A new class of notebooks: Semi-rugged and streetwise

While the military greatly pioneered uses for small, durable computers that could be deployed in inhospitable conditions, some of the technologies used in those ruggedized battlefield computers are finding their way into notebooks for more traditional mobile users.

Defense Department users have continued to push the state of the art, demanding more powerful processors, longer-lasting batteries and better screens and input devices in more durable machines. But at the other end of the spectrum is the office worker, whose idea of adverse conditions is a rainy sprint between a car and the office.

Realizing this, when the weather cooperates, Panasonic Personal Computer Co. federal channel manager Jan O'Hara said she likes to visit clients using one of her rugged notebooks as an umbrella, with the case open and exposed to the elements.

Mainstream computer users need mobile systems, and they are tired of having them fail because of frequent real-life problems, such as rain or having the computer slide off a precarious pile of paper on a desk and crash to the floor. "Whether you are in the field or in the office, damage to notebooks is rampant," said John Harris, director of marketing for Panasonic.

A lot of agencies are buying commercial notebooks, said Ozzie Gerald, president of Grid Systems Corp., which is a long-time rugged computer vendor to federal agencies and which recently opened new headquarters in Vienna, Va. "[Notebooks] are going out in the field, and they are failing because they can not withstand the drops."

Emerging Market Niche

The rough-and-ready military systems continue to pioneer new technologies to make them tougher. But at the same time, a middle ground is emerging: a class of extra-tough notebooks that lack the pull-out-the-stops technology of the front-line mobile systems but that nevertheless survive in dusty, wet or vibration-prone environments where an office-style machine would succumb.

The emergence of the tougher notebooks from commercial vendors has some federal customers trying to decide which type of product to use for which tasks. "We are wondering if we should change our acquisition strategy down the road," said William Newell, contracting officer for the Common Hardware and Software contract at Fort Monmouth, N.J.

In tests the Army has conducted so far, the commercial notebook vendors have not had anything that would be able to withstand the type of punishment the field would provide, Newell said, but the Army would like to go to commercial products to lower the price.

Although many users may not see a need for tougher notebooks, market studies show that an accident often convinces them otherwise, said Steve Cook, senior vice president of Greenfield Online Inc., a Westport, Conn., consultancy. "Among those [surveyed] who had experienced notebook damage, the number interested in rugged notebooks jumped up," he said.

The primary challenge for users of all types of portable devices is to prevent breakage of the LCD panel. The display is the most expensive and fragile part of mobile computers - costing $1,500 to $2,000, according to Panasonic - and breaking it often means replacing the computer.

The new, popular larger LCD panels - now often 14 inches - are harder to protect, Gerald said. Once users break that 14-inch screen on a non-rugged notebook computer, they more readily justify spending $1,500 more for a rugged notebook, he said. The most popular way to protect the fragile screens is an old-fashioned one: armor. Although now that means durable ABS plastic rather than steel.

The price difference between standard and rugged computers depends on how much ruggedization users require, analysts said. But regardless of how tough customers need their computers to be, those who do not have rugged machines tend to overestimate the price premium they will have to pay, and they conclude that rugged machines are out of their price range, Cook said. "There is a gap between the price they think it costs and what they are willing to pay," he said.

That price depends mostly on the buyer's definition of rugged. Ninety-nine percent of customers only require machines that can be used in the rain rather than ones that are completely submersible, according to Grid Systems. For example, field inspectors at agencies such as Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency need computers that survive the bumps and drops of outdoor work without meeting some of the military's requirements, Gerald said.

For training purposes, users might need a semi-rugged notebook, said Gunnery Sgt. Howard Blair, in the Interactive Electronic Technical Manual Implementation Division at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md. "But for servicing an airplane in the pouring rain or going to Saudi Arabia, you need something tougher," he said.

Capt. Mike Berigan, project officer for the Marine Corps Direct Support Center in Quantico, Va., uses rugged notebooks built by Telos Corp., Ashburn, Va., that are Sun Microsystems Inc. workstation-compatible. These devices, which run tactical command and control applications in a tent, are somewhat dust-proof and have a shock-proof case, he said. These machines do not live as hard a life as the grunt computers in foxholes, but they still get battered enough to sometimes crack the cases, he said.

In some applications, the design of the computer is as important as its ruggedness. While Blair said his office uses and likes Panasonic's CF-25 rugged notebook, it is not suitable for aircraft maintenance chores because of its size. "Imagine trying to hold it up while you are working on an aircraft," he said.

The solution is a smaller computer, or even a wearable one, such as the system from Via Inc., Northfield, Minn., that allows for hands-free use. His office is hoping to expand use of wearable computers to other tasks, Blair said.

The application determines the degree of needed ruggedness too, said Charles Richardson, program manager for rugged computers at Litton Corp. The Navy and the Marines use Litton's computers for reconnaissance teams to record digital images and relay them back to commanders.

In this application, the machine must withstand any contingency, or a mission can fail. "The whole mission can be jeopardized by the failure of a connector," said David Bischof, an electrical engineer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane, Ind. "They have got to operate behind enemy lines, so there is no supply line for repairs."

This means that while it is acceptable for some rugged computers to survive temperatures down to minus 10 degrees Celsius, the Litton goes to minus 30 C. LCD screens freeze at those temperatures, which can ruin them. Litton found that most LCDs will be able to recover from a freeze, down to about minus 40 C, Richardson said. But they cannot function at those temperatures, so Litton builds in heating elements to warm them when they are turned on.

The heater, in turn, draws power that drains about 20 percent of the battery's life, he said. To offset that drain, Litton uses a more advanced battery technology, lithium sulfur dioxide, instead of the common lithium-ion or nickel-metal hydride. This provides twice the battery power of the commercially available technologies.

However, commercial vendors are not likely to adopt that particular solution because "there are some safety concerns," Richardson said. "It can be explosive."

Another important factor is the input/output ports on a computer. Instead of the traditional D-shell connectors used on most computers, the Navy specified Mil-Spec circular connectors on the Litton computers because they work better under adverse conditions, Bischof said. "We found that other connectors were unreliable in the mud and muck," he said.

PC Card slots, which are widely used on commercial systems, are notoriously unreliable in rugged systems, said Rick Evans, manager of federal business development at Fieldworks Inc., Eden Prairie, Minn. The problem is the electrical connection between the card and the computer. "If the [input/output] port to what you are doing is broken, the computer is a paperweight," he said.

Fieldworks has designed rugged PC Card slots that can survive swinging the computer by wires connected to those ports, he said. The company recently sent its computers along with a team of researchers climbing Mount Everest to experiment with advanced telemedicine technologies.

Litton uses special sealed ports that keep water and dirt out, and the company specifies which cards are tough enough to use in the system.

Also, some customers may be concerned about electromagnetic interference. In secure applications it is important that the case and input/output ports be shielded so that the computer does not leak radiation that can reveal information contained inside or that can interfere with radio communications. "Any opening in the box is a way for EMI to get out," Richardson said.

The emergence of a market for semi-rugged notebook computers may bring about some big changes in the traditional rugged market, industry observers said.

Ruggedized notebooks, as well as the office notebooks with some rugged features, typically are being offered by large notebook computer vendors, while the Mil-Spec ruggedized machines are from specialist vendors targeting this specific niche or from systems integrators with military customers who have special needs.

The result could be that the commercial vendors might make life tough for the specialist vendors by eating into their sales with cheaper machines. Some vendors admitted off the record that they will abandon the market segment.

"The cost of a $5,000 workstation, in ruggedized form, is $12,000 to $15,000," said one industry source. "The military seems to be meeting many of their needs using commercial models that are ruggedized to industrial standards."

However, this increased attention to the need for more rugged portable systems could expand the market as customers tire of replacing broken light-duty computers, other observers said.

"As the number of critical applications run on mobile systems increases, rugged machines will be more widely adopted," said Bruce Stephan, International Data Corp. group vice president of worldwide PC research.

To some extent, specialty vendors welcome the move toward ruggedness by commercial vendors because it could encourage component suppliers to offer more rugged components.

Hard drives are especially vulnerable to impacts, so vendors look for tougher hard drives and mount them in impact-absorbing material.

Litton, for example, uses hard drives in its computers that were built to be used in PC Cards, because they can take more abuse. Panasonic has a patented rubber cushion in its machines. Vendors also like to beef up the chassis with extra bracing to make them tougher.

That move by commercial vendors is the expectation of Fieldworks. "There is room in this market for a lot of different strata, in terms of pricing and ruggedization," Evans said.

Carney is a free-lance writer based in Herndon, Va.

AT A GLANCE

Status: The market for ruggedized notebook computers now encompasses varying degrees of ruggedness, with a new emphasis on beefed-up commercial products that withstand poor conditions.

Issues: Commercial vendors have gotten into the act, introducing rugged components into standard notebooks, including stronger casing for LCD displays and more durable input/output ports.

Outlook: Very good. Semi-rugged notebooks will satisfy the requirements of many mobile users. Meanwhile, the widespread use of rugged components should help drive the prices of those components down for traditional ruggedized computer users.

MORE INFO

Leading causes of portable computer failures:

* Being dropped while carried

* Liquid spills

* Fell off desk

* Object dropped on unit

* Improper insertion of PC Card

* Dust/dirt in unit

* Electrical surge/power shock

* Extreme heat exposure

* Excessive vibration

* Packed too tightly in briefcase

Leading failures by component:

* Display screen

* Hard disk drive

*1 Port/connector doors

* Trackpad/point/ball

* Insertable devices

* Outer casing

* Keyboard

* System board

* AC adapter

Information from International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass., from a study commissioned by Panasonic.

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