It's a hard-knock life: 3 rugged notebooks take a beating

Anybody who has spent any amount of time working on the road has probably witnessed their share of notebook disasters: dropped from a hotel desk, shaken beyond repair in the trunk of a rental car or doused by a knocked-over cup of coffee. Too often, the result is a worthless chunk of plastic, glass and metal.

It's a sad and regrettable fact of mobile life, but some systems just aren't strong enough to stand up to the rigors of travel. And should disaster strike, forget about e-mail, accessing the corporate database, conducting Web research or even checking in with eBay and Facebook. In other words, you're on your own in a cold, cruel world without your most valuable work tool.

Enter rugged notebooks -- designed and built to take a beating. "Rugged notebooks are designed to support mission-critical applications and are intended for use in harsh environments," explains David Krebs, mobile and wireless analyst at Venture Development Corp., a Worcester, Mass.-based market analysis firm. When a notebook fails, he continues, the concern is "not so much about the cost of replacing the device, but rather the cost in terms of not being able to perform one's job in the field."

Failure is not an option

According to Krebs, being dropped is the primary cause of premature failure of a notebook. After that, the rogue's gallery of notebook deaths includes getting it wet, letting it get too cold or -- more likely -- too hot, subjecting it to vibration, and allowing dust and dirt to gunk up a system's sensitive electronics.

Rugged notebooks have had those scenarios engineered out of them, resulting in units that can stand up to daily abuse and come back for more.

The market is growing quickly. In 2007, with sales of 575,000 systems, rugged notebooks made up only about 1% of the global notebook market. However, Krebs forecasts growth for rugged systems to top 11% annually, with sales reaching 879,000 systems in 2011.

The various rugged notebooks now on the market differ in many ways. However, they all start with a stout but lightweight magnesium-aluminum frame to hold everything securely in place. All fragile components, such as the hard drive, are mounted on rubber shock absorbers to dampen an impact. Some have their hard drives wrapped in a stainless steel shell. All key electrical components are sealed, and ports have covers to keep the elements out.

The design is topped off with a magnesium-aluminum skin that is 20 times stronger than the flimsy plastic that most notebooks use. Because they generally travel without a bag, most rugged systems have handy carrying handles that can be removed for those who like to travel lighter.

A note of caution: There's rugged, and then there's rugged. Some manufacturers sell semirugged systems that have some of the abilities and attributes of these brutes but don't meet the gold standard for rugged systems -- that is, the Department of Defense's 810F specification (PDF) , which details a torture test for notebooks. Call it the ultimate school of hard knocks.

Gang of three

I checked out three 810F-compliant systems from General Dynamics Itronix, Getac and Panasonic. Besides putting them through standard performance benchmarking, I did my best to break each of these rugged systems. (It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it.)

I dropped them, sprayed them, shook them, buried them in sand, and tried to freeze and broil them. Finally, I tried to drown them (see "How we tested" ).

The bottom line is that these machines really are tough, but not completely impervious to damage. There were scratches, broken keys and, in one case, serious water damage. However, for the most part, they were able to withstand the kind of damage that most office workers could possibly subject them to.

It's a dangerous world out there, full of hazards just waiting to destroy a notebook. With a rugged notebook in hand, you can say, "Bring it on."

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.

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 sketching a part. 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.

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 (4.1-in.) screen. 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.

Getac M230

Big and bold, the Getac M230 is the largest rugged system in our gang of three, but it leads in terms of the features it brings to the party. On top of having the largest screen of the bunch and the best array of connections, it's the least expensive.

Housed in a black magnesium-aluminum case, the M230 has protective rubber bumpers on its corners. At 12.8 by 13 by 1.9 in., it's a lot of notebook and barely fit into my bag; the system's depth can be reduced to 11 in. by taking off the handle. It weighs 9.2 lb., but that rises to a travel weight of 10.6 lb. with its AC adapter.

Clearly the largest and heaviest of the three rugged systems, the M230 has the largest screen of the group. The 14.1-in. display works well in direct sunlight and is fed with images by Intel's 945 graphics engine.

Because it lacks a cooling fan, the M230 is the strong, silent type. Relying on passive cooling, it never got hot. The system we looked at came with a 1.6-GHz Core Duo processor, an 80GB hard drive and a CD-RW/DVD optical drive rather than a DVD drive, putting it a step behind the Toughbook 30. The test unit came with 1GB of system memory, and it can accommodate up to 2GB of RAM.

Compared with the XR-1, the M230 is second best on security. It not only lacks a fingerprint reader, but its optional smart-card reader takes up one of the system's PC Card slots.

What it does have is room for the best assortment of ports this side of a desktop PC, all of which are sealed. On top of a pair of USB connectors, the system has plugs for microphone, headphone, modem and external monitor. It's a blast from the past with parallel, serial and PS/2 ports, as well as an infrared port for wireless data transfers. The system has a pair of PC Card slots but neither a flash card reader nor FireWire port, as is the case with the Toughbook 30.

The M230 unit we looked at came with wired Ethernet and Wi-Fi, and it has an external antenna plug. Like the others, the system can be ordered with a cell network data radio.

Without a fan, the M230 was able to run for 4 hours 25 minutes on its 7,200 milliamp-hour battery pack, second only to the Toughbook 30's run time. Unlike the others, its cells have LEDs that show the charge level -- but since you can't see them when the battery is installed, there's not much point to it.

The system's performance profile is a mixed bag. It was equipped with the slowest processor and recorded the lowest score on the PCMark05 benchmark. The M230 redeemed itself with a score on the PassMark Performance test that was midway between the Toughbook 30's and the XR-1's.

When it came to the torture tests, the M230 did well at first. It survived the drops, the spraying, the shakes, and the heating and cooling without a problem. However, it succumbed to the dunk test -- afterward, water droplets were visible behind the system's display (a sure sign that it wasn't fully sealed), and it would no longer boot.

Other than Windows XP Pro with Service Pack 2 updates, the M230 came with virtually no software. It has a three-year warranty.

Bottom line: Unless you plan to drop it in your pool, the M230 is the system to get if your work requires a large screen.

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.

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 plugs for serial and 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.

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