Mobile Computing: Ruggedized Notebooks

Feature: Ruggedized Notebooks

It's safe to say that the hot-pink laptop Reese Witherspoon used in the movie Legally Blonde 2 would not qualify as a "ruggedized" notebook.

Ruggedized notebooks and Tablet PCs are the John Waynes of portable computing. They're macho--ready for action anywhere, anytime, in any condition. Drop them, spill liquid on them, expose them to harsh weather conditions; these machines can take it.

While ruggedized portables are designed with specialty markets in mind (such as law enforcement), anyone who travels frequently with a notebook may want consider one when buying a new computer. Let's take a closer look and see if a ruggedized portable makes sense for you.

What Makes a Portable Computer Rugged?

A portable computer especially designed for use in or on a vehicle, in the field, in a factory or warehouse, outdoors, or even in armed conflict, is said to be ruggedized or semi-ruggedized.

Ruggedized computers are, at heart, fairly typical notebooks; they've got standard processors, built-in wireless networking (usually), and so on. Unlike typical notebooks, though, ruggedized models come with a suit of armor and internal shock absorbers.

Consider the features offered in the Panasonic Toughbook, perhaps the best-known line of ruggedized portables:

  • Shock-Resistant Hard Drive. Toughbook internal hard drives are mounted in shock-absorbing polymer compounds, which protect the drive--and the data--from the impact of a fall or other jolt, according to Panasonic.
  • Spill and Dust Resistance. Sealants prevent liquid and dust from getting through the cracks in the keyboard and touchpad. An overlay panel on LCDs in some Toughbook models provides added protection against moisture and dust, the company says.
  • Magnesium Casing. Some Toughbooks feature full or partial magnesium casing, which promises extra protection against bumps, knocks, and falls.
  • Sealed Ports and Slots. To protect vulnerable areas where liquid and dust could easily enter--such as PC Card slots--Panasonic has added hinged aluminum alloy covers with environmental seals to certain Toughbook models.
  • Outdoor-Readable Displays. Some Toughbooks feature screens designed to be read outdoors or in. By comparison, the majority of commercial notebook screens look washed out when viewed outdoors.
  • No Fan. Internal fans are designed to cool notebooks, which can become overheated after hours of use. Panasonic claims its "unique" sealed case construction allows its Toughbooks to work without a fan or vents--which can expose internal components to dust and dirt. Not surprisingly, though, the lack of a fan can cause overheating in some ruggedized notebooks. For instance, Itronix's GoBook II was infamously dubbed the "quesadilla cooker."
  • Tested for Ultra Reliability. The most macho of Panasonic's Toughbooks have been designed with MIL-STD-810F test procedures to measure environmental reliability levels, according to the company. The U.S. government created the MIL-STD-810F specifications to test equipment against drops, shock, moisture, dust, exposure to extreme temperatures, and more.

What's the Catch?

Ruggedized notebooks cost--and weigh--more than portables aimed at general business users.

Consider the Toughbook 29, which Panasonic says is its most rugged. A Toughbook 29 comes equipped with a 1.3-GHz Pentium M processor, a 13.3-inch XGA display, 256MB of memory, a 40GB hard drive, the Centrino mobile chip set architecture, 802.11g wireless networking, and Windows XP Professional. In addition, the notebook includes built-in support for Bluetooth, wireless wide-area networking (via cellular networks), and GPS. Total weight: 7.94 pounds. Total system cost, at Group Mobile's Web site: $3677. And that doesn't include a CD/DVD drive. That's a lot of money for what is, ruggedized and wireless features aside, a fairly basic notebook.

For a nearly equivalent sum ($3710, at this writing), you could get a Dell Inspiron XPS multimedia powerhouse, with a much faster processor (3.4-GHz Pentium 4 with hyperthreading technology), four times the memory (1GB), and a hard drive twice the size (80GB). With Dell's notebook you get other extras that the Toughbook 29 lacks, such as a 15.4-inch WUXGA wide-aspect screen and an 8X CD/DVD burner; though 802.11 b+g wireless networking costs $80 extra and wide-area networking is another $149 or $179. GPS isn't offered as an option. Bottom line: You get a much more powerful system for your money.

Money Isn't Everything

Still, if you travel on business frequently, sometimes need (or want to) work outdoors, and often worry (with or without reason) about dropping or spilling liquids on your computer, you should consider a ruggedized or semi-ruggedized portable.

Plenty of choices are available. In addition to Panasonic, Amrel, Getac, Hewlett-Packard, and Itronix make ruggedized notebooks. (For more on HP's line of rugged notebooks, read "HP's New Notebooks Take a Beating.") Group Mobile specializes in ruggedized computing equipment.

One More Thing...

Keep in mind that some mainstream notebook makers have begun including in their products a few features similar to those in ruggedized computers. For instance, the ThinkPad X40 includes IBM's Active Protection System. The system includes built-in motion sensors that detect movement, such as a fall, and automatically spin the hard drive down to prevent data loss. Read PC World's review of the X40; for current prices, check our Product Finder.

Do You Use a Ruggedized Notebook?

I'm interested in hearing from mobile professionals who use a ruggedized notebook instead of a conventional model--by choice, not by necessity. Please send me e-mail.

Mobile Computing News, Reviews, & Tips

Notebook News: Sharp Ultraportable With Built-in Optical Drive

Most ultraportable notebooks, including Sharp's earlier Actius models, don't include built-in CD/DVD drives. Enter Sharp's new Actius MP30 ($1899), which weighs just under 3 pounds but includes a CD-RW/DVD combo drive, 802.11g Wi-Fi networking, and more. Another distinguishing feature: Like the earlier Actius MM20, you can use Sharp's newest ultraportable as an external USB hard drive for your main computer--which makes synchronizing files between the two easier, according to the company.

Consumer Advice: Best Places to Buy a Notebook

We did our own legwork, and we took a survey of our readers. We came to the following conclusions: The three best Web sites for buying a notebook (or any computer) are CDW, the Apple Store, and Dell. The best retail stores? The Apple Store, Best Buy, and CompUSA. Each retailer was ranked according to buying advice, pricing and rebates, selection, and return policies. Read "Best Places to Buy" for more findings.

Gadget News: Samsung's Portable Media Center Debuts

Not long after the Creative Zen Portable Media Center arrived, Samsung introduced its own PMC, the YH-999. The 20GB device plays videos and music, displays photos, features a 3.5-inch color screen, and is available for $500 from Best Buy.

For more about portable video players, read my column on the subject.

Gadget News: Digital Camera-MP3 Player Combo

Want to listen to tunes while you snap pictures? You can do it all with one device: the new Olympus M:robe series. The MR-500i (aka M:robe 500) combines a 20GB digital music player with a 1.22-megapixel digital camera. You control the device's many features using its 3.7-inch color VGA touch-screen, the company says. This gadget will be available in January for $500.

PDA News: Zaurus Now Includes a Hard Drive

It's always interesting to see what's coming out of Japan, right? Well, check this out: Sharp's latest Linux-based Zaurus PDA, available in November for about $730 in Japan only, has a 4GB hard drive.

The new Zaurus is 4.9 inches wide, 3.4 inches long, and 0.9 inches thick. It runs on a 416-MHz Intel XScale processor by Intel, and has 16MB of flash memory, 64MB of SDRAM, and a 3.7-inch VGA (640 by 480) screen that swivels and folds. The total weight, including built-in thumb keyboard, is 10.5 ounces, Sharp says. The PDA can act as an external hard drive to which you drag and drop Microsoft Office and image files, MP3 tunes, and more. Sharp is considering selling a version of the new Zaurus outside Japan, the company says.

Digital Camera Tip: Snap Before You Drive

Many of us rent cars when traveling for business. But sometimes, the car comes with preexisting conditions that the rental car later blames you for. To avoid that scenario, Mike B. of the Washington, D.C. area takes pictures of a rental car before accepting it. The images provide a visual record, with a date and time stamp, of the odometer and fuel gauge readings, any exterior dents or interior stains, and so forth. "The act of photographing the vehicle ... simplifies resolving any dispute that may arise," Mike says.

For more advice on using a digital camera for work, read my "Digital Camera Tips" column. For general tips on using digital cameras, browse Dave Johnson's Digital Focus columns.

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