Rugged Laptops: Essential to Business and Home?

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War is hell, it is said. War is hell on laptops, it can also be said–though less dramatically, of course. Imagine the abuse a laptop takes in our armed forces in, say, the Middle East. An Army-issue laptop there must withstand extreme environmental elements such as intense heat, blowing sand, and the vibration from your Humvee, while featuring a screen that is viewable in the blazing desert sun. And we haven’t even mentioned the possibility of bullets flying and bombs exploding. Just as an untrained civilian would wilt if pressed into active duty, a consumer-grade laptop would not provide the needed durability to perform under such conditions.

Rugged Notebook Standards

The Department of Defense has established a series of tests to determine how a piece of equipment will hold up in various environments. These military standard test methods, the latest revision of which is called MIL-STD-810G, include 23 tests that gage a product’s ruggedness, ranging from basic drop tests to a ballistic shock test, with many in between that test for an ability to withstand extreme temperatures, rain, humidity, sand and dust. Other tests look at more specific atmospheric elements such as fungus, salt fog, and freezing rain, as well as low pressure, which measures a product’s ability to operate at high altitudes.

You’ll also see that many rugged laptops certified as IP54, IP65, and the like. This IP Code, or International Protection rating, measures a product’s protection against the intrusion of solid objects and water. The first digit refers to a product’s level of protection against the ingress of solid objects, from your hand and fingers to tiny dust particles. The second digit indicates the level of protection against the ingress of water, from a drips and splashes to powerful jets of water and full immersion. The “6” in IP65, for example, means that a product is dust tight, the highest level of protection against solid objects. And the “5” in IP65 means a product is protected from a jet of water, which is a mid-level rating that is better than a splashed water rating but less than a product rated to operate normally when fully immersed. For laptops specifically, the IP Code looks at design elements such as air vents, ports, speaker grills, and the keyboard–any opening that can allow harmful elements like dust, dirt, and water to enter the case and damage the internal components.

While the military uses the MIL-STD-810G and IP Code tests to determine if a laptop can withstand the rigors of the battlefield, these standards also have commercial applications. Laptop vendors use these same tests to classify their products as fully rugged, semi-rugged, or business rugged. With its Toughbook line, Panasonic was one of the first manufacturers to gain wide acclaim for selling rugged laptops. Panasonic introduced its first Toughbook in 1993 and recently introduced the Toughbook 31, the sixth generation of its flagship, fully rugged model. Smaller vendors such Durabook, General Dynamics Irotonix, and Getac also sell rugged laptops, typically to targeted markets such as the military, public safety departments, utilities, and healthcare and insurance companies. More recently, Dell and HP added rugged models to their respective business laptop lines, while Lenovo last year officially classified some of its ThinkPad models as “semi-rugged,” after submitting them to third-party testing using the MIL-STD-801G methodology. Lenovo is also quick to point out that the market researchers at IDC have long classified all ThinkPads as semi-rugged.

Rugged Laptops: A Business Traveler’s Best Friend

As any business executive who has had his laptop come crashing down from an overhead compartment at the end of a long flight can attest, a little ruggedness can go a long way. You don’t necessarily need a laptop that can operate during a sand storm or in the driving rain, if the most difficult passage you’ll face is a layover at O’Hare (no small feat in itself, but far from active duty). Simply adding a spill-resistant keyboard and a shock-mounted hard drive can mean the difference between a travel emergency and a smooth trip. For road warriors, a business-rugged or semi-rugged laptop sits in the sweet spot between a fully rugged model and a consumer-grade laptop. A fully rugged laptop has many features business travelers don’t need; they only add to the weight and heft of a laptop, not to mention driving up the price, while offering no real benefit for most scenarios. And in many cases, you’ll sacrifice performance with a fully rugged laptop because the sealed, all-weather case necessitates the use of a low-voltage CPU for the simple fact that it’s harder to dissipate heat inside a sealed notebook.

While some companies use the term “business rugged” and others use “semi-rugged,” both terms are more marketing terms than government standards. (In contrast, the term “fully rugged” signifies that a laptop has passed a significant number, if not all, of the MIL-STD-810G tests.) Lenovo, for example, classifies its ThinkPads as semi-rugged, while HP calls its EliteBooks business rugged. In both cases, the manufacturer is signifying that it has beefed up the case to withstand the rigors of business travel. Other vendors, such as Getac and Panasonic, use both terms in their product marketing efforts, with semi-rugged meant to indicate a slightly more rugged model than a business-rugged machine. When shopping for a rugged laptop, it’s best to look past the marketing lingo and get to the features themselves that are protecting your investment.

For business travelers, the biggest concern is not computing in a sand storm or freezing rain but simply surviving a drop. One careless maneuver and your laptop can slip out of an unlatched briefcase or slide off the edge of a coach tray table. Murphy’s Law dictates that such an accident will occur on the first day of a trip and not the last, putting you behind the 8-ball with a inoperable laptop before you even reach your preferred airport hotel. One of the main differentiators between a consumer laptop and a rugged model is the ability to withstand a drop. All rugged laptops are tested and designed to survive falls of varying distances. Panasonic, for instance, guarantees its fully rugged models are drop resistant up to 6 feet, semi-rugged models up to 2.5 feet, and business rugged up to a foot.
The first level of protection against drops is the laptop case itself. Most consumer laptops feature a hard plastic chassis, which suffices for mainstream use where price is almost always the key consideration. Most rugged laptops trade cheap plastics for magnesium alloy, which offers manufacturers a superior weight-to-strength ratio. Lighter than titanium, magnesium alloy is one of the lightest and strongest metals. It better resists dents and better absorbs vibration than plastic. And among metals, it’s adept at dissipating heat.

The majority of rugged laptops feature a magnesium-alloy shell, which acts as the first line of defense in keeping the internal components in tact throughout all the daily demands placed upon a portable device. All of Panasonic’s Toughbooks have a magnesium-alloy chassis; fully rugged models use a thicker shell for added protection while business-rugged models are outfitted with a thinner magnesium-alloy shell to save on cost and system weight. Likewise, HP outfits its EliteBook line of business rugged laptops, including the ultraportable HP EliteBook 2540p, with a magnesium alloy case, and it adds a anodized aluminum in a honeycomb pattern behind the display toughen the display panel by adding rigidness without adding much weight. HP also adds an brushed aluminum finish to its EliteBooks, for added protection against scratches.

Lenovo doesn’t sell a fully rugged laptop but focuses on business travelers with its semi-rugged ThinkPads, where you’ll find a mix of materials used. For example, the company’s flagship T series, the latest of which is the ThinkPad T410, features a plastic case with internal roll cage made out of magnesium alloy. The roll cage acts as the laptop’s skeleton, protecting the internal components much like much like your rib cage protects your heart and lungs. In contrast, the thinner and lighter X series models use a magnesium alloy shell without an internal roll cage. Regardless of the materials used, Lenovo ensures that a standard ThinkPad passes a targeted eight MIL-STD-801G tests: humidity, low temperature, high temperature, dust, vibration, mechanical shock, altitude, and extreme temperatures. Regarding its use of plastic, Lenovo says it simply uses a thick enough piece of plastic to ensure that the laptop passes the drop test.

Another method used to keep a rugged laptop running is the addition of a buffer zone between the bottom of the laptop and the motherboard and the internal components. To keep costs down, most manufacturers place the system board at the bottom of the laptop, which must absorb shock every time the laptop is placed on a desk or table. Rugged laptops add space between the bottom of the laptop and the system board, so that shocks and vibrations are absorbed by the external enclosure and not the motherboard and the components connected to it.

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