If You are considering a computer for your pickup truck office, there is a lesson to be learned from the U.S. forces in Iraq, plus a growing cadre of well-outfitted farm machinery field technicians and “county mounties.”
Think about buying a rugged computer that meets tough military standards for withstanding heat, water, dust, vibration and rough handling.
There probably are dozens of rugged (also called “ruggedized”) laptop computers on the market, but you won't find them at a big-box retailer or your local electronics store.
But conduct an Internet search (for “rugged computer”), and among the 274,000 citations (found in 0.18 seconds!) you'll find myriad rugged laptop options from small companies to large. Among them, you'll see players like Panasonic and Dell and large rugged-computer specialists, such as GD-Itronix, a division of General Dynamics, the defense industry contractor.
All three companies, as well as their competitors, offer pretty pictures and plenty of background information online. However, to try out a rugged computer, you'll probably have to buy it. They're all built to order and are not available on showroom shelves.
Plan to set aside $3,000 to $4,000+ for the purchase. You'll spend about $1,000 less for a growing category of semi-rugged models. For these prices, you typically get a fully featured computer with integrated wireless, plus built-in cellular phone-based broadband connectivity if you want to pay extra.
That's a lot to spend compared to the cost of a consumer laptop. But rugged and semi-rugged laptops have two clear advantages. They'll stand up to tough conditions that could KO your consumer laptop in seconds. In addition, you'll be able to read what's on the monitor with ease, even in bright sunlight. Try that with a consumer laptop and you'll soon wear out your squint.
Those two attributes — being able to stand up to tough conditions and excellent viewability in bright sunlight — sum up what a rugged computer must offer to meet the demands of the military, law enforcement, first responders, utility technicians and others who have mission-critical computing needs, manufacturers say.
The number-one requirement is reliability under demanding conditions, says Ben Thacker, vice president of strategic marketing for GD-Itronix. “The product just has to work. And our average customer life cycle is about five years, so it better be built for the long haul of reliability,” he says.
Panasonic, for example, says its Toughbook line has a weighted average annual failure rate of 1.64%, despite harsh use conditions. That compares to an estimated 15 to 20% annual failure rate for consumer laptops, which typically don't face the rigors of a rugged laptop, notes Scott Thie, field automation national sales manager for the company.
“Imagine if you are standing in a field in the middle of a downpour; our computer is fully capable of being used in that situation,” Thie says.
If you have ever draped a newspaper over your head in an attempt to view a consumer laptop screen in bright daylight, you know the importance of having a bright screen on a computer that often is used outdoors.
Typical consumer laptop screens have a maximum brightness of 150 to 300 nits (a measure of brightness). Screens on rugged laptops often are two to four times as bright, with maximum outputs in the 1,000-nit range.
Some rugged-computer manufacturers also use various filters and coatings to reduce sunlight reflection. This allows screens to be viewable at lower nit ratings, which conserves battery power. This strategy also can improve screen contrast, which tends to wash out at higher nit levels.
“Our solution is, instead of overpowering with brightness, we eliminate the reflection,” says Thacker of GD-Itronix, which offers patent-pending DynaVue screens with reflection-reducing technologies on many of its rugged computers. “You can't outshine the sun.”
Tough cases, spill-proof keyboards
Being able to operate in a downpour, in a dust storm and under extreme temperatures, all while being subjected to vibration, rough handling and occasional dropping, requires design and engineering strategies not used in consumer laptops.
A typical rugged computer has a tough case, often made of a magnesium alloy. Screens and keyboards are sealed to withstand dust and moisture, as are USB and other ports. In addition to being rainproof, these spill-through keyboards are designed to handle a spilled carbonated soft drink or other beverage.
If you were to break open the case, you would see various flexible internal connectors and shock-mounted drives designed to help the computer withstand vibration and dropping. You'd also notice that the case is completely sealed against dust and moisture, with no fan vents such as those used in consumer laptops. To dissipate heat generated by the computer processor in this sealed environment, manufacturers use various strategies, including heat sinks, cooling ducts and non-vented fans. Some use low-voltage computer chips to reduce heat generation, although others use higher-voltage chips, which can offer more computing horsepower but also produce more heat.
All this protection adds weight. Typically, a rugged laptop weights 6 to 7 lbs., compared to 3 to 4 lbs. for a mid-range consumer laptop.
To prove their rugged capabilities (and to qualify for military contracts), fully rugged computers must meet rigorous MIL-STD-810F standards set by the U.S. Department of Defense. For example, the standards require that computers survive being dropped 26 times from a height of 3 ft. on each face, edge and corner onto a plywood, steel and concrete sandwich.
Other specifications require that the computer be able to operate during a simulated dust storm at 140°F, as well as a simulated rainstorm for 12 hours. Computers must be able to operate at temperatures ranging from -20° to 140°F and in high humidity (95% humidity at temperatures ranging from 86° to 140°F). They also must be able to withstand thermal shocks at temperatures from -60° to 205°F (although they don't have to be operating for this event). Rugged computers also are tested to assure they can handle continuous vibration so they can operate in vehicles driven over rough terrain.
Fully rugged computers appear to be ready for dusty farm fields, a fall from a pickup cab and the inferno of a parked truck on a hot summer day. But semi-rugged computers may — or may not — be up to the challenge, depending on the model. That's because there are no industry standards defining exactly what a semi-rugged computer is.
Panasonic, for example, offers computers in two semi-rugged categories (which it calls semi-rugged and business-rugged), in addition to fully rugged models that meet military specs. Semi-rugged models weigh about 6 lbs. and have magnesium alloy cases, daylight-readable screens, shock-mounted hard drives and spill-resistant keyboards. Business-rugged models come with lighter cases, lower-nit antireflective (but not daylight-readable) screens, shock-mounted hard drives and spill-proof keyboards. They weigh a svelte 3 to 4 lbs., depending on the model. Both categories can withstand more dropping and jostling than consumer laptops, but less than rugged models. And they are not designed for use in dusty or wet conditions.
GD-Itronix says its semi-rugged laptop is considered “vehicle rugged.” It has many of the features of its fully rugged models, including a daylight-readable touch screen, a spill-resistant keyboard and the ability to withstand operation in dusty, vibration-inducing environments. This laptop, which does not meet military drop and water ingress specifications, frequently is used by law enforcement agencies or other vehicle-based work-forces, which typically use computers inside vehicles, Thacker says.
At first blush, after you visit many rugged-computer company Web sites, you have to wonder how much they want to sell computers to individual consumers. This skepticism may be well founded in some instances, because most of their business is with large institutions. In many cases, you can't buy rugged laptops directly from the manufacturer, although sometimes companies provide links to authorized resellers.
Panasonic (www.panasonic.com/toughbook) has links to several resellers for its Toughbook line.
GD-Itronix (www.gd-itronix.com) sells its GoBook VR-2 semi-rugged computer online, but you have to search further to buy one of its fully rugged computers. Its rugged laptops (as well as those from Panasonic and other manufacturers) are available from the online company CDW (www.cdw.com), as well as others. Search for “rugged laptop” or by computer brand.
Dell is an exception to the rule when it comes to being ready to sell rugged laptops direct to the consumer. Dell (www.dell.com) introduced its first semi-rugged laptop about a year ago. Since then, it has begun selling rugged laptops from Augmentix, which reengineers and ruggedizes Dell Latitude notebooks to meet military specifications. Dell reportedly plans to introduce an expanded line of Dell-branded rugged laptops early in 2008. To find Dell's rugged laptop offering, search for “rugged laptop” in the “Small and Medium Business” category on the Dell Web site.
In a sense, Dell's entry into the rugged laptop market legitimizes the value of rugged laptops in the consumer market, says Thie, the Panasonic sales executive. “We definitely are seeing rugged computers becoming more mainstream at this point,” he says. “More and more people are feeling more pain as they experience laptop breakdowns.”