Hard Bodies

If you need a notebook computer that can take a little-or a lot-of abuse, consider buying a ruggedized model. With their hardened bodies and shock-absorbing parts, today's ruggedized notebooks can withstand a great deal of wear and tear, stormy weather and an occasional accident.

Sure, ruggedized units cost more-anywhere from $5,000 to $6,000 compared with $2,000 or $3,000 for a regular notebook. But the sturdier machines will last years, while regular notebooks tend to break and need to be replaced.

Although prices for ruggedized notebooks are still high, they've dropped in recent years, and the offerings are more competitive with commercial units in terms of processor speeds and feature sets. With more attractive ruggedized notebooks on the market, government buyers have started to take notice.

''It is about to explode," said Sterling McKanna, government sales manager at Arbor Systems Inc., of the market for ruggedized notebooks. "One year ago we received no calls" for the machines, he said, but now the orders are pouring in at Arbor, a reseller of Itronix ruggedized notebooks. McKanna estimated that 100,000 of these ruggedized notebooks are in use.

What exactly is a ruggedized notebook? "Ruggedized" is the term vendors use for notebooks that meet certain standards (most use Military Standard 810E), and they are made to withstand harsh environmental conditions such as shock, water, extreme temperatures, vibration, dust and humidity. There is a distinction, however, between "ruggedized" and "rugged," which describes a notebook that incorporates some ruggedized features and will therefore withstand tougher treatment, but it does not meet any official ruggedization standards.

Ruggedized notebooks typically have stronger casings that are made out of thick rubber or magnesium alloy; water-resistant features such as sealed screens, mouse touchpads and keyboards; and hard drives encased in gel or silicone to protect from shock and vibration. They also feature well-sealed expansion slots and card slots as well as rubber covers for the ports.

To get an idea of the range of ruggedized notebooks that are available to state and local government buyers, the FCW Test Center evaluated four machines. Three were official ruggedized notebooks: FieldWorks Inc.'s FW5200, Itronix Corp.'s X-C 6250 and Panasonic Personal Computer Co.'s Toughbook 25. We also looked at the Panasonic Toughbook 35, which is a notebook with rugged features.

Ruggedized notebooks such as these are becoming increasingly popular with law enforcement officials. Lt. James Aguirre, commander of the system development unit for the San Jose, Calif., Police Department, ordered 400 Panasonic Toughbook 25s.

After sifting through notebook computers on the market that were either "too disposable or too expensive," Aguirre settled on the Toughbook 25 because he liked the shock-mounted drives, magnesium-alloy case, protected screen and the price of the unit. The notebooks are physically mounted in police cars and connect to the department's internal mobile data system via the serial port. The officers use them to access criminal histories and will soon write their reports on the machines. Aguirre pointed out that for report writing, an officer simply can unplug the notebook and take it into the station or a crime scene.

Clyde Doerr, computer systems analyst with the Beaufort County, S.C., Sheriff's Department, wasn't satisfied with simply tallying a notebook's rugged features. Before making a buying decision, he wanted to simulate what would happen in the real world-to subject a test unit to "the kind of abuse a cop would give it."

Itronix engineers brought Doerr a test unit and allowed him to subject it to heart-stopping abuse. Most spectacularly, Doerr's team bowled the notebook into the middle of a street and ran over it at 40 mph with a Ford Explorer. The unit survived with only a few dents and scrapes, and after three or four minutes Doerr's team was able to reboot it. The Itronix received Doerr's blessing, and he anticipates ordering about 400 units over the next several years to gradually replace all the department's current notebooks.

The officers will use the units for doing in-field reporting, looking up mugshots and possibly global positioning.

Public utilities are also getting the word on ruggedized notebooks. The City Public Service of San Antonio uses FieldWorks notebooks to run a mapping application that shows the location of facilities for its field employees. "The best feature is the removable hard drive," said Patty Hanna, a project manager at the service. She explained that this feature, which is the primary reason the organization chose the FieldWorks machine, allows field employees to switch out the hard drive and update their maps.

One unique use for ruggedized notebooks is assisting people with disabilities. Bari Veltre, an augmentative communications specialist in Harrisburg, Pa., who works with Penntech, an organization that uses federal and state dollars to provide technological support for the disabled, has a 20-year-old autistic son who depends on a notebook computer to communicate. A tough notebook that can withstand spills and bumps is just what she needs for her son, who cannot speak and carries the notebook with him everywhere.

"We were averaging a new system once every three years," she said. And between new systems, she and her husband were sending each notebook away for repair about twice a year. Veltre plans to buy an Itronix notebook for her son because it is so rugged yet lightweight (a surprising 6.9 pounds).

We put the four rugged notebooks through our own set of tests, but we couldn't compare them directly because they are so different. For example, each comes with a different processor speed. However, we ran them all through Business Applications Performance Corp.'s SYSmark/32 performance benchmark and the Battmark battery tester.

For other features and characteristics, we graded each system on its own merits using word scores (see chart, Page 31). We did not perform drop or water tests because the FieldWorks model we tested was a pre-production unit, and we felt it would be unfair to test all but one. Instead, we asked the vendors for their ruggedization statistics.

Which system you should buy depends entirely on your needs. If ruggedization is your top priority-over price and performance-the Itronix and FieldWorks units are the toughest systems in this comparison.

If performance and price are almost as important as ruggedization, the Panasonic Toughbook 25 is well worth considering. And if you need an affordable notebook that's slightly tougher than most yet is still a great performer, the Panasonic Toughbook 35 with its 266 MHz Pentium processor may be for you.

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