GCN LAB REVIEWS

10 rugged devices that are fit for all seasons

2010's toughest include laptops, a phone and a vehicle-mounted computer

It’s a rough world out there for most computing devices. Fumbling users drop expensive equipment that shatters across concrete. A computer could melt inside a hot car or freeze in the icy blasts of a harsh winter. Even a bumpy road can spell doom for some computers if the vibration is too rough. And if water or dirt launches an assault, well, in most cases, you can just forget about the device surviving. You’d be lucky if you can save your data.

But not every computer is a shrinking violet. Some of them are downright tough — as in, they could outlast their human users in some of the most adverse conditions this planet can throw at them.

The military even has special tests to separate the wheat from the chaff. Called Military Specification 810f, or Mil-Spec 810f, it shows which devices are truly rugged in a bastion of tests and which are merely durable. The GCN Lab performs these same tests each year in our rugged device roundup. But you don’t have to be in the military to get your hands on these survivalists of the computer world. They are just as rugged and often just as useful for civilians. Anyone can drop their phone in an airport lounge, and the carpet there isn’t very thick.

The GCN Lab gathered 10 rugged devices that ran the spectrum of what’s available in rugged gear. Everything from a vehicle-mounted wireless access point to handheld devices and laptop PCs stepped up to face the ultimate test of computing fitness. And unlike the military test, which allows five units to tag team together with one stepping in if another fails, we in the Lab only have one of each. So it’s pass/fail — or perhaps live/die in rugged testing — although we do assign a rugged grade based on how intact a working device is at the end of our battery of punishment.


NEXT: Armor X10gx Tablet

Armor X10gx

Armor X10gx slate tablet

The Armor tablet is surprisingly powerful, scoring 525.7 on the Passmark Performance Test 7.1 benchmarks, showing that its 64-bit Windows 7 operating system can handle any task you give it. The 10.4-inch screen is bright and looks fine in direct sunlight, and the tablet easily survived 144 drops from various heights ranging from 12 inches to 48 inches. But perhaps the most impressive thing was its ability to survive water gushing across it according to IP67 standards, even with its I/O flaps open.

Pros: Good benchmark scores; very rugged against shock; can go underwater.
Cons: Heavy for a slate-class tablet.
Rugged level: A
Performance: A-
Ease of use: B
Features: B
Value: A-
Government price: $3,158 as configured for test

Read full review: The Armor X10gx slate tablet withstands heat, cold and plenty of water

NEXT: Dell Latitude Laptop

Dell Latitude E6400 XFR

Dell Latitude E6400 XFR

Reviewers ChoiceThis black laptop PC is built like a tank and is only slightly lighter. But that weight is mostly armor that protects it from extremes of all sorts. Out drop tests starts a 12-inches and goes all the way up to a dizzying height (for a notebook anyway) of 48 inches. Dropping the XFR 36 times at each level, which is every 12-inches, would be the death of most notebooks, especially since it has to land on every side, surface and corner. The Latitude tore the hell out of the plywood, shivering timbers like a cannonball ripping through an old sailing ship. But it never got a scratch on it, and booted fine after each drop.

Pros: Extremely tough; backlit keyboard; touch screen.
Cons: Heavy; expensive.
Rugged level: A+
Performance: A-
Ease of use: A-
Features: A+
Value: A-
Price: $4,864 as configured for test

Read full review: Dell Latitude E6400 XFR is as tough as they come

NEXT: Fortress Vehicle Mesh Point

Fortress Technologies ES820 Vehicle Mesh Point

Fortress Technologies ES820 Vehicle Mesh Point

Once installed in a vehicle, the ES820 is surprisingly rugged. We took the ES820 off-road through rocks, streams and more than a little mud. The little 2.5-pound unit won’t put a dent in your hauling capacity. The metal case packs a 500mW 802.11a/n radio and a 250mW 802.11a/b/g/n radio. We setup a base camp with wireless devices, and sent the jeep out loaded with the ES820. Even in a light forest-like environment, the base camp was able to get a signal from the vehicle almost a mile away. It was much better when in line of sight, but had good signal regardless. The network is designed to self-form, self-heal and self-patch, though we couldn’t test this feature because we only had a single unit, but so we see no reason why additional ES820s would do anything but make those connections stronger. A whole fleet of them should be quite powerful indeed.

Pros: Rugged against vibration; can be temporarily submerged in water.
Cons: Initial setup a bit difficult.
Rugged level: A
Performance: A
Ease of use: B
Features: B
Value: A-
Government price: $3,595

Read full review: Fortress Vehicle Mesh Point creates a network in the outdoors

NEXT: Gamma Tech Rugged Laptop-Tablet

GammaTech R13S Rugged Laptop-Tablet

GammaTech R13S Rugged Notebook

The R1S3 can function as a rugged laptop most of the time, but could be converted to a tablet for activities such as filling out forms or working in the field. The downside to this multifunctional feature set is weight, since the R1S3 is 9 pounds without taking the power cables into account. On the plus side, the low government price of $2,963 is amazing for a rugged unit that can exist as a laptop or tablet. In rugged tests, the R1S3 really shined. We put it through the Mil-Spec drop testing in laptop and tablet format, and it came through without any damage other than a few cosmetic scratches. And the battery lasted a long time — 3 hours, 27 minutes —in our worst case scenario testing.

Pros: Good battery life; touch screen; converts from laptop to tablet.
Cons: Heavy; low benchmark scores.
Rugged level: A
Performance: B-
Ease of use: A-
Features: A
Value: A+
Government price: $2,963 as configured for test

Read full review: GammaTech R13S is one tough convertible laptop-tablet


NEXT: Gamma Tech Rugged Notebook

GammaTech D14RM Rugged Notebook

GammaTech D14RM Rugged Notebook

The D14RM is a featherweight of a rugged laptop, coming in at just 6 pounds, 5 ounces without its power cables. That might seem heavy, but compared to the near 10-pound monsters in this field, it’s light. A lighter laptop, in theory, might be able to better survive drops up to 48-inches onto plywood sitting over concrete. And yes, the D14RM did pass all our testing in this area, but there was quite a lot of incidental damage that occurred, and at relatively low distances. Its performance was quite good, scoring a respectable 570 on the Passmark Performance Test benchmarks, though battery life was just 2 hours, 5 minutes. We wouldn’t trust the D14RM in Afghanistan, but would feel comfortable with it at the airport. If you want a rugged laptop that is only occasionally subjected to harsh environments and drops, then do yourself a favor and save a few pounds.

Pros: Very light for a rugged PC; good benchmark scores.
Cons: Not as rugged as heavier models; peripherals tend to pop off in shock testing.
Rugged level: C+
Performance: A
Ease of use: A
Features: B
Value: A
Government price: $2,076 as configured for test

Read full review: GammaTech D14RM laptop takes a light approach to ruggedness

NEXT: Getac Rugged Handheld

Getac PS236 Fully Rugged Handheld

Getac PS236 Fully Rugged Handheld

This little handheld is thick, but only weighs 1 pound, 4 ounces without its power cord. There is a strap on the back so that it could easily be held in one hand for long periods of time, or looped into a belt or other harness. It fits easily into the big pocket of a lab coat, too. The PS236 literally bounced through our drop testing, partially because of the sturdy design, and partially because of the thick rubber grips on all sides. It also survived heat and freezing tests. And it’s able to be submerged in water, though it likes to float. This is actually a good thing, since it would aid in recovery if it’s floating on the surface. When you need to do a rough job in a small space, or have to be carrying your rugged gear all day, the PS236 might become your little yellow best friend.

Pros: Survived multiple 4-foot drops; ran fine in extreme heat, cold.
Cons: Windows Mobile operating system slightly restricts program choices; no hardware keyboard.
Rugged Level: A
Performance: B
Ease of use: A-
Features: B+
Value: A
Price: $2,299

Read full review: Getac PS236 rugged handheld is fit for field duty


NEXT: IronKey Enterprise Software

IronKey Enterprise

IronKey Enterprise

The IronKey Enterprise suite is software that makes deploying and monitoring your rugged key drives a very simple process. It turns your administrator into a powerful information protector who can wipe drives at will, track where in the world they are being used and seamlessly deploy hundreds or even thousands of keys in an afternoon. And you have a lot of choices of security settings. For example, you can require that each time a drive is inserted into any computer it tunnels back to your home servers to prove that it’s valid. Admins can easily see real-time records of who is using a drive, how many missed passwords have been entered, and even where in the world on a globe the key is being used. The only problem with the Enterprise system is that it costs $24 per year, per key to maintain it. But if security is paramount in your agency — you know who you are — then this is one key you’ll want to turn.

Pros: Waterproof and rugged; resists physical tampering; great admin interface.
Cons: Need to pay a license fee each year per drive to maintain enterprise service.
Rugged level: A
Performance: A
Ease of use: A+
Features: A
Value: B
Government price: $299 for 16G flash drive plus $24 per year, per drive

Read full review: IronKey Enterprise gives admins total control of secure drives

NEXT: Motion Computing Tablet

Motion Computing J3500

Motion Computing J2500

This sleek slate tablet lets you cheat and plug into a clever docking station that adds a full-size, waterproof keyboard to the configuration. The keyboard even folds up for easy transport if you want to take it with you. Removed of the keyboard and its power cables, the J3500 weighs only 3 pounds, 13 ounces. The J3500 was able to score 366.7 on the Passmark Performance Test 7.1 benchmarks, so it can handle not only all office-related tasks, but quite a few more advanced programs such as Photoshop and speech recognition. And despite its small size, it ran our worst-case scenario battery life testing for 3 hours, 20 minutes. Pound for pound, that makes it one of the best in terms of battery life. The unit’s biggest flaw was that the pen, which is required to use the touch screen, popped out during some drops at 12-inches, and almost every time at heights above that. Still, the tablet itself suffered no real damage and booted up after each drop.

Pros: Very light for a rugged device; good battery life; decent benchmark scores.
Cons: Pen does not stay in place even in low drops; minor cosmetic damage during shock testing.
Rugged Level: B
Performance: B+
Ease of use: A+
Features: A
Value: A
Price: $3,112 as configured for test

Read full review: Motion Computing J3500 is a light, rugged tablet with surprising power

NEXT: Panasonic Toughbook

Panasonic Toughbook 31

Panasonic Toughbook 31

Reviewers ChoiceThe Toughbook line has been one of the standards in rugged laptops for many years now and the newly designed Toughbook 31 is no exception to that rule. What is rare for any laptop is the performance of this powerhouse, which is better than most desktops. It scored 1,061 on the Passmark Performance Benchmark, blowing away everything else in this review. A few hundred points higher and the 31 might be suitable for the workstation review we’re conducting later this year. Battery life lasted a magical 4 hours, 30 minutes in our worst-case scenario testing. Of course, the big battery contributes to the unit’s 8 pounds, 2 ounces of weight, which is a slight negative against this otherwise stellar laptop. The silvery coating on the 31 helps it resist heat in our GCN Rainforest test, or inside a hot patrol car all day. And it has a blackout mode, which will quickly shut down all the lights on the unit and turn off the radios, which is perfect for stakeouts or black ops. The Toughbook 31 is a real workhorse for anyone who needs their equipment to work regardless of any other environmental factors.

Pros: Extremely tough; powerful processor.
Cons: Heavy; a bit expensive.
Rugged level: A+
Performance: A+
Ease of use: A-
Features: A
Value: A-
Price: $3,799 as configured for test

Read full review: Toughbook 31 combines powerhouse performance with long battery life

NEXT: Casio Rugged Phone

Casio G’zOne Brigade

Casio G’zOne Brigade

Reviewers ChoiceThe G’zOne Brigade looks like a normal phone, with dialing buttons that sit below a large circular window that displays the time or the phone’s status. But crack that phone open and it reveals a large internal screen and a full QWERTY keyboard. You can surf the Web on the 3G network and never once did we have any trouble getting a good signal. It even has push-to-talk capabilities. The Brigade is fully Mile-Spec rugged for shock, water and dust, and withstood our heat, cold and water tests. At just six ounces, the Brigade weighs little more than a regular phone, but is rugged enough to withstand just about anything you can throw at it. That and a very cool design make it the perfect tool to use as a phone or portable Internet surfing tool.

Pros: Works underwater; good signal; hides a full QWERTY keyboard.
Cons: Nothing significant.
Rugged Level: A+
Performance: A+
Ease of use: A
Features: A+
Value: A-
Price: $249 with $50 mail-in rebate and two-year customer agreement

Read full review: Casio G’zOne Brigade rugged phone would make James Bond proud


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