Rugged Laptops: Essential to Business and Home?

by Reads (36,186)

Protecting the Hard Drive
The component most likely to fail inside a laptop is the hard drive. With moving parts and sensitive heads, a hard drive is a delicate piece of machinery. A hard drive failure is often the cause of a dead laptop, so it’s no surprise that protecting the hard drive is a key area of focus for rugged laptop manufacturers. Hard drive protection comes in many forms. A common method is using a shock-mounted hard drive. That is, using shock pads or rubber rails to suspend the hard drive in the laptop’s housing, minimizing shock and vibration felt by the drive. On fully rugged models, hard drives are sometimes incased in a gel or foam to further absorb shock and vibrations. Getac, for example, uses a shock-resistant foam.

Another common tool used in the fight against shock is an accelerometer. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll find a rugged laptop without an accelerometer to protect the hard drive, though vendors use different names for this device. Getac calls it a G-sensor, for example, while Lenovo refers to it as  its Active Protection System. Regardless of the name a vendors gives it, an accelerometer continually monitors the motion of a laptops, and when it senses sudden acceleration–with the prediction that a sudden, crashing halt will soon occur–it parks the read/write heads, bracing the drive for impact, as it were. You are more likely to recover from a drop when the hard drive is not in operation.

Further, Lenovo states that it carefully selects the hard drives that go into a ThinkPad. In many laptops, you’ll find that the bottom plate of the hard drive enclosure has been removed, exposing the drive’s circuit board while lowering the cost for the manufacturer. Lenovo always leaves this metal plate in place, which it views as a drive’s first line of defense against dust, dirt, and static electricity. Similarly, Panasonic trumpets that fact that it is a core manufacturer, meaning it doesn’t use third-party manufacturers for the various parts that go into a laptop. The company is particularly confident in the hard drives it produces, claiming their failure rates approach those of solid-state drives (SSD).

SSDs: The Future Is Impact-Resistant
So, why not solid-state drives? With no moving parts, SSDs would seem to be a logical, standard feature on rugged laptops of all stripes. Many manufacturers I spoke with said the rate of adoption is slower than one might think for rugged laptops. Aside from costing more and having less capacity than spinning drives, SSDs are untested, relatively speaking. Business users are still unsure of the failure rates of SSDs and have developed a comfort level–for better or for worse–with spinning drives, says Getac. Lenovo points out that in the event of a drive failure, it’s more difficult to recover data from a SSD. When a spinning drive crashes, there is the chance of sending it to a third-party shop to recover the data trapped on the dead drive. No such luck with SSDs, says Lenovo, pointing out that there is no commercially available method for data recovery on a SSD.

SSDs are offered as options on many rugged laptops, and they’re a necessary feature in two instances: at high altitudes and in cold temperatures. If you are using a laptop above 10,000 feet (sitting in a pressurize cabin doesn’t count), a spinning drive will not operate reliably. A hard drive needs a certain amount of air pressure to run smoothly. When the air pressure is too low, the heads don’t get the proper lift they need. And in temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius, the bearings in a drive will begin to fail as lubricants freeze.

Spill-Resistant Keyboards
You likely have a cup of coffee on your desk in the morning, followed by a rotating cast of Diet Coke cans in the afternoon. Just as rugged laptops allow field workers to operate in rain storms, a business or semi-rugged laptop offers some protection against caffeinated beverages. A spill-resistant keyboard features a special coating to repel liquid, preventing it from entering the laptop and frying the system board or any of the electrical components attached to it. In addition, some rugged laptops feature internal spill trays and drain holes, which help route any liquid that does manage to enter the laptop away from the internal components and out the bottom of the chassis.

Lenovo has spent an impressive amount of time thinking about drain holes and testing various forms to find the right shape. It says you won’t find a round drain hole on any ThinkPad. Lenovo’s testing showed that round holes create the most surface tension, which restricts a liquid’s exit from a laptop. Thus, the drain holes on a ThinkPad are either rectangular or oval, depending on the model.

Likewise, Lenovo has spent many hours studying the rubber feet on the bottom of a laptop. If you thought one rubber foot was the same as the next rubber foot, you wouldn’t be alone. You also wouldn’t work in Lenovo’s ThinkPad labs. After placing laptop after laptop on a flat, desk-like surface, Lenovo, in its estimation, arrived at the optimal shape for a rubber foot: cat paw. That’s right, the rubber feet on ThinkPads are shaped like the paw of a cat. Lenovo believes that when you place your laptop on your desk, you plop down the back edge first, followed by the front edge. So, it places its cat-paw rubber feet in such a way that the toes of the paw hit the desk first, followed by the palm, which is made of a softer rubber than the toes to help absorb the impact.

In contrast, a fully rugged machine like the Panasonic Toughbook 31 (successor to the Toughbook 30), Getac’s best-selling B300, or the Dell Latitude E6400 XFR, are built to take more of a pounding than getting dumped on your kitchen table or jostled in a backpack. These machines offer added protection for use in the field in the form of thicker magnesium chassis, complete with rubber bumpers and port covers. They also feature very bright, high-contrast, specially coated displays for use in direct sunlight. The Toughbook 31 also offers a concealed mode for viewing in complete darkness with night-vision googles; it lowers the screen brightness to a measly 2 nits, turns off all the LED lights on the laptop, and disables the speakers. Fully rugged models often feature mobile broadband and GPS, since those using such laptops are often out of reach of the nearest Starbucks HotSpot.

Whether you’re shopping for a fully rugged, semi-rugged, or business rugged laptop, you’ll find that it costs more than any consumer-grade laptop on your shortlist. The added features on a rugged laptop cost money to design, test, and deploy after all. Any rugged laptop maker would urge you to look at the big picture: that a rugged laptop, despite a higher entry cost, actually lowers the total cost of ownership of any organization by reducing downtime and IT costs. Feel free to use that line on your company’s IT chief the next time he or she shoots down your proposal to outfit the team with rugged laptops, thinking you are simply wowed by the macho design and cool features. While that may be true, you might also be looking to save the company some money.

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