These rugged peripherals tough it out

1. The Itronix GoBook Max performed below par on the GCN Lab's shock tests
2. The Storm Case locks in notebook against moisture and shock.
3. The Toughbook CF-M34 has a full-sized notebook's performance at half the size and weight.
4. The PDA Protector can cushion the screen of a fragile PDA.
5. The PDA Protector's magnetic clasp could cause trouble for other computers or media.

PC gear takes the heat and many other types of damage

When a mechanic crawls under a military vehicle to tighten a certain bolt, a computerized manual can be a huge help'but not if it's stored on a full-sized notebook.

Such a job demands a subnotebook or something even smaller that's both rugged and fearless.

What if the mechanic needs a rugged yet portable printer to write a report while crouching under that vehicle? Although the sturdy printing attachment for the Dolch NotePac had room for improvement, the GCN Lab gave it a high grade and a Reviewer's Choice designation because it currently is the only device in its class.

The NotePac printer did create a certain amount of vulnerability in use because it exposed the notebook's expansion ports to moisture and other potential harm.

Dolch officials asked that we not put the NotePac though ruggedness testing with the printer attached because the printer lacked the notebook's thick rubber corners and would add weight during drop testing. But the printer had the same rugged casing as the notebook, so it would seem likely to survive ordinary hazards.

Self-powered printer

On the plus side, the printer had the same core elements as a standard Canon Bubble Jet BJC-55 printer and took readily available black-ink cartridges. Also, the printer incorporated its own battery and recharging cable, so it would not drain power from the notebook.

Cartridge replacement required taking the printer out of its rugged case. A separate printer battery was necessary to supply power to move the inkwell into position.

An infrared interface drove the print operation. The printer had to be within a few inches of the port, which was inside the case.

Text quality was excellent, but photos looked far too dark even at the highest resolution. And paper had to be fed in one sheet at a time.

Melard Technologies' Sidearm was no doubt named with law enforcers and military personnel in mind. The two-inch screen and keyboard could be worn clipped to a wrist or belt. The small, 2.4-pound unit was colored industrial yellow for visibility, and its key area was also color-coded. Number keys were outlined in white and function keys in green, both easy to see.

Get a grip

Solid rubber grips all around made the unit thoroughly shock-resistant, and its low mass built up little momentum in drop testing.

The Sidearm emerged without a scratch from the lab's ruggedness tests for shock, moisture, heat and cold.

The Microsoft Windows CE 2.12 operating system booted fast, and the 206-MHz StrongARM processor with 32M of RAM and 32M of ROM had plenty of power to handle most CE applications. We could read the 640- by 240-pixel touch screen in most lighting conditions.

Dark colors did not display properly, however. They had a swirling effect as if the refresh rate were not set high enough.

The Sidearm came with an integrated wireless antenna, a 56-Kbps modem jack and a single Universal Serial Bus port. Most devices we tested with the Sidearm worked fine so long as they had CE drivers available.

Battery life was good, averaging about 10 hours, or more than five hours under constant use. The battery recharged in about an hour.

The Sidearm would make an excellent tool for, say, border patrol agents who need fast information in harsh environments but who can't lug around a full notebook.

The Panasonic Toughbook CF-M34 resembled earlier versions of the Toughbook CF-28 [GCN, June 17, Page 41]. The CF-M34's smaller, boxier format included a half-sized keyboard and an 8.4-inch SuperVGA, antiglare touch screen.

Under the hood, the 700-MHz Pentium III processor and 256M of RAM performed almost as fast as those of the CF-28'and at half the CF-28's size: 3.8 pounds and only 9 by 1.7 by 7.4 inches.

The CF-M34 was also smaller and lighter than the competing Itronix GoBook Max, which weighed almost twice as much. It endured our climate tests well and surpassed the GoBook Max in shock tests.
Priced at $3,500 including Cisco Systems' PCI wireless LAN adapter, this tiny PC earned a big A-. The minus was for having only one USB port'a disadvantage because a subnotebook requires external connections for everything.

The rugged Itronix GoBook Max looked like a standard notebook PC and was almost as big: 6.2 pounds and 11 by 2.5 by 8.75 inches. No CD-ROM or floppy drives were integrated, however.

The GoBook performed more slowly than the Panasonic despite having an equivalent 700-MHz Pentium III processor and 256M of RAM. Images on its larger, 10.4-inch SVGA, antiglare touch screen were less sharp than on the Panasonic, which had the same 4M Silicon Motion LynxEM+ adapter.

The GoBook Max performed well on our climate tests. It had two USB ports and a Sierra Wireless AirCard 300, which accessed the Internet via Cellular Digital Packet Data networks.

But the wireless antenna was the weakest link. Itronix, unlike Panasonic, didn't design it to attach closely to the unit when not extended. It snapped off in our drop tests.

Hard case

At $4,036, the GoBook Max wasn't priced low enough to be a desirable alternative to a full notebook.

Users who don't want to spend the extra money for a rugged notebook should look at rugged cases, which can prevent considerable damage at low cost.

Kensington Products' PDA Protector fit a Palm 505 personal digital assistant, although there are protectors available for just about any PDA on the market.

The protector we tested was not rugged in the strict sense of Mil-Std 810f testing. What it did do was cushion the large and fragile screen of a color PDA inside a magnetic-locking metal case.

In our environmental testing, the $40 protector could not entirely shield the PDA inside from moisture after several hours in the GCN Lab's rain forest chamber.

We did not perform drop tests, but a device cushioned inside the PDA Protector's metal case would no doubt fare better than one whose screen struck the floor directly. The only real negative was the magnetic locking mechanism. It was strong enough to lift a small pair of scissors and probably could also disrupt data on floppy disks.

Magnets and computers never mix well, although the magnetic field did not seem to harm the PDA's embedded circuitry in our tests.

The Hardigg Industries Storm Case iM2300 protected against the elements as well as the occasional fumble. Measuring 18.2 by 6.7 by 13.4 inches, it consisted of a shock-resistant shell with a foam enclosure for a standard-sized notebook.

The Storm Case survived our drop and climate tests well. Its price was $140 with foam padding or $124 without, but we recommend the foam version.

Dell Computer Corp., which provided the test unit for this review, sells the Storm Case in sizes that exactly fit Dell notebooks. We put a Latitude model in a Storm Case through 24-inch Mil-Std 810f drop tests with little worry about damage. Although we didn't try tossing it off a building, we suspect that wouldn't hurt much, either.

Overall, this assortment of rugged products proves that users can take their favorite computer technology on almost any ride.

GCN Lab technician Arthur Moser contributed to this review.

About the Authors

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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