Rugged notebooks take the HEAT

Panasonic Toughbook CF-29

RoughRider III

HP Compaq TR3000

Itronix GoBook II

Soldiers train to toughen themselves for harsh environments. Their computing equipment needs to be equally tough to survive vehicles in hot sun and hard floors at airport terminals.

For the six years the GCN Lab has been testing rugged computers, we've watched the technology mature from merely cushioning hard drives against shock. Along the way there have been a few disappointments from rugged but performance-stealing parts.

For this review we tested three notebook PCs, one rugged Tablet PC and one rugged handheld. Because the handheld was so different from the others, it appears in a sidebar, below.

We tested all the units as closely as we could according to Military Testing Standard 810F.

Besides benchmarking performance, we put the notebooks into the lab's closed rain forest environment with boiling-water humidifiers and space heaters. The heat topped out at about 110 degrees with humidity close to 100 percent'even worse than a Washington summer.

All the systems were powered and open during the rain forest test to simulate actual field use.

This year we ceased freezer testing because we have found that many notebooks actually run better at low temperatures.

Shock is the biggest hazard for notebooks. We dropped each unit, powered up and closed, on each of its six surfaces and four corners.
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The impact surface we used in the shock test was plywood over concrete, as specified in 810F. Survivors of a 10-inch drop moved up to 20 inches. We stopped testing there, though military specs go a bit higher.

One of the most interesting things we found this year was that vendors have gotten their ruggedness act together. Most units suffered only minor damage, and some none at all.

The Panasonic Toughbook CF-29 is about as rugged as you can get with good performance and reasonable price. It suffered no damage during our tests and had only one minor failure.

A few years ago, Panasonic switched the black case to a silver one because black absorbs heat, and the Toughbook was failing at a lower temperature than competitors with lighter colors. But Panasonic also changed materials, making the notebook heavier. That year, the ultrarugged Toughbook failed our drop tests.

This year, however, it emerged as the champion. It kept running in the rain forest and emerged relatively cool. A reflective coating kept it from being too hot to pick up with bare hands.

The 1.3-GHz Intel Centrino processor scored 4,846 on the lab's benchmark suite from Alterion Corp. of Conshohocken, Pa., near the top in terms of performance. We verified the benchmark results before and after testing.
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Battery life was extremely impressive. Even while running video clips, the Toughbook's battery lasted four hours, 20 minutes, almost half an hour longer than its closest rival.

The 10-inch drop tests did not harm the CF-29. At 20 inches, the battery would dislodge briefly when the notebook was dropped on its front left corner. The power break would shut down the notebook, but it was fine once powered up again.

For hot, humid environments, the CF-29 delivers good performance and can weather most storms, plus keep running a very long time away from a power plug. It earns a Reviewer's Choice designation and an A grade.

The Hewlett-Packard Compaq dc7100 is a rarity: a rugged tablet. Considering that it's mainly a large pane of glass, I would have thought ruggedizing it would be impossible. The other notebooks had protective shells.

The dc7100 passed our heat and humidity testing with no problem. It emerged even cooler to the touch than the CF-29.

I remember holding my breath before dropping it from the 20-inch mark, especially face-down. I really thought it would smash, but the tablet suffered no damage whatsoever. Only its small rubber port protectors opened up.

The dc7100 was no speed demon, however. It scored 1,417 on the benchmark, dead last in this review. But it could easily run all tablet applications, such as touch-screen forms, word processing and e-mail.
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If you like the tablet format, the dc7100 is a good choice, especially if you sometimes work outdoors and might accidentally damage an ordinary tablet. And the price is right, too: $1,348. The dc7100 earned an A- and a Reviewer's Choice designation.

The RoughRider III was the lab's first entry from RuggedNotebooks.com of Anaheim, Calif. The RoughRider topped the scale in performance. Otherwise, results were mixed. The unit behaved well under shock, but not so well in heat and moisture.

The 1.4-GHz Pentium M chip, backed by almost a gigabyte of RAM, scored 5,034 on the benchmark test. The price was even higher: $7,078.

The unit suffered no damage when dropped from 10 inches and a few cosmetic chips at 20 inches. But the cover latch popped open on several drops, exposing the inside to damage. This occurred even at 10 inches. A stronger latch should be a top priority for future RoughRider models.

Other problems surfaced in the rain forest test. The screen went black as the case absorbed much more heat than silver or grayish cases. It was too hot to handle until it had cooled for 15 minutes.

The screen returned to normal. But then we discovered a second flaw. Moisture had condensed behind what appeared to be a Plexiglas shock coating over the LCD. The annoying mist obscured the screen for a day until it finally evaporated.

The RoughRider III is a good rugged unit if you need the fastest performance and are willing to sacrifice a bit of ruggedness. It earned a B+ for good performance with a few flaws.

The lab has tested Itronix Corp.'s GoBook II, and we were hoping to try a new GoBook III, but samples did not arrive in time for this review.

The GoBook II is a good rugged notebook for a very good price. It scored 2,831 on the benchmark'good, midrange performance.

It survived the drop tests with only minor problems, such as the stylus popping out of its holder at 10 inches. At 20 inches, the carrying handle bent badly, but the notebook itself suffered no damage. The rain forest shut it down, although it ran fine after rebooting.

The GoBook II has above-average ruggedness at a fair price. It earned a B.

GCN Lab technician Arthur Moser contributed to this review.

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