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

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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.

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."

How we tested

To get a good idea about the performance potential and survivability of these rugged systems, I first ran them through a series of performance and battery tests, and then tested the mettle of each by dropping, drowning, shaking and generally abusing them.

I used two benchmarks to gauge each system's performance potential: Futuremark's PCMark05 and PassMark's Performance Test 6.1 . Together they provide a good workout, exercising all components and reporting overall scores.

I also ran each notebook streaming an Internet radio station over Wi-Fi and timed how long it took to drain the system's battery. (Since most computers aren't used this consistently, expect real-world use to be roughly double the result.)

The drop test

While my rugged testing didn't fully meet the military's 810F test method standard (PDF) , it mirrors real-world situations that can destroy a notebook. First, to simulate a fall from a desktop or from being held by its handle, I started up each machine and, with the lid closed, dropped it onto its spine and bottom from a height of 29 inches. Then, with the machine turned off and in a notebook bag, I dropped each system from 60 inches to replicate a fall from an airline luggage rack.

The good news is that all three notebooks survived this key test of toughness -- one that would generally do extensive damage to traditional notebooks. The bad news is that the Itronix XR-1 not only opened on one of the drops but was scratched along its spine. However, it ran fine.

Good vibrations

Using a vibration table, each notebook was set into a wooden box and shaken vigorously for 5 minutes. Then, using fine white sand, the systems were buried and shaken for another 5 minutes.

Again, the XR-1 suffered some minor damage -- two keys were shaken loose (they were easily snapped back into place), and the cooling fan started making a grinding noise every so often. The Toughbook 30's power switch caked up with sand but was easily cleaned.

Cold and heat

To imitate the sudden freezing, thawing and overheating of a notebook, I put each system into the freezer at 25 degrees Fahrenheit and let it sit there for 15 minutes. After they were allowed to warm up, I put them into an oven set to 175 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes.

All survived the temperature swings without any serious problems. The Toughbook's port cover for the power connector came loose, indicating that its material softens when heated.

Rainy days

With the system on and running the PCMark05 benchmark, I subjected each notebook to a simulated rainstorm. Using a paint gun set at 100 pounds per square inch, I doused each with a half cup of sprayed water. None sustained any damage.

I then went a step further and dunked each system underwater for 15 seconds. After allowing them to drain, I dried them with an air gun and then, more lightly, a blow dryer.

This test caused the most damage -- the M230 picked up water droplets behind its display and would not boot. No matter how much I tried, I couldn't revive it.

After being dried, the other two worked fine, except that the light on the XR-1's AC adapter started blinking, indicating a potential fault in the notebook's power system.

In the best of all worlds, your notebook wouldn't have to survive these kinds of conditions -- it would never be dropped, or caught in a rainstorm, or accidentally shaken around in the trunk of your car. But then, we don't live in the best of all worlds, do we?

LaCie offers a hard drive for tough times

If the 80GB of storage that either the Toughbook CF-30 or the GoBook XR-1 provide are too constricting, but you don't want to give up the peace of mind that rugged design and construction provide, there's another way: the LaCie Rugged Hard Disk.

At 8.8 oz. and measuring 1 by 3.5 by 5.7 in., it's about the size and weight of other portable hard drives, but there's a big difference: This drive has soft rubber edging and internal bumpers, as well as a tough aluminum shell to protect the drive inside. (On the other hand, all its ports are open to the environment, which is a definite drawback.)

The 160GB model we looked at is a jack of all trades: The 2.5-in. drive has 8MB of hardware cache and includes USB 2.0, FireWire 400 and FireWire 800 connectors for $150.

After I plugged it in, the drive automatically set itself up on Windows XP, Vista and Mac OS X systems and yielded 149GB of usable space. It was powered by either the FireWire or USB cable. The LaCie worked well with four test computers, stayed cool and operated quietly.

As measured by Simpli Software's HD Tach benchmark on a ThinkPad X300 with a USB 2.0 connection, the drive had an access time of 17.8 milliseconds and a peak burst speed of 35.4Mbit/sec., which is competitive with the stated performance of other external hard drives.

The LaCie drive also performed admirably through my torture tests . It survived six drops from 29 inches, freezing, heating, and being sprayed with an ounce of water &mdash and kept on running.

LaCie's Rugged Hard Drive comes with a three-year warranty, as well as backup programs for PCs and Macs. All told, it's a quick way to make sure your data always has a safety net.

This story, "It's a hard-knock life: 3 rugged notebooks take a beating" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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