Some rugged units strive to survive

Some rugged units strive to survive


Try telling a Marine not to get his notebook PC dirty while he slogs through the mud, or an Army Humvee driver not to hit too many potholes with equipment in the back. Or try telling the ocean not to rock Navy ships too hard.

Any computer equipment that wants to play in the military's real world has to be rugged.

Each year the GCN Lab tests products that claim to be rugged. This year the lab augmented stress tests with storage inside a scorching-hot car trunk. And the lab ramped up its rain forest habitat with more moisture and heat. It also performed drop tests, pressure tests and extreme-cold workouts.

Itronix GoBook
Itronix GoBook
This year for the first time the lab tested rugged RAID controllers, as well as notebook PCs. Don't most RAID controllers just sit in an office? Well, yes, but some offices are in pretty tough places.

Computer networks aboard ships require RAID, yet environments afloat are far from ideal for standard equipment. Proximity to depth charges or other explosions, or even storms at sea, could easily damage most RAID units.

It's often important to set up a network in a construction trailer or at a forward base. And not only does the RAID unit have to work there, it must survive the trip out in a wheeled or tracked vehicle.

The lab tested four notebooks with varying degrees of ruggedness, including two top-end units built to survive conditions that would kill many humans. It also tested two rugged RAID controllers designed to keep working under heavy vibration and other environmental hazards.

Panasonic Computer Solutions designed the Toughbook CF-48 as a semi-rugged model for business travel. The lab did not run it through the same tests as the rest of the units. Instead it pushed the 700-MHz Pentium III notebook through the rigors of normal business travel.

Toughbook 48
Toughbook 48
Tests included dropping it 10 times from a height of six inches'more than most clumsy users would bobble it in a lifetime. It was also stored it in a hot car trunk where the temperature hovered at 95 degrees for more than five hours. And it spent three hours in a refrigerator to simulate the cargo hold of an aircraft.

The CF-48 passed all tests without losing any data on its generous 20G hard drive, but the drop tests caused some wear and tear. Panels popped off occasionally, and the case got dinged.

The Panasonic Toughbook CF-72 sat in the midrange of rugged notebooks. Its solid case locked up the components for harsh conditions. It underwent the same tests as the CF-48, except the lab raised the drop height to 10 inches.

The 700-MHz Pentium III processor, 13.3-inch LCD monitor and 8M Rage Mobility AGP video controller all survived without noticeable damage, and all data was intact.

If you are in fact going near a battlefield or to, say, the Arctic on a dogsled, there are very few computer choices. The GCN Lab tested the Panasonic Toughbook CF-28 and the Itronix GoBook with a new, fast 700-MHz processor.

Toughbook 72
Toughbook 72
Both makers claimed the ultimate in ruggedness. The lab took their word, but neither unit performed up to expectations. Both wound up more or less wrecked.

The GoBook had booting problems right off the bat, because its battery was not fully charged. When fully charged it booted fine.

The GoBook next spent some time in the GCN rain forest, which is a sealed environment saturated by a boiling-water humidifier. The lab left the notebook powered on for two hours at 90 degrees. It even poured a cup of water directly onto the keyboard with no ill effects.

After drying it out, the lab sent the GoBook to the freezer for an hour. It seemed to thrive in that frigid environment, not missing a beat or any data.

Comes up short

Where the GoBook failed was in the drop test. It was supposed to be dropped 10 times from a height of 12 inches, but on the second drop a plastic tab that closed the screen broke off.

I taped the notebook closed for the rest of the drop tests. On the fifth drop the battery latches cracked, sending the battery flying out. The latches were totaled. It became evident that the GoBook was not prepared for drop shock, so the rest of the test was aborted.

An external, rubberlike antenna for Cellular Digital Packet Data access to the Web was not protected by the case, but it bounced back after each drop.

Toughbook 28
Toughbook 28
The 600-MHz processor and 128M of RAM of the CF-28 kept humming throughout the rain forest test with no problems. The unit even survived the freeze test with no difficulty. But the drop test was its doom. Only a drive clip broke in the 10 drops. When the protective shell was opened up, however, the 12.1-inch touch screen had shattered in a spider web pattern. Amazingly, the notebook still worked. The lab has tested CF-28s before with no such problems.

The unit did have nice features, such as a keyed lock on the boot lever. When locked, it could not be turned on without the proper key.

Except for the screen, the CF-28 seemed pretty solid. There was a pull-up antenna for wireless access that remained safely inside the unit during tests and showed no damage.

Panasonic has changed the formerly black case to silver, which means the case absorbs less heat and theoretically should survive higher temperatures. But previous units tested had no drop shock problems, so perhaps the new case material was at fault.

The rugged Winchester FlashDisk OpenRAID and Zzyzx Peripherals RuggedRAID drive units tested were difficult to set up, though no more so than standard RAID.

The Zzyzx unit was oriented toward shipboard use, so the lab tested it out on the water. The Winchester unit was designed for use on land, so it was tested in the back of an all-terrain vehicle.

Rugged FlashDisk OpenRAID
Rugged FlashDisk OpenRAID
Zzyzx itself heavily shock-tested the RuggedRAID Fibre Channel drive by exploding depth charges under a barge carrying the unit. It was not rated for environmental conditions such as rain, humidity, or extreme heat and cold.

Once the unit was up and running at RAID Level 3, the lab stored a bunch of data and took it out on the Chesapeake Bay in a 14-foot Bass boat.

When the Maryland Department of Natural Resources inspectors came around to check the Bass boat's fishing livewell, I had to talk fast to persuade them that the box beside the fish container was not illegally hiding fish.

Back in the lab, I reconnected the RAID unit and found no problems with data or drives.

Each drive of the RuggedRAID Fibre Channel unit required a key to open. This extra security step should satisfy military users concerned about theft of drives. Also, the unit delivered 100-megabyte/sec Fibre Channel speeds in host channels and drive channels.

RAID Test Explosion
Zzyzx Peripherals exploded a depth charge under this barge, which contains the company's rugged RAID array. It suffered minor structural damage but lost no data.
The canopy protected the unit from moisture.
Zzyzx officials asked the lab not to expose the unit to high heat and moisture. Tests indicated it should work well on ships where there is some rocking motion, but I did not test it on the ground in harsh conditions.

Winchester Systems did agree to let the lab run a full suite of environmental tests on its unit. At 80 megabytes/sec, the Winchester FlashDisk OpenRAID's SCSI interface seemed a lot slower than the Zzyzx unit's Fibre Channel rate, and the Winchester's sustained transfer rate was more along the lines of 70 megabytes/sec at RAID Level 5. But it was ingeniously designed to optimize connections.

The interface let me configure RAID for top speeds with the most-used applications. The lab tested the unit before and after optimization and found a considerable speed boost following the optimization.

RuggedRAID Fibre Channel
RuggedRAID Fibre Channel
With enterprise applications averaging 90 percent intensive disk use, 50 percent disk reads and 25 percent random access, the RAID unit ran eight times faster after optimization.

As for ruggedness, the Winchester unit breezed through the rain forest test at 95 percent humidity and temperatures up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit without data loss or access slowdown.

It also survived precipitation'three cups of water blown onto the unit through a high-speed fan. The front panel diverted most of the water.

The final shock test took place in a Jeep traveling over a trail through open fields. The unit is certified to work on both wheeled and tracked vehicles. After a bumpy ride that shook me up, the unit was still at 100 percent and still optimized.

The Winchester drives did not lock to the unit, so someone could unscrew the mounting and steal them, but an extra metal cover came down over the front to protect them from wind and weather.

The Winchester OpenRAID won my Reviewer's Choice designation. It was sturdy and fit for almost any environment from a battleship to an M-1 Abrams tank.

Four tough notebook PCs emerge from torture tests somewhat the worse for wear
GoBookToughbook 48
Toughbook 72Toughbook 28
Itronix Corp.

Spokane, Wash.

tel. 800-441-1309

Panasonic Computer
Solutions Co.

Secaucus, N.J.

tel. 800-662-3537

Panasonic Computer
Solutions Co.

Secaucus, N.J.

tel. 800-662-3537

Panasonic Computer
Solutions Co.

Secaucus, N.J.

tel. 800-662-3537
Processor700-MHz Pentium III600-MHz Pentium III
700-MHz Pentium III
600-MHz Pentium III
Weight7.5 pounds7.5 pounds
6.4 pounds
9 pounds
Display size12.1-inch touch screen13.3-inch LCD
13.3-inch LCD
13.3-inch touch screen
Drive capability20G20G
Pros+ Fastest processor in fully rugged unit
+ Passed all environmental tests
+ Fairly fast processor
+ Large hard drive
+ Solid protective case
+ Lightweight for rugged unit
+ Passed all environmental tests
+ Key lock on boot lever
Cons- Compartment clips and screen tab broke off during drop tests- Not very rugged
- Heavy for near-standard notebook
- None- Screen shattered in drop tes
Overall Grade

Blue text indicates a desirable attribute or best performance; red text indicates an undesirable attribute or worst performance.

Rugged RAID units survive stress tests
Rugged FlashDisk OpenRAIDRuggedRAID Fibre Channel
Winchester Systems Inc.

Burlington, Mass.

tel. 800-325-3700
Zzyzx Peripherals Inc.

San Diego

tel. 800-286-7909
RAID levels supported0+1, 1, 3, 5, 150, 1, 0+1, 3, 5, non-RAID disks
Weight, fully loaded80 pounds92.5 pounds
Disk rotation speeds7,200, 10,000 and 15,000 rpm10,000 rpm
ChassisAluminum enclosure with
additional front safety panel
14-gauge steel enclosure with flush-mounted rivets
Throughput70 megabytes/sec sustained100-megabyte/sec redundant
Fibre Channel
Access methodSCSIFibre Channel
Pros+ Extra panel to keep out moisture and dust
+ Passed all environmental tests
+ Fastest access time
+ Fully redundant unit
Cons- No removable key lock on drive bays- Not rugged in environmental extremes
Price as configured/
usable capacity
$42,500/513G $37,811/657G
Overall Grade


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