A semi-rugged portable that's tough enough

While other vendors fudge definitions, Itronix's VR-1 notebook stands out

GCN Lab Review

Performance: A-

Battery life: C

Features: A

Value: B

Price (as tested): $3,458

Reviewer's comments: The VR-1 is not quite a fully rugged notebook, but it's very tough. Plus, it doesn't cost as much as a battlefield-tested system. It's optimized for people who do a lot of work in a vehicle.

Contact:Itronix Corp., Spokane Valley, Wash., (800) 441-1309, www.itronix.com

REAL DEAL: In many ways, the VR-1 is like any other notebook, but features such as the built-in handle put it in the semi-rugged class.

Itronix has always made good, reliable fully rugged notebook PCs. They score well in GCN Lab tests, meeting or exceeding 810f military specifications as well as the lab's own tests for shock, harsh environment survival and repelling moisture. (The company was bought last year by General Dynamics Corp. but still operates as Itronix.)

But not everyone travels to the front lines of Iraq or other places where a fully rugged notebook makes sense. And the additional cost of a desert-proof portable can be five times greater than a nonrugged unit. This has given rise to the semi-rugged category, which in general means notebooks that are a bit more rugged than a normal one.

'A bit more rugged?' you say. Sounds vague, and it is. No clear standard has been developed to let consumers know what semi-rugged really means. We have even seen companies do the bare minimum, such as shock-mounting the hard drive in foam, and then call the result a semi-rugged notebook.

But the GCN Lab recently took a look at the new Itronix VR-1, which is something different: a semi-rugged notebook with the specs to back up that ambiguous label.

Taking the VR-1 out of the box the first time, the 5.8-pound unit does not look all that different from other nonrugged notebooks we've tested in the past, although it does come with a sturdy carrying handle.

Although not an official designation, Itronix officials refer to the VR as 'vehicle-rugged' because it's well suited to squad cars or mobile command centers. It is certified to meet 810f military specifications in two areas'vibration and extreme temperatures'making it a whole different animal than most other so-called semi-rugged notebooks. So what makes it 'semi' rugged? The system is not designed to withstand excessive shock and drops. Still, we took the VR-1 to the lab's environmental testing chamber.

Extreme temps? Cool
The VR-1 is rated to survive temperatures ranging from -4 degrees to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. This month the company says it will add a heater to the hard drive, which would allow it to run in even colder temperatures (the fluid lubricating the hard drive tends to freeze when it's too cold). But our test unit did not have this feature. In our environmental chamber we turned up the heat to 130 degrees. The average humidity remained a normal 45 percent during testing.

We ran the system inside the chamber for four hours, taxing the major components to play a movie. The VR-1's silver coating tended to reflect most of the heat away from vital areas, though some of the black areas of the case were extremely hot to the touch when we finally removed the notebook. Although uncomfortable to work with because of the heat, it came through the testing just fine.

Next we put the notebook in our controlled freezer environment, which was set to maintain a constant temperature of 5 degrees Fahrenheit'colder than most locations get yet still above the -4-degree limit for running the unit without a drive heater. We left the VR-1 to chill overnight. In the morning it booted up with no problem and ran our GCN/Alterion benchmarks while we ate popsicles we'd stored in the test chamber.

We don't have an official vibration testbed, so we tossed the VR-1 onto the passenger seat of a four-wheel-drive vehicle and took it off-road for several hours while running our benchmarks. At the end, the test results were no different than if we'd run the benchmarks on a desk in the lab, and the unit was none the worse for wear.

The VR-1 we tested came with a 1.86-GHz Pentium M Processor with a 533-MHz front-side bus'not exactly cutting-edge. But our system scored a respectable 6,858 on the GCN/Alterion benchmarks and was able to maintain that level of performance throughout all our environmental tests.

Unfortunately, the system didn't last very long in our worst-case scenario battery tests, which tax the major components without the benefit of power-savings. The VR-1's battery life of 2 hours and 5 minutes was about an hour less than the average of notebooks we recently tested [GCN.com/604]. With its power management running and wireless communications turned off, Itronix claims four to six hours.

Like most rugged or semi-rugged notebooks, the VR-1 is designed to let users connect to whatever radio signal they can find. As such, the VR-1 can use the Global Positioning System, WLAN running IEEE 802.11a, b or g protocols, WWAN or Bluetooth for communication (not all come standard). That's a lot of radio transmitters and antennae hidden within the unit's frame.

Good with graphics

The graphics are not lightweight either. The VR-1 has a surprisingly powerful Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 900 chipset with 128M of dedicated video memory. We're normally unimpressed by the GMA 900, but the dedicated memory in the VR-1 helped streamline performance. Combined with an ambient-light sensor that automatically adjusts the LCD brightness depending on where you're working, we found the VR-1 consistently easy on our eyes and responsive when running highly visual applications.

It can also be made highly secure. The VR-1 comes with an integrated fingerprint scanner and a smart-card reader. Plus it has an easily removable hard drive in case you need to take your data and secure it at a remote location or in a safe.

The VR-1 is about $1,500 cheaper than a fully rugged notebook, although at $3,485, as tested, it's still on the expensive side. In short, even what we'd consider a true semi-rugged notebook comes with a price premium. But the VR-1 is a solid, stable choice for people who do a lot of work from their car or in harsh environments.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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