TPC with the notebooks in this group is a bit like comparing apples with oranges. Although it''s relatively slow, it should work fine anywhere you need a Tablet, except perhaps Antarctica.

    Xplore iX104-TPC
    Rating: Three and a Half Stars (out of Five)
    www.xploretech.com

    Pros

  • Light slate design
  • Works well in wet conditions
  • Good expansion options

    Cons

  • Slow performance
  • Battery failed in freeze test

    HP Enters the Race
    HP Rugged Notebook Initially a small niche market, the rugged notebook arena has now grown so large it has attracted the attention of one the largest PC manufacturers in the world. Hewlett-Packard has just introduced a rugged notebook of its own. Actually, the HP nr3600 is practically identical to the Itronix GoBook II, which was designed in collaboration with the computer giant.

    The nr3600 features a 1.7-GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor backed up with 256MB of DDR SDRAM (expandable to 1GB), and a shock-mounted 2.5-inch 40GB or 80GB removable hard disk drive. An optional heater for the hard drive ensures operation down to -10° F. A media bay accepts an internal CD, DVD, CD-RW, combo DVD/CD-RW, or floppy drive as well as a second battery.

    This model has a 12.1-inch transmissive display for outdoor use that’s a touchscreen for easy data entry. An ATI MOBILITY RADEON graphics accelerator with 16MB of SGRAM handles the graphics. The 7.9-pound laptop comes with a three-year warranty. HP claims that the system exceeds the MIL-STD 810F standard military specification for ruggedness.

    According to Shab Madina, a worldwide product marketing manager for HP, the key factor for rugged notebooks is wireless connectivity. Like the GoBook, the HP nr3600 will be able to accommodate three simultaneous wireless connections. It will also feature iCareMobility software to enable the system to roam transparently from a relatively slow wireless modem connection to a speedy wireless LAN whenever it comes within range. The nr3600 should be available now for a price of approximately $5,000.

    Why is HP entering the market now? "Customer demand," says Madina. The main competitive advantage that HP will bring to this market is the company''s large size. The Itronix GoBook made it to the market first, according to Madina, because HP had to make sure its laptop received various Microsoft certifications.

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