Extreme electronics

March 2008 » Feature Articles
Selecting a rugged laptop computer for field work.
Jay Cheng

Selecting a rugged laptop computer for field work.

It used to be that the only people driving a Jeep or a Hummer were members of the military or four-wheelers out for a weekend adventure. Not anymore. Today, these rugged vehicles, originally designed and built to survive enemy fire, extreme weather, and any kind of terrain, are decked out with all the creature comforts of a luxury car and piloted by suburbanites whose idea of rugged topography is a speed bump in the elementary school parking lot.

Yet their popularity is testimony to the fact that people want products that stand up to punishment. That certainly goes for vehicles, but it also pertains to mobile PCs—particularly if your job takes you and your laptop into extreme conditions no commercial-grade model could survive.

Rugged laptop computers are branded as fully rugged, rugged, or semi-rugged, primarily based on the type of protective features and level of durability during testing against standards established by the U.S. military.

 

Whether you’re working onsite to repair a damaged structure in harsh weather, assisting in construction of a bridge in challenging terrain, or trying to track down a leaky pipe in a remote Alaskan oil field, you need the security of knowing your computer is rugged enough. So how do you select a rugged PC that’s right for the job?

How rugged?
Rugged PCs are branded as fully rugged, rugged, or semi-rugged, primarily based on the type of protective features and level of durability during testing against standards established by the U.S. military. Understanding the differences between these three categories and to what degree a model is military-compliant is critically important if you are in the market for any kind of rugged notebook or tablet PC.

Fully rugged—Need an armored PC you can run over with a Hummer and is built to survive constant exposure to extreme temperatures and PC killers such as sand, dust, and water spray? PCs marketed as "fully rugged" (or "full rugged") are designed and built with extreme outdoor computing in mind. In addition to a magnesium alloy protective shell, fully rugged PCs are sealed and the top models feature a fanless design that dissipates heat without air vents that might admit foreign particles into the case. In addition to design features that protect against damage from drops or shocks, many models feature outdoor-viewable screens or waterproof keyboards as optional equipment. If you work outside in all kinds of weather and have a job that puts any piece of equipment to the test on a daily basis, these heavy-duty, military-standard models may be the right PC for you.

Rugged—"Rugged" PCs generally offer similar safeguards as fully rugged models. These models may offer a fully sealed keyboard and ports, which allows them to be used outdoors or in more extreme weather conditions. There also may be special protection against heat or cold. Options may include screens that can be viewed in outdoor sunlight. These lighter-weight models generally are favored by mobile workers whose jobs are performed from a vehicle (where shocks are a major factor in PC performance) or indoor environments, such as a factory floor. Beware: Not all models labeled "rugged" meet military standards for ruggedness.

Semi-rugged—Until fairly recently, adding high-performance features, such as higher-capacity hard drives, larger screens, and peripheral devices, weighed heavily on purchasers—literally—adding unwanted physical weight to the unit and cost to the bottom line. Today, manufacturers offer systems that have all the same bells and whistles as commercially available systems at a price that offers outstanding return on investment and basic rugged protection. If a lightweight, full-featured unit is at the top of your list of preferences, a semi-rugged PC may be appropriate.

Manufacturers offer laptop and tablet PCs with high-performance features and basic rugged protection.

 

Semi-ruggeds typically differ from commercial-grade PCs in a few basic ways. Most replace the standard plastic casing with a harder magnesium shell and offer a hard drive that is encased in material that protects it in the event of a drop, shock, or vibration. Semi-rugged units also may offer some protection against moisture or spills, but are not fully sealed to protect against the elements and do not meet military specifications for durability. Semi-rugged units commonly appeal to mobile professionals who work from their automobiles or remote locations and seek a PC with basic resistance to bumps and bruises.

Measuring by military standards
Perhaps more critical than knowing how rugged PCs are marketed is how those PCs are tested to ensure ruggedness. There’s really only one standard by which to judge whether a PC will meet the definition of rugged—the standard developed by the U.S. military.

Since 1962, the U.S. Army’s Developmental Test Command has measured the durability and performance of the equipment it uses according to a series of specifications currently known as MIL-STD-810F. To earn the MIL-STD-810F certification, rugged PCs undergo a rigorous series of tests that measure a model’s durability and performance against extremes of temperature, weather, shock and vibration, electro magnetic interference, and radio frequency interference.

PC users also should pay attention to the military’s International Protection (IP) ratings, which measure a PC enclosure’s level of protection from foreign objects or particles, ranging from fingers to dust. An IP54 rating, for example, signifies a unit is dust resistant and splash resistant from every direction. And PCs also may be tested to make sure they are safe for operations in environments where explosions are possible. Those that meet so-called "intrinsic safety" standards have passed the required testing benchmarks.

Rugged PCs are a lot like rugged vehicles: Ultimately, the only way to know whether you need an armor-plated Hummer or a more nimble Jeep Cherokee is to test drive both over all kinds of terrain and compare features and performance.

Jay Cheng is general manager of GETAC USA and a 14-year veteran of the rugged computing industry. GETAC maintains a dedicated MIL-STD-810F testing laboratory. Its entire line of fully rugged and rugged notebook and tablet PCs (with the exception of the newly introduced model P470) meet or exceed MIL-STD-810F testing standards.


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