Holy Humvee!

Hewlett-Packard's rugged notebook nr3610 meets military specifications for ruggedness in areas of vibration, temperature, sealing, humidity and low pressure. Prices begin at $4,099.

The Rough Rider III, Rugged Notebooks sells for $4,827.

Priced at $4,495 and up, Itronix Corp.'s wireless GoBook III is designed to meet the Defense Department's MIL-STD 810F standard for durability.

Rugged portable PCs are rough and ready

Consider them the Humvees of the computing world. Rugged portable PCs are designed to withstand the rigors of mission-critical military operations, the harsh environmental demands of heavy industrial tasks, or even the careless jostles of road warriors hustling through an airport.

You'll find them on active duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, in mines and construction sites, law enforcement, telecommunications, health care, in forest reserves and marine environments'anyplace a standard PC or notebook just won't cut the mustard.

There are three main classes of rugged PCs in use today: full-sized PCs of the clamshell or lunchbox design, ruggedized notebooks and ruggedized tablets.

Full-sized rugged portable PCs, such as the Dolch FlexPAC from Kontron America Inc. of San Diego, are used mainly in industrial applications, where an expandable unit with a large screen, plenty of memory and an expandable backplane holding up to six full-size PCI boards can be accommodated.

While these machines are highly useful under specific conditions, their range is fairly limited when compared to notebooks and tablets.

Ruggedized notebooks are far and away the most popular category in today's marketplace, followed by ruggedized tablet PCs. Both formats are highly portable, and with today's advances in processing power, inexpensive memory, touchscreen and sun-readable displays, cheap and highly available storage, and multimedia and wireless capability, it's no wonder they are so popular.

Up to certain limits, you can shock them, drop them, shake them, bake them, drench them and even freeze them. They'll bounce back and keep on operating under unbelievably adverse conditions in a way that their more conventionally built cousins never could.

What the tough guys look like

Before investing in one, it's a good idea to get a handle on what a 'rugged' computer really is. According to a white paper by Group Mobile Inc. of Chandler, Ariz., a manufacturer and reseller of rugged notebooks, there are three generally agreed-upon levels of ruggedness within the industry: semirugged/ruggedized, fully rugged and ultrarugged.

Semirugged/ruggedized notebooks or tablets are typically commercial computers with standard off-the-shelf components that have been significantly enhanced for rugged use. For example, the plastic casing has been replaced by a magnesium alloy case (or rubber bumpers surround the case). In most instances, the hard drive has been shock-mounted'that is, mounted on a layer of soft gel or springs. Often, a rubberized sheet has been placed under the keyboard to impede water flow into the device. The display is usually sealed against liquids, moisture and dust.

Fully rugged computers have been designed from the ground up for use in highly demanding outdoor conditions. They contain all the drop- and shockproof features of semirugged versions and more. In most cases, virtually all their components are carefully sealed against dirt, sand, salt, moisture and dust, and are able to withstand heat and cold. Their display screens often come with options for viewing in outdoor lighting conditions. Most come with fairly elaborate communications options, including wireless LAN and Bluetooth cable-replacement technology.
Ultrarugged computers take the features of fully rugged computers several steps further. They often include enhancements designed to address user requirements or the needs of specific industries or environments. Often, they are vacuum-sealed against outside elements including explosive gases.
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Because of the care that goes into their design and development, they are costly but very reliable, and they are of the type that you'll see today on the battlefields of Iraq.

Understand from the outset that you're probably going to have to pay considerably more for a ruggedized computer than a standard one, depending on the type and number of ruggedized features it includes. But before just accepting somebody else's word about the level of its ruggedness, you have to do a little homework yourself.

How can you assess the level of ruggedness in a PC or tablet that interests you? First, you'll have to (very carefully) read the detailed specifications of the unit. Is the case made of magnesium alloy? Is the hard drive shock-mounted? Can it easily be removed? Is the display carefully sealed from outside elements? Is the keyboard rubberized, or is there at least a rubber membrane underneath it? What upgrade options, including CPU, additional memory and wireless LAN, are available? How easy is it to add an extra battery or a DVD/CD-ROM drive?

Rating organizations and standards

To level the playing field for buyers, including the military, other government organizations, industries and private individuals, there are published computer ruggedness ratings you can use to find out how the product that interests you rates against others. As a matter of course, most vendors include these ratings in their product specifications to back their claims of the level of ruggedness for the products they sell.

MIL-STD 810 E and F, set by the Defense Department for military and commercial equipment and applications, are the most important performance and manufacturing guidelines for rugged computers. Notice that some products carry a MIL-STD 810E rating and others carry a MIL-STDF rating. MIL-STD 810F is a revision of MIL-STD 810E and has added some clarity to the language, but the tests and methods are the same for all practical purposes.

These two tests are used to generate confidence in the environmental worthiness and overall durability of the system being tested, according to Group Mobile. The tests cover 24 categories, such as altitude, temperature, fluid contamination, rain, humidity, salt, fog, dust, immersion, vibration, icing/freezing rain, and ballistic shock.

Only after a system has passed these rigorous tests can the manufacturer certify that it is MIL-STD 810E or 810F compliant.
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Another set of tests often used in conjunction with the MIL-STD 810E/F set is the Ingress Protection Rating for Equipment and Enclosures. This test set employs a three-digit number established by the International Electrotechnical Commission. The three digits represent three different forms of environmental influence: Digit one represents protection against ingress of solid objects; digit two represents protection against ingress of liquids; and digit three represents protection against mechanical damage. Finally, standards set up by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association can be used to rate electrical products according to 13 criteria, ranging from indoor use with a degree of protection against falling dirt and outdoor use for protection against hose-directed water, to prolonged submersion at a limited depth and damage from external ice formation.

In previous years, manufacturers seemed to eschew many extras just to enable their rugged products to pass muster as the toughest hombres on the block. In looking over the Class of 2005's rugged notebooks, however, I was surprised to see the wide range of options available, including high-end Pentium M CPUs, plenty of upgradeable memory, sun-readable touchscreens, wireless LAN capability and more. In fact, today's rugged versions seem to possess almost as many features as their commercial cousins.

'Consumers no longer have to view rugged laptops as bulky, heavy and cumbersome with limited display size or think of the technology as 'just for the military,' ' said Andy Ho, a product manager for Getac Inc. of Lake Forest, Calif.

J.B. Miles writes from Honomu, Hawaii. E-mail him atjbmiles@starband.net.

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