Guide to Buying a Rugged Computer
This is a guide on how to research, review and then purchase a semi rugged or fully rugged laptop, or notebook portable computer. The article describes information about industry terms, hardware features, the history and trends in this computer market niche.
First a note about laptops and notebooks, and other portable computing devices. Throughout this guide we refer to laptops and notebooks. The portable computing niche includes a large array of form factors. Generally speaking, most people use “laptop” and “notebook” as interchangeable terms. That's OK, but in reality a notebook is smaller than a laptop. Also, as technologies merge, portable computers can now be used as phones, and cell phones and smartphones can also be used as portable computer platforms. The important thing to remember is that all mobile computing devices are becoming more durable and more rugged all the time. As consumer electronics get smaller they almost by default have to be designed to be more rugged. There are also numerous other names you will come across like minicomputers, UMPCs, ultra mobiles, handhelds, and PDAs.
The differences between "semi-rugged" and "fully-rugged" are often confusing, interchangeable, and misleading. These descriptions can be likened to “good” and “better” or other advertising orders of degree like “full strength” and “super strength”. The use of such terms can be very subtle in the consumer market, but can be very specific in the industrial and military markets. Only a few standards are generally accepted to rate most rugged portable computing devices, and it is safe to say that portable computers in the durable category are a better value and offer distinct advantages over most conventional laptops and notebooks.
Until recently most of the brands associated with the rugged niche were not exactly household names. Some of the top companies known for producing military style computers (Mil-Std 810F) include, Panasonic, Getac, and General Dynamics.
Here is a short checklist of why you may be a candidate for a rugged laptop. You will pay a premium for a rugged laptop over regular off-the-shelf consumer models, and you need to know some of the benefits. Much of this has to do with your working habits and working conditions. Two of the most important aspects of owning a rugged laptop are flexibility and mobility. Rugged laptops give you the ability to work in a wide variety of conditions and environments. If your work requires you to work in the outdoors, in inclement weather, or in other harsh conditions, then you probably will like the advantages of going rugged.
Following is a review of other common features that contribute to the characteristics of rugged laptops and other rugged devices in no particular order.
This is a measure of how much shock load a rugged laptop can withstand and still operate properly. This test is typically measured by the height and number of the drops that a rugged laptop can endure. The drop surface is usually defined as two inch-thick plywood over a steel plate over concrete and a drop distance of 36 inches. Laptops are inspected after each drop and booted up for a function check performed after each drop.
Water and moisture is hazardous to many electrical components of any laptop. This specification measures the performance ability of a rugged laptop after being exposed to different amounts of water and moisture levels.
Air venting systems for cooling tend to collect dust and dirt. For this reason most rugged laptops are designed to dissipate heat without the use of fans. Materials in the casing are use as heat sinks to prevent dust and dirt from entering the inside of the case - CPU heat is released through the casing.
Rugged laptops are often used in vehicles, and around other equipment. These workhorses need to stand up to continuous vibration. Constant vibration can cause keyboard damage and damage to internal components of regular office or home laptop computers.
Rugged computers need to perform while exposed to extreme temperatures. From arctic condition to dessert conditions, some rugged laptop can operate in a temperature range between -32° to 60° C (-10° to 140° F). Usually an optional feature, rugged laptops can also be equipped with a hard drive heater for startup and operation in freezing temperatures. Diagnostic software can even monitor internal conditions to prevent outages due to extremes of heat and cold.
This section could be labelled "Extra Things to Look for in a Rugged Laptop", as the next four items are not always standard features. However, they are important and will make the use and operation of your portable computer more enjoyable and give you more check marks in the usability column. Oddly enough, these features are not widely available as standard features, and usually are available only at a premium. They are: Transflective LCD Screen, Precision O-Ring Construction, EMI-RFI Cable Shielding, and a Superconductor Heat Pipe System. The reason these features are not standard is because they drive up the costs of materials and manufacturing for an off the shelf products.
- MIL-STD-810F test methods do not require the use of specific materials, hardware, nor specific manufacturing processes. An 810F certified device is not the result of encasing a consumer electronics product inside a heavy-duty enclosure such as ballistic plastic, although that could very well be a selected design material for testing and manufacture. For this reason, the price points usually demonstrated in the side-by side comparisons between popular consumer brand models that appear to be similarly equipped do not tend to be examples of particularly good, nor reliable analysis.
- Purchase a Reliable Brand and Quality Model Rugged laptops and rugged notebooks are more resistant to physical damage. If you work outdoors or do a great deal of travel, you need a portable computer that meets or exceeds Department of Defence standards. These are mobile computers designed to be used in rough conditions.
- Purchase a Good Bag or Case There is nothing wrong with redundancy. It is still a good idea to go the extra step when you transport expensive rugged portables. Make sure your carrying bag or case is “sturdy” over “stylish”. Make sure it is functional, but don't intend it to be a substitute for a business tote or briefcase.
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