Tough Technology: The Most Rugged Laptops, Phones, Mice, Drives and More
If you imagine that a computer is built tough because it can fall off a desk without breaking, think again. Rugged computers, USB flash drives, mice, phones and other tough tech are designed to comfortably survive unreasonable environments.
By Lisa Nadile
In military and industrial circles, the term rugged has a special connotation: the product is built with dangerous and hazardous environments in mind. Such products are often more expensive than standard equipment, because you pay for durability. You don’t get slick and streamlined designs, though. You do get a smartphone case that looks like tiny Hummer droppings but that could also survive getting dropped out of a Hummer.
In some instances, these rugged products are tested and meet military standards, such as MIL-STD-810F. Products meeting these guidelines are designed to meet general expectations for toughness, including operating effectively in sand, dust, fog and wind. They also can withstand sudden temperature changes, fungus and heat up to 158°F, are resistant to vibration and laugh heartily at spraying liquids.
After you’ve replaced five or six company phones in a quarter, handing over these products to a particularly accident-prone employee might just make sense. You wouldn’t be alone in thinking so. A growing number of companies don’t believe the technology in which they invest is disposable; so they are supporting a steadily growing market. Rugged computing and telecommunications products were an $880 million market in 2006 and are expected to grow 12.7 percent to $1.6 billion by 2011, according to Venture Development Corp., a Natick, Mass.-based research company.
Government and military contracts are lucrative, so it is not surprising that most computer and technology manufacturers make rugged versions of their equipment. There are also specialty ruggedization companies that will ruggedize products either for resale or as a requirement for a customized contract.
Need some examples of these “extreme” computers and components? We’ll show you nine of them to make you regularly check e-mail in snowstorms or type while climbing to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Tough Nuts to Crack—Buyer Beware
The word “rugged” in product descriptions doesn’t automatically mean you get true rugged products. There is no list of specifications that classify a product as such, so unscrupulous manufacturers may play fast and loose with the term. Slapping rubber bumpers on laptops is a mostly a cosmetic nod and doesn’t really provide the durability or waterproofing that you get with the real rugged McCoys. Some products meet only part of MIL-STD-810, complying for shock but not for vibration, for example.
Most companies listed here have been in the business since the ’80s, but you should still investigate any company thoroughly before making a purchase. Ask to talk to some of their customers. Get demonstrations. Examine warranties and guarantees for the durability features themselves. And remember that these may not be products you can easily crack open and upgrade or customize in-house; doing so may void certain warranties.
The Good: Handheld computers that can withstand a swim are useful for industrial or military applications. Knowing your employees as you do, do you doubt the potential for such an event?
Equipped with a Windows Mobile 5.0 Premium, the DAP Technologies Microflex 2240 runs on an Intel XScale: PXA255, 200 MHz or 400 MHz. It has two memory configurations: a 64MB high-speed SDRAM, 22MB reserved with a NAND Flash: 128MB (200MHz) or 256MB (400MHz) and 31MB reserved. For its display, the handheld has a sunlight-readable TFT that’s 240 by 320 pixels (1/4 VGA). Its 3800 mAh NiMH rechargeable pack offers 15 hours of continuous room-temperature operation. It has both serial and USB ports and type I and II compact flash slots. Manufactured by Roper Mobile’s DAP Technologies, the handhelds are available from GroupMobile.com for $1,299.
The Ugly: Perfect for the road warrior, the handheld’s environmental resistance complies with MIL-STD-810F. It is designed to operate effectively in temperatures ranging from -22°F to +140°F. It withstands immersion up to 1 meter, is drop resistant and is completely impervious to dust. Available accessories include GPS, GPRS, bar code scanners, camera, 802.11 and Bluetooth compact flash cards.
The Bad: Add a few compact flash cards to the price and you’re choosing between this small handheld device and a new Mac.
Rugged Data Storage—BitMicro Networks E-Disk Solid-State Disk Drives
The Good: With products currently put into orbit by customer SpaceQuest, a spacecraft avionics developer, BitMicro Networks of Fremont, Calif., is no stranger to developing storage products for military and industrial applications; it has been doing so since 1999.
For more earthly applications that include the presence of gravity and all its side effects, the company offers a line of rugged flash solid-state storage drives. The E-Disk SSD line is available in 2.5-inch and 3.5-inch sizes and in IDE/ATA, SCSI, VME, and fibre channel interfaces. Currently the maximum capacity available is 155GB. But next March, says the company, it will ship a 2.5-inch E-Disk Altima ATA-133 SSD with capacity up to 416GB drive that will provide 133MB/sec burst with up to 100MB/sec sustained reads and writes and up to 20,000+ IOPS. (Pricing is unavailable.)
The Ugly: E-Disk flash drives meet MIL-STD-810E-compliant guidelines. (If you’re keeping score, 810E is the previous version of the current standard, 810F.) If it starts to drizzle freezing rain inside your building or your computer experiences pesky fungus buildup inside its housing, your data will be fine. It’s also resistant to shock and a heavy salt fog. With operating temperatures ranging from -40°F to +185°F, the SSD is suitable for 24/7 deployment in extremely hostile environments.
The Bad: Waiting until next year for the 416GB version. Also, some people aren’t fans of solid-state disk drive technology.
The Good: Panasonic’s Toughbook line has products that range from rugged to semirugged to what it calls “business-rugged” laptops. There’s a big difference between business rugged and true MIL-STD-810-compliant computers, but with one look you can easily see the difference between them. The rugged products lack that corporate look.
That’s not really an insult. These tough-looking machines have cutting-edge features that you don’t find with a lot of rugged laptops. For example, the Toughbook 19 is just 5 pounds and has a touch screen that swivels and folds back on itself, converting from laptop to tablet. It comes with WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS support. Panasonic is the 52-year-old American brand of the Matsushita Electric Factory, which was founded in Japan in 1912.
The Ugly: The Toughbook has a shock-mounted removable hard drive, a moisture- and dust-resistant keyboard, and a magnesium alloy case with a handle. You’ll lay any mugger flat with one swing of this puppy.
The Bad: The display is small at 10.4 inches, but it’s a daylight readable LCD. Also, the price-it starts at about $3,200-is enough to make any mugger faint.
Rugged Calls—Sanyo SCP-7050 Phone
The Good: What better way to hold a difficult conversation than on a phone tough enough to say anything? This $299 Sanyo phone has built-in GPS and Bluetooth capabilities, a speakerphone and voice dialing. It also supports Sprint’s Ready Link push-to-talk, a walkie-talkie-style service.
The Ugly: Its black, antislip rubber casing just screams for a Hello Kitty decal, but its MIL-STD-810F compliance means that the first time you drop your phone off the front porch won’t be the last.
The Bad: No camera. And some people aren’t fans of Sprint as a carrier.
The Good: Dell has struck a nice balance between the rugged and the snazzy with the Dell Latitude ATG. This MIL-STD-810-compliant machine has an Intel Pentium 2 Duo Processor and is nicely outfitted with Dell’s standard kit for its handy Latitude line. Founded as PC’s Limited in 1984, Dell lists the baseline price for the laptop at $2,069.
The Ugly: The sunlight-readable 14.1-inch LCD display is shock-mounted, as is its 80GB hard drive, which is also fitted with rubberized casing. These address two of the most vulnerable points to any laptop health.
The Bad: It’s a bit on the heavy side at a little more than 6 pounds, but despite what walks down the runways during Fashion Week, I’ve been hearing that curves are “in.”
Rugged Input—Man & Machine Slim Cool Keyboards and MightyMouse Mice
The Good: Man & Machine is a 25-year-old company with a robust line of water- and contaminant- proof keyboards and mice for medical and industrial environments. While you may not think of the medical industry as particularly wet, apparently they like to clean and disinfect their equipment rather frequently and this involves liquids. Who knew?
The Ugly: Man & Machine’s Slim Cool keyboard is the company’s waterproof 12-inch model, which retails for $164. The keyboard operates effectively in temperatures from 32°F to 158°F and has a limited lifetime warranty. A model with an integrated touchpad sells for $239.
The company’s MightyMouse is waterproof and is completely immersible. Available in black or white, this mouse has a 6-foot cable and is designed for medical, industrial or marine applications. It sells for $99.95.
The Bad: It’s a toss-up as to whether you would rather buy your employees waterproof keyboards or just run to a superstore to stock up on a bunch of cheap $20 replacements.
The Good: When General Dynamics bought Itronix in 2007, it knew it was getting a manufacturer that understood the military and defense industries. The Spokane, Wash., vendor has been building rugged wireless computing products since 1987, and yes, I said wireless computing.
The 6.8-pound GoBook XR-1 is nicely loaded with an Intel Pentium Duo core, up to 4GB SDRAM, and removable, shock-resistant SATA disk drives. It ships with internal GPS standard. Designed for expansive Radio Frequency (RF) coverage, the GoBook also has CRMA-Express (Common Radio Module Architecture) upgradable wireless technology, WAN, WLAN and Bluetooth.
The Ugly: The GoBook is MIL-STD-810F-compliant and has passed a number of other tests for similar rugged standards. It’s the perfect computer for typing in the rain, in subzero weather, or during a high-speed golf-cart race around a really tough course. Its 12.1-inch outdoor-viewable VGA display has built-in touch screen capability and a glow-in-the-dark keyboard.
The Bad: The sticker shock is a killer, so brace yourself. The base configuration costs more than $4,000. Just keep telling yourself that the GoBook has everything, even a stealth mode for sound and light-free boot-up.
Rugged Thumb—IronKey Enterprise Special Edition USB Flash Drive
The Good: IronKey is a military-grade USB drive that is hardware AES encrypted, which means it needs no additional hardware or software security tools to protect its data. Each drive has an easy-to-read serial number and is available in 1GB, 2GB and 4GB capacities.
As its name suggests, the IronKey drive is encased in epoxy-sealed metal. The company has a secure sessions service; when installed on your drive, it allows privacy while you’re surfing the Net, even on public computers. According to the company, the service creates an encrypted tunnel to IronKey’s network routing servers, operating like a virtual private network. Prices range from $79 to $149.
The Ugly: MIL-STD-810F-compliant, the drive is tamper-resistant and waterproof. Streamlined and snazzy looking, it’s also the prettiest product on our rugged list.
The Bad: The Los Altos, Calif.-based company has an admirable security roster, including a chairman who sits on the board of RSA Security, but it was founded in 2005, making it the new kid on this rugged block.
The Good: Otter Products LLC has specialized in making cases for delicate equipment for the past 25 years. The cases are so strong you can stand on them, claims the company.
Named for a certain mammal with waterproof fur, Fort Collins, Colo.-based Otterbox makes cases for everything from tablet or laptop computers, to PDAs, to cigar humidors (a great gift for the executive who has everything). Waterproof headphones are also on the menu if you often find yourself getting caught in the rain when jogging.
The Ugly: One case study describes a Treo that survived being dropped on a crosswalk and run over by a semi tractor trailer. If you were one of the unfortunate people to pay $699 for an iPhone and have to squeeze that extra $200 out of its life span, for about $50 you can purchase a semirugged case that is water resistant, covers all surfaces and still allows you to use all the buttons and features. A waterproof version is coming soon.
The Bad: Did I mention rugged products aren’t all that attractive? However, pretty iPhone versus dead iPhone… hmmm… decisions, decisions.
Lisa Nadile is a Boston-based writer and editor who has dropped, dunked, lost and exploded far more electronics than those wimpy military standards research facilities, albeit unintentionally.