GammaTech Durabook S15AB Review

by Reads (3,242)
  • Editor's Rating

    Ratings Breakdown (1-10)

      • Software & Support
      • 7
      • Upgrade Capabilities
      • 9
      • Usability
      • 8
      • Design
      • 7
      • Performance
      • 7
      • Features
      • 7
      • Price/Value Rating
      • 6
      • Total Score:
      • 7.29
      • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10
  • Pros

    • Weather sealed doors protect most ports
    • Solid lid protects screen from impacts
    • Excellent battery life
    • Nice keyboard
  • Cons

    • Cheap TN display with terrible viewing angles
    • No weather seal protecting the power jack
    • Touchpad suffers from limited sensitivity
    • Plastic carrying handle

Standard business notebooks are more durable than a budget consumer laptop, but sometimes a fully rugged notebook like the GammaTech Durabook S15AB is a must-have tool for businesses deploying workers in hazardous environments or government agencies that require PCs that will survive just about anything in the field. We took a closer look at this 15-inch rugged notebook to find out if it’s worth considering over some of the more popular rugged laptops offered by other companies.

GammaTech Durabook S15AB

GammaTech Durabook S15AB

Build and Design

The Durabook S15AB meets the standards for MIL-STD-810G certification for drops, shock resistance and spill resistance. This is par for the course for rugged notebooks like the GammaTech Durabook and the Panasonic Toughbook 54. This Durabook also leverages Computrace BIOS with boot password and TPM 2.0 for additional security.

When it comes to physical survivability, GammaTech uses magnesium alloy for the main chassis of the Durabook S15AB along with a series of hinged protective doors that cover the built-in optical drive and all of the main ports (except the power jack). Each door is weather sealed with a rubber gasket to prevent moisture and dirt from interfering with the ports. The keyboard is also spill-resistant thanks to a pair of integrated drain holes in the bottom of the chassis.

The screen lid is likewise made from magnesium alloy and should provide significantly more protection than the screen lid on a normal business notebook.  A spring-loaded screen latch means the notebook remains closed unless you press down on the latch and lift up on the screen lid at the same time. The screen hinges provide just enough resistance to hold the screen in place but the hinges are loose enough that you can just barely open the lid with a single hand.

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The bottom half of the chassis provides multiple access panels for upgrades and repairs by your IT department or even by end users in the field. The access panels are secured by standard Philips head screws so employees won’t need specialized tools to get inside this rugged notebook. The main battery is removable and you can secure or release the battery by sliding two locking switches on the bottom of the S15AB.

Ports and Features

As previously mentioned, most of the ports on the Durabook S15AB are protected behind weather-sealed doors. As with most rugged notebooks, the Durabook includes a variety of old and new connectors because enterprise clients and government agencies are the principal holdouts of “legacy” technology around the globe. This notebook has multiple USB 3.0 ports but it’s also packed with seemingly archaic VGA and serial ports as well.

The left side of the S15AB contains a Kensington lock slot, optical drive (DVD/Blu-ray), Smart card reader and wireless on/off switch. The right side is where you’ll find the full size SD/SDXC card reader, headphone/MIC combo jack, two USB 2.0 ports and the power jack. The rear edge of the notebook conceals two additional USB 3.0 ports, RJ-45 Ethernet, HDMI, 15-pin VGA and 9-pin serial port. The front of the chassis contains both the battery status indicator lights as well as a retractable plastic carrying handle supported by plastic sliding hinges. We would have been happier about the carrying handle if this was a magnesium alloy handle with alloy hinges similar to the Panasonic Toughbook 54.

DSC03733DSC03743
DSC03736DSC03748 

Screen and Speakers

The 15.6-inch FHD (1920 x 1080) TN display in our review unit is without exception one of the worst screens we’ve seen on any premium business product. As with most low-cost TN panels, this screen look just fine when you’re viewing it from exactly straight ahead. Unfortunately, the 15.6-inch screen suffers from extreme color inversion, variable contrast, and washed out or over-exposed color whenever you view the screen from extreme angles.

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The backlight for this display panel provides more than enough brightness at the highest setting to allow users to comfortably view the screen outdoors … as long as you view the screen from straight ahead. Again, the terribly limited viewing angles for this TN panel make the screen almost useless outdoors if you need to see the screen from an unusual angle.

The built-in stereo speakers are built into the bottom front edge of the main chassis located on either side of the integrated carrying handle. The speakers themselves are more than adequate for a business notebook. However, the placement on the underside of the chassis means that the output only sounds right when the notebook is resting on a desk with a hard surface so sound can “bounce” off the desk and move toward the user’s ears. Whenever the notebook is used as a “laptop” the sound coming from the stereo speakers is muffled against your lap and clothing. 

DSC03727Keyboard and Touchpad

The full-size 88-key QWERTY keyboard on the Durabook S15AB might look average and nondescript at first glance but it’s actually one of the better keyboards we’ve found on a rugged notebook. Individual key action is smooth with solid feedback and a clear distinction between unpressed and fully pressed keys. The keyboard tray itself is firm with no visible flex even under heavy typing pressure.

This is a spill-resistant keyboard with two drain holes located on the bottom of the notebook to move water away from internal components. The official test results published by GammaTech indicate the keyboard will handle up to 100 cc (3.38 fluid ounces) of water. That means you can spill a little less than half a cup without worries.

The keyboard in our review unit includes the optional LED backlight to help improve usability in dark environments. That said, our staff found the keyboard backlight a little too dim in most situations. The printed keys have minimal contrast and the backlight, which only has an on or off setting, is barely bright enough to adequately illuminate the keys in total darkness.

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The touchpad on the Durabook S15AB provides standard multitouch gesture support and runs on Synaptics drivers with an excellent range of custom settings. Despite using nice driver software, the touchpad itself suffers from sub-par sensitivity and that means the cursor doesn’t always move where you want it to move when you’re making small, detailed movements with the cursor. On the bright side, the touchpad uses dedicated left and right mouse buttons rather than a “buttonless” clickpad surface. At least the Durabook will always recognize the difference between a left click and a right click.

Performance

GammaTech offers the Durabook S15AB with multiple fifth-generation Intel Core i5 and i7 processors. Our review sample is powered by the Intel Core i7-5500U running at 2.4 GHz with a Turbo frequency of 3.0 GHz. This dual-core “Broadwell” processor has a 15W TDP and features hyperthreading. The Core i7-5500U delivers marginally superior performance over the older Haswell Core i7-4500U but it’s still mainly designed as lower-end Core i7 for modern office productivity.

The integrated HD Graphics 5500 delivers reasonably impressive performance in terms of video and 3D rendering but the integrated graphics aren’t designed for professional 4K video editing or playing the latest generation of 3D games.  At the time of this writing GammaTech doesn’t offer any dedicated graphics option for the S15AB. So, if you need a rugged notebook that can handle complex on-site CAD rendering of multi-level structures or real-time 3D rendering of massive topographical maps you might need to look at rugged notebooks from other manufacturers that offer discrete graphics like AMD FirePro or Nvidia Quadro.

DSC03751GammaTech included a reasonably fast SATA solid state drive (SSD) from Plextor in our review unit of the Durabook S15AB. This 512 GB SSD not only provides an additional layer of security thanks to the shock resistance of solid state drives, but this storage drive also dramatically improves the overall speed of the Durabook. You don’t have to wait for a hard drive to spin up and locate data; just turn on the notebook and go.

GammaTech S15AB Technical Specifications:

  • Windows 10 Pro (64-bit)
  • 15.6-inch FHD (1080p) TN display with anti-glare matte surface
  • Intel Core i7-5500U Processor (2.4 GHz, 4 MB cache, Turbo Boost up to 3.0 GHz)
  • Intel HD Graphics 5500
  • 16 GB SDRAM (DDR3L – 1600MHz)
  • 512 GB Plextor PX-512M6S SSD
  • DVD-RW/Blu-ray drive
  • 7.4V, 7980mAh Li-Polymer battery
  • Intel WLAN+BT model 7265NGW
  • Dimensions: 14.7″(W) x 10.7″(D) x 1.1″(H) / 375mm(W) x 273mm(D) x 29.5mm(H)
  • Weight: 5.73 lbs (2.6 kg)

Benchmarks

wPrime processor comparison results (listed in seconds – lower scores mean better performance):
durabookwprimechart

PCMark8 Home (Accelerated) measures overall system performance in Windows 8 for general activities from web browsing and video streaming to typing documents and playing games (higher scores mean better performance):
durabookpc8homechart

PCMark8 Work (Accelerated) measures overall system performance in Windows 8 for work-related productivity tasks (higher scores mean better performance):
durabookpc8workchart

3DMark 11 is a benchmark that measures overall graphics card performance for gaming (higher scores mean better performance):
durabook3d11chart

CrystalDiskMark storage drive performance test:
DurabookCDM

Battery Life

The primary battery inside our review unit of the Durabook S15AB is surprisingly beefy 7980mAh lithium-polymer battery officially rated for 8.5 hours of battery life and a total charge time of 3.5 hours. Even when we tested the Durabook with Futuremark’s aggressive Powermark benchmarking software the results were impressive. Powermark runs a series of tests simulating video editing, gameplay, web browsing and word processing in a loop until the battery is exhausted. This type of battery drain test is more demanding than simple web browsing, so you can expect the real-world battery life of the Durabook S15AB to be even longer if you’re not stressing the notebook with processor-intensive tasks.

PowerMark “Balanced” battery life test results listed in minutes (higher scores mean better life):
durabookpowerchart

Conclusion

After several weeks of testing the GammaTech Durabook S15AB proved to be an impressive (but not perfect) rugged notebook. GammaTech delivered a chassis that is reasonably solid compared to its direct competition and this notebook should survive the overwhelming majority of accidents and hazards you’ll find in places where rugged notebooks are frequently deployed.

Not only does the S15AB deliver solid build quality, but the battery life is second to none among rugged notebooks. If you need a battery to last in the field while you’re away from a power outlet then this Durabook will serve you well.

That being said, we can’t escape the feeling that this could have been an even better rugged notebook with just a few changes. For starters, the cheap TN display panel and its limited viewing angles needs to go. There’s just no excuse for a screen that looks this bad in 2016. If GammaTech’s engineers are planning to replace the display panel they might as well also replace the plastic carrying handle and add a weatherproof rubber flap for the notebook’s power jack. That plastic carrying handle feels oddly weak compared to the magnesium alloy used everywhere else, and the addition of a weather seal around the power jack would make the Durabook all the more durable. 

At the end of the day the GammaTech Durabook S15AB is probably one of the better options on the market when it comes to rugged notebooks if for no other reason than its exceptional battery life. Still, that cheap screen and plastic handle make the Panasonic Toughbook 54 look a little more appealing even if the Durabook lasts longer when you’re away from a power outlet.

DSC03714Pros:

  • Weather sealed doors protect most ports
  • Solid lid protects screen from impacts
  • Excellent battery life
  • Nice keyboard

Cons:

  • Cheap TN display with terrible viewing angles
  • No weather seal protecting the power jack
  • Touchpad suffers from limited sensitivity
  • Plastic carrying handle


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