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Rugged Laptop: Choices, Pointers & Specs of Buying Rugged Laptops

As laptops become more and more integrated into people's personal and professional lives, importance of their reliability keeps getting more important. Most of us have to deal with consequences of a laptop falling out of its bag or spilled coffee on laptop keyboards etc. This results in lost productivity, or worse, loss of important data. A robust laptop is a vital tool in modern information age.

While most manufacturers (hopefully) try to make their laptops robust against such accidents, very few have this as their primary focus. Specialist manufacturers provide a spectrum of "semi-rugged" to "rugged" to "bullet-proof" laptops. Dell announced its first semi-rugged notebook computer - the Latitude ATG (All-Terrain Grade) D620. It followed it up with a fully ruggedized notebook, the Latitude XFR D630. So, what are the various factors to look at while considering to buy a ruggedized laptop?

What is a "Rugged Laptop"?

Various hazards that rugged laptops are designed to protect against are:

Specs of a rugged notebook

In addition to the specs used for computers in general (e.g. cpu speed, memory and disk size etc.), rugged laptops also come with specs which measure degree to which they are protected against various hazards. There are formal specifications which describe the parameters (and how to measure those parameters) while describing a rugged notebook.

Military's MIL STD 810F is sometimes used to validate ruggedness of a laptop. MIL-STD-810F is a military standard created by the U.S. government. It covers a broad range of tests used to measure the reliability of equipment. Per Dell, the Latitude ATG meets MIL-STD 810F standards for vibration (Method 514, Proc I, Cat. 20 and 24), humidity (Method 507.4), and Altitude (Method 500.4 Low Pressure, Proc. I; Operational up to 10k feet). For dust, the ATG met MIL-STD 810F standards (Method 510.4, Proc. I) for all D-module options (2nd HDD, 2nd battery, Air Bay) except optical drives. The Dell Latitude XFR D630 exceeds these standards - e.g. it is tested to operate up to 15K feet and can survive a temperature range from -20˚F to 140˚F.

"Ingress Protection" or simply IP is a another classification which is very commonly used. An IP number is used to specify the environmental protection of enclosures around electronic equipment. This classification system utilizes the letters "IP" followed by two digits. The first digit of the IP code indicates the degree that persons are protected against contact with moving parts (other than smooth rotating shafts, etc.) and the degree that equipment is protected against solid foreign bodies intruding into an enclosure. The second digit indicates the degree of protection of the equipment inside the enclosure against the harmful entry of various forms of moisture (e.g. dripping, spraying, submersion, etc.). The higher the two digits the more rugged is the notebook.

Some of the factors that are considered while classifying "ruggedness" of a laptop include:

Shock resistance: This is a measure of how much shock can the laptop handle. It is typically measured in the height of the fall that the laptop can take. E.g. "The Panasonic Toughbook 28 was sequentially dropped in non-operating mode, onto each face, edge and corner for a total of 26 drops from a height of 36 inches. The drop surface was defined as two-inch-thick plywood over a steel plate over concrete. The Toughbook 28s were visually inspected after each drop and a functional check (boot-up into Windows) was performed after each drop."

Water resistance: Water (and liquids in general) is hazardous to many electrical components in a laptop. This spec measures whether the laptop works after being subjected to rainfall etc.

Dust resistance: Air vent system for cooling tends to a collector of dust particles from ambiance. If you live in the desert, sand gets everywhere, including inside your laptop. Toughbook CF-W5 and CF-T5 models do not employ an air vent system, thereby preventing dust and dirt particles from infiltrating the inside of the notebook - instead CPU heat is released through the casing. Also, note that several netbooks don't have a CPU fan, as they use the Atom processor - this makes them inherently more robust for some environments. The original netbook, the OLPC, was built for harsh environments and use by children!

Vibration resistance: How does the laptop standup to continuous vibration - e.g. when it is being used for in-vehicle computing. Vibration can cause keyboard damage and internal component damage to a laptop.

Extreme temperature exposure: How well does the computer perform while being exposed to very high or very low temperature? E.g. The Itronix GoBook III laptop can operate under following temperature range: -23° to 60° C (-10° to 140° F) - for cold temperatures they do require purchase of an optional hard drive heater. By contrast a Dell Inspiron 6000 laptop can operate in the temperature range of -32° to 104° F. The ML910 Rugged Notebook from Motorola (introduced in March 2007) includes as a standard feature a hard drive heater for startup and operation in freezing temperatures and also has diagnostic software that monitors internal conditions and prevents outages due to extreme heat and cold.

What makes a laptop rugged?

Various techniques are used to protect notebooks against specific issues:

Sealed port and connector covers
Removable shock-mounted hard drive (preferably SSD)
Vibration-resistant LCDs
Flexible internal connectors

Materials used and construction: A rugged notebook chassis is typically made of strong materials, such as Magnesium alloy which is significantly stronger than typically used ABS plastic. The screen hinges and latches for rugged notebooks are considerably strengthened as compared to mainstream laptops. Many rugged laptops (e.g. Panasonic Toughbook-74 and Itronix GoBook XR-1) also come within an integrated handle for outdoor uses.

Hard drives: A rugged laptop typically comes with a shock mounted hard drive. In some cases, these drives are single platter 1.8" units, mounted inside a regular 2.5" enclosure. The drive is constructed with special dampening materials inside the enclosure that can provide up to a 145 percent increase (per Dell) in shock protection.

Some laptops use a Solid State Disk (SSD) instead of the usual conventional disks (which have spinning platters). Since SSDs are based on non-volatile flash memory and don't have any mechanical moving parts they tend to be significantly more robust (and silent) than the conventional disks. Solid State Drives, with no moving parts, have the high durability with up to 15 times more shock and impact resistance than standard desktop hard drives. Tests done by engineers at Dell show that the SSD has an operating shock tolerance of up to 1,300 Gs, which is twice the rating of mechanical drives. However, the price point of a similarly sized SSD is significantly higher than a conventional disk. Medical, automotive and military applications are beginning to use solid state drives. In March 2007, Fujitsu announced limited availability of its Lifebook laptop series with Flash SSD as an option. Around the same time, Dell announced availability of SSD drives with Latitude D420 and D620 ATG models - an upgrade to 32GB SSD from the default 60GB conventional disk will set you back $480 (June 2007 pricing). Although cost on SSDs is coming down fast. In January 2009, on a Latitude XFR D630 Dell laptop difference of cost between a conventional 80GB drive and a 128GB Mobility Solid State Drive became only $50!!

If you intend to use your laptop in harsh temperature conditions, the all-weather Fujitsu hard disk (Model MHW2040AC - Ultra ATA/4200RPM drive) is worth looking into. It provides stable operation in extreme temperature environment(-30 to +85 degrees Celcius).

One of the ways to protect a traditional hard drive from shock and vibration is to use a shock pad wrap. E.g. some authorized Toshiba service providers can add one such wrap around many Toshiba notebooks. This wrap consists of a thin, pliable, jell-like material, which can be applied in strips or a complete wrap as the hard drive cavity design permits. The wrap serves to isolate the drive from hard inner surfaces of the notebook case or drive mounting. Vibration and shock inputs are partially absorbed with less energy being transmitted to the drive itself. Installation consists of removing the drive from the notebook, applying the shock pad material to the drive housing or mounting caddy, and reinstalling the drive in the notebook computer. The amount or location of shock pad material may be limited by the notebook computer’s drive cavity design.

Car Mounting: Since many applications of rugged laptops involve them being mounted in a car, many rugged laptop manufacturers provide tools to make their laptops relatively easier to mount and unmount on a vehicle.

Security: Since many of the ruggedized laptops get used in military applications, some of them come with special security features. For example the GoBook VR-1 from Itronix comes with Removable hard drive, Fingerprint scanner and Smartcard reader.

Ready for outdoors: Ruggedized laptops often get used in outdoor applications, and hence need to account for both bright sunlight and dark conditions. So, some of the rugged notebooks have Sun-light Readable display and backlit keyboard. E.g. Panasonic Toughbook 30 sports a amazingly bright 1,000 Nit screen enabling easy outdoor readability. The Dell ATG D620 comes with a red (which is easy for human eyes in the dark) task light to illuminate the keyboard at night.

Lets look at some of the vendors who specialize in providing rugged notebooks:


Among mainstream brand of laptops, Panasonic is the only one whose exclusive focus is ruggedness of their notebooks - sold under sub-brand "Toughbook". Panasonic Toughbooks are designed to be shock, spill, vibration and dust resistant. Every Toughbook model has a full or partial magnesium alloy casing. Keyboards for Toughbooks are designed to withstand liquid spillage: E.g. Liquid spilled on keyboard of a Toughbook CF-W8 will simply drain out through cleverly designed channels, protecting the electronics.

General Dynamics

General Dynamics (GD), a provider of mission-critical information systems and technologies, acquired Itronix in September 2005, and made it part of its "C4 Systems" business unit. The acquisition of Itronix was targeted to address needs of GD's core Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security customers which increasingly are calling for rugged computing solutions to meet their mission requirements. GD's line of fully-rugged and semi-rugged notebooks is marketed as GoBook series of notebooks. Notable models include:

GoBook XR-1: 12.1" rugged notebook with touchscreen
GoBook MR-1: Fully rugged, ultra mobile (2 lbs) notebook
GoBook VR-2: Semi-rugged notebook targeted towards applications requiring mounting in vehicles


Typically buying a ruggedized laptop implies compromising on few desirable features: A ruggedized laptop is in general lower performance, more expensive and heavier. A rugged laptop is not a cheap laptop. E.g. the Dell Latitude ATG starts at $2049 and the Dell Latitude XFR starts at $3899 (March 08), which is at least $1000 more than the equivalent mainstream laptop from Dell. Also, note that if you intend to use the laptop in bright outdoor conditions, you will be cranking up the screen brightness to its highest level - which will result in faster battery drainage - so, consider getting a higher cell battery if such an option is available.

The key factors to keep in mind while buying a rugged laptop are:

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