Rugged notebooks put the 'hard' in hardware

In tests, the lab looked at qualities such as durability, performance, processor speed and price as well as shock resistance.

(GCN Photos by Henrik G. DeGyor)

Dolch's NotePAC, top, had minor damage when dropped. Panasonic's Toughbook CF-28, middle, sustained repairable damage. Itronix's GoBook, bottom, is pictured before and after drop test'inset shows broken handle.

GCN Lab shows no mercy in testing three notebooks the same way the military does

Standard computer equipment doesn't hold up in the harsh deserts of Afghanistan or in the trunk of a patrol car. In this issue, the GCN Lab takes a look at three rugged notebook PCs designed to withstand that kind of punishment.

In the next issue, we'll look at peripherals and subnotebooks that claim similar ruggedness.
The lab followed the Defense Department's testing standard known as Mil-Std-810f. We simulated harsh conditions, including jarring in the back of a moving vehicle and falling several feet. We tested only within environments in which each maker certified its unit could survive.

The workout

We rated the units on durability as well as overall performance on the rugged version of the GCN Lab's Alterion benchmark suite, which excludes Adobe Photoshop manipulation but emphasizes processor speed and flexibility on Excel, PKzip and Specviewperf 3-D workouts. Finally, we compared price to performance.

The Panasonic Toughbook CF-28 has made a strong comeback after failing the drop tests last year [GCN, July 30, Page 36]. The CF-28 scored 464.8 on the GCN Alterion rugged benchmarks, about what you would expect from a 700-MHz Pentium III processor and 256M of memory.
By way of comparison, a 1.5-GHz Pentium 4 desktop system with 256M of RAM averaged 657.64.

Panasonic's rugged line in the past has not held up to our high-temperature testing as well as others. This year's Toughbook CF-28 has a silver case that reflected heat away, giving it about 20 degrees' higher heat tolerance than Toughbooks in black cases.

Some military users might not want a sparkly silver case, but that's what spray paint is for. Also, Panasonic officials told us they would modify the case color for large orders.
In the lab's rain forest heat and humidity test, the Toughbook ran in an enclosure with an average temperature of 92 degrees Fahrenheit. A boiling-water humidifier quickly steamed up the 12-cubic-foot chamber.

After three hours we took out the CF-28 and found a lot of steam condensed on its LCD, which was understandable because it was open during testing. The moisture had no apparent ill effects. The CF-28 continued to boot and scored the same on the benchmarks.

For the cold test, we put the notebook in a refrigerated chamber at 39 degrees Fahrenheit. Humidity was average for that temperature. The CF-28 again ran for three hours with no ill effects. When powered down cold for the same length of time, it scored a bit higher on the benchmark afterward.

DOD's 810f test method lets a vendor enter five notebooks, tag-teaming them if one is destroyed in testing. As we weren't at liberty to destroy five test units from each vendor, we decided to start out with small shocks and step up the intensity if a notebook appeared robust.

We dropped each notebook 10 inches onto plywood over concrete. Each corner and major surface was an impact point, for a total of 14 drops.

The CF-28 did well structurally during the shock testing. Nothing broke off, and the cover stayed closed except during the 11th drop'straight down onto its rear.

But one flaw caused the CF-28 to lose points to the hyper-rugged Dolch NotePAC. The CF-28 refused to boot after the eighth and final corner drop. We managed to start it up in safe mode and found a problem with a graphics driver. Either the hard drive storing the driver information had been damaged or, more likely, the Intel 830 MG graphics controller was damaged by the shocks.

We eventually brought the notebook back up in normal operating mode after about 15 minutes of nursing. It ran fine after that and successfully completed shock testing, but it obviously had suffered some type of shock-related hiccup.

The CF-28 is the least expensive unit the lab reviewed and only slightly outclassed in ruggedness by the costlier Dolch. So the CF-28 earned our Bang for the Buck designation as well as high marks.

The Dolch NotePAC towered over the competition in stature'literally. At 12.2 by 3.3 by 10 inches and weighing a whopping 12.1 pounds, it's a monster of computing durability.

During environmental testing, some parts of the NotePAC stayed cool even after three hours at 92 degrees Fahrenheit. We saw no degradation in performance by the 600-MHz Pentium III chip and 256M of RAM; the unit consistently scored 374.35 on the rugged benchmark suite.

The Dolch has the best video card of the three notebooks tested, as was apparent from its fine graphics simulations. It also is the only one that could display a native resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels.

But what really set the Dolch NotePAC apart was its performance on the shock tests. We dropped it from every corner and angle, and the only difficulties arose from a poorly designed metal latch that dangled from the battery compartment. Not until the 10th drop did a piece crack off the latch, however.

Latch it up

Dolch should lock or snap the latch to the base of the chassis for two reasons: durability and silence. We heard a loud noise whenever the metal latch hit the metal base of the battery. Excess noise could endanger a soldier on a covert mission.

The gray NotePAC case tended to absorb more heat than the silvery alloys of the Panasonic and Itronix units. That's an easily changed feature.

More importantly, Dolch should redesign the slots containing the CD-ROM and floppy drives and battery. They should be closer to the case for protection from the elements or shock.

Dolch put together the NotePAC with screws, which means the user must have a screwdriver handy to open a slot and get at, say, the CD-ROM drive. The last thing a soldier needs to worry about in the field is finding the correct screwdriver. Also, the screws aren't safety screws, which means they could come out and get lost.

Four large rubber knobs protect the NotePAC's corners. The knobs were the main reason it could take such a beating. They absorbed and redistributed shocks.

Design and good performance make the Dolch NotePAC a great buy even at the high price of $5,000.

In heat and cold, the Itronix GoBook fared well, but it was the worst of the bunch on the 10-inch drop test. We have previously suggested that Itronix should toughen up the flimsy plastic connection that keeps the screen closed and locked. It was the second thing to go'during our second drop test' at the back corner.

In the first drop, the plastic handle snapped off at one side.

The Itronix did, however, pass the drop tests on the LCD side and back surface, but shortly afterward a third piece snapped off the supposedly rugged notebook.

Old fashioned

The 850-MHz Celeron processor and S3 Savage/IX display adapter with 8M of video RAM were disappointing. Native screen resolution is only 800 by 600 pixels, and navigation is rather outdated.

Although the GoBook lacked the processing power of its competitors, scoring 231.2 on the rugged benchmarks, its price is high: $4,440 with a 20G hard drive and 256M of RAM.

On the plus side, the Itronix is small and light at 2.0 by 2.2 by 9.8 inches and weighing only 7.5 pounds.

Despite our criticisms, any of the notebooks in this review will be far more rugged than the typical notebook. But the Dolch would fare best in truly severe conditions, followed by the Panasonic.

The GoBook's superficial injuries could soon add up. If you need a small, light notebook and won't be taking any mortar rounds, it will do just fine.

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