Rugged Notebooks

Which of three hardened notebooks is right for your job?
(March 2003 issue)

Your basic, average notebook computer is built just well enough to survive trips from and to the office and perhaps a bit of rough handling on a business trip every now and then. Anything beyond that will result in damage or destruction. That's bad news for all the people who need to use a computer in work situations where it is certain to take a beating. Fortunately, there are companies that specialize in rugged notebook computers, machines that are built to absorb a much larger degree of abuse and hold up under conditions that would render a standard notebook unusable within days or even minutes. Three such companies are Amrel Systems LLC, Inc. of Arcadia, California., Itronix Corporation of Spokane, Washington, and the Panasonic Computer Solutions Company, part of Japan's giant Matsushita Electric Industrial Company. Our challenge to them was simple: "Send us whatever you consider your best all-purpose rugged notebook computer for a roundup!"

All three responded. Amrel sent their Rocky Matrix, Itronix an early sample of their GoBook II, and Panasonic a Toughbook CF-28. To give you an idea of where they fit in, let's use an automotive comparison: The Matrix, GoBook, and Toughbook are to standard notebook computers like a real offroad four-wheel-drive vehicle is to a family sedan. They are not quite military-grade HumVees, but they are definitely more than a soccer mom SUV. Their footprints are no bigger than that of a standard notebook, but they are thicker to add structural strength and integrity, and room for internal expansion and accommodation of special customer requests. They weigh more than standard full-size notebooks, but not by all that much. Unlike ultra-rugged devices which often give up features and flexibility in favor of doing just one job exceptionally well (like surviving in a sand storm), these hardened notebooks offer most or almost all the speed, features, and flexibility of a standard consumer notebook computer.

Three Contenders

Amrel Systems LLC's Rocky has been around for a number of years. We reviewed the Amrel Rocky II in our December 1998 issue. We found the Rocky a well designed machine and lauded its ruggedness and versatility: "Anything a top-of-the-line IBM ThinkPad on a mahogany desk can do, the Rocky can do as well. But the unit's extraordinary ruggedness and clever, flexible sealing mean that it can be used just about anywhere." The new Rocky still looks pretty much the same as its 1998 predecessor. On the outside that is. Inside it's kept up with all the technological advances over the past five years. An interesting aspect of the Rocky notebook is that it can be used as part of a larger In-Vehicle system, hence the name Matrix. Those interested in doing so can use the notebook as the system unit, complemented by a vehicle mount, a separate display and keyboard. This adds great flexibility.

Itronix has been a provider of rugged wireless computing solutions for over 15 years, and we've been reviewing each generation of the GoBook and its predecessor, the XC-6000 line, as well as the company's various handhelds. In our January 2001 issue we reviewed the first generation GoBook. It, too, was quite impressive and we concluded that "this Itronix machine provides all the desktop computing power I need, yet it's also tough enough to serve as a high tech computing and decision support tool in the harshest environments." Like the new Rocky, the new GoBook II doesn't look much different from its predecessor. The difference, in addition to updated technological specifications, is in a variety of improvements, refinements, and changes that all address customer feedback and combine to make this GoBook even more impressive.

Panasonic, also is no stranger to readers of Pen Computing. We have been reviewing the company's Toughbook computers for many years and have always been impressed by Panasonic's knack of providing rugged notebooks that not only get the job done but also provide the kind of style and elegance usually only found in consumer products. Panasonic, of course, can draw on the vast resources and parts department of its parent, Matsushita Electric--a definite advantage when it comes to procuring the latest technologies. The Toughbook CF-28 is the successor of the popular CF-27 and pretty much the bread and butter machine in the Toughbook lineup. We reviewed earlier revs of the CF-28 before and praised it for "having all the features and all the computing power of a state-of-the-art notebook without all the durability headaches that come with standard consumer products.

[see complete specs of all three rugged notebooks]

If our assessment of earlier versions of the test models sounds similar, that is because they all aim at the same market and they all do it well. They are, however, not the same. Each has its particular approach and idiosyncrasies, and each can be had in a variety of configurations. So let's take a look at the machines and what they offer.

CPU Power: Pentium III or 4?
There was a time when having a faster processor was always better. These days, and especially with notebooks, choosing the right processor has become a difficult optimization process of balancing performance, battery life, thermal efficiency, costs, and--last but not least--customer expectations. Though we had hoped to compare apples with apples in this arena, it turned out that our test machines came with very different processors. The Rocky and the CF-28 have Mobile Pentium III processors which have been a notebook mainstay for several years now. The Rocky came with an 800MHz version and the CF-28 with a 1GHz version. The GoBook II is based on a 1.7GHz Mobile Pentium 4. In theory, this gives the GoBook significantly more performance than the Rocky and the CF-28. In practice, there are other implications. For example, the Rocky and the Toughbook ran Windows 2000 Pro whereas the GoBook ran Windows XP Pro with its, in our assessment, greater resource requirements. In addition, the greater heat generated by the Pentium 4 means that the GoBook II has a fan/heat exchange system whereas the Rocky and the Toughbook are closed designs without fans. They dissipate heat via "heat pipes," optimized thermal design that seeks to get rid of the heat via the housing.

Notebook performance is also impacted by other factors. For example, Intel's mobile processors use "SpeedStep" technology that allows the processor to shift to slower speeds to conserve energy or to keep from overheating. Intel allows some control of this stepping process via software, but when it gets hot, the processor will simply slow itself down. Initially we expected the two Pentium III designs to run cooler than the 4 GoBook. Sometimes they did, sometimes they did not. Predicting when a machine gets hot and when it stays cool is almost impossible. We had some concerns about the GoBook's (fairly loud) fan, which appeared to preclude a sealed system and thus protection from the elements, but an examination showed that the system actually is sealed, with the fan inside the housing but outside of the sealed part of the computer. Yes, it can be annoying when it comes on, but you won't hear it in a noisy environment and it does mean the processor is less likely to slow down due to overheating. All in all, we feel that any processor over approximately 600MHz provides enough computing power for today's operating systems and applications. Which means that a faster processor will perform adequately even if it steps down. Heat buildup, unfortunately, is an annoying byproduct of all modern processors, as are fans and other cooling mechanisms. That said, progress is a fact of life and the current state-of-the-art is the Pentium 4 architecture. Also, in some instances there is no substitute for raw processing power, and in those cases the GoBook will definitely outperform the competition.

Design, Size and Weight
These three rugged notebooks are comparable in size. Each has a footprint of roughly 12 x 10 inches (the same as a standard notebook) and each is about 2.5 inches thick (considerably thicker than a standard notebook). Officially, the GoBook II weighs in at just under eight pounds, the Toughbook at 9.3 and the Rocky at 10.8 pounds. In practice, those numbers vary quite a bit depending on what sorts of options are installed. Still, anything approaching ten pounds is not a lightweight by any means. The manufacturers know that and each machine is equipped with a carry handle. The Panasonic's is made of magnesium and beautifully integrated into the overall design of the machine. However, the curvature it creates also adds an inch or so to the CF-28's size. The GoBook has a massive optional reinforced rubber handle that snaps to the back of the computer and doubles as a keyboard stand. The handle also has metal loops in case you want to use a lighter fabric strap. Amrel's solution is minimalist but quite effective. A lightweight fabric strap can be hooked to a couple of heavy-duty metal anchors on the frontside of the computer. The only problem with that solution is that the strap is in the way when you use the computer, and you may lose it when you remove it.

Each of the three uses magnesium for all (or almost all) housing and structural parts. Panasonic, especially, has parlayed the use of magnesium, a lightweight but very strong material, into a marketing advantage. One look at the smoothly styled and beautifully finished surfaces of the CF-28 show that Panasonic has great experience with magnesium. The CF-28 is easily the best looking of the three designs, its black and silver case both beautiful and functional. The bottom of the CF-28 has a smooth matte black finish, the wrist rest area is gray, and the entire LCD case an impressive powder silver metallic. The Rocky and the GoBook are more utilitarian, no-nonsense designs, both essentially tough metal boxes with rounded corners. The Rocky is all matte black with thick black rubber bumpers screwed onto each of the eight corners. The GoBook is light gray and dark gray with some light-gray plastic inserts on the outside of the LCD case adding style.

Display Size and Type
Choosing the right display is crucial in a rugged notebook. Standard transmissive LCDs are vibrant and bright indoors but wash out outdoors. Solutions for those who need to use their computers outdoors are reflective coatings on transmissive displays or the use of transflective displays instead. Transflective displays reflect part but not all of the light. They offer an increasingly more acceptable compromise between indoor and outdoor readability. Unfortunately, transflective displays tend to be smaller and have lower resolutions, making for yet another compromise. Our test machines all came with standard transmissive displays with anti-reflective coatings to provide a degree of outdoor readability. The Amrel's 12.1-inch display had a maximum resolution of only 800 x 600 pixels, making it unsuitable for working with multiple windows open on the screen. Panasonic and Itronix both offer XGA 1,024 x 768 resolution better suited for today's windowing environments. Our CF-28 came with a 13.3 inch display which looked more contemporary than the rivals' smaller 12.1 inch displays. Both Panasonic and Itronix offer versions with 12.1 inch transflective displays, whereas Amrel also has a 13.3-inch transmissive screen.

A very important part of the display assembly is the hinge. Notebook hinges are notorious for breaking or wearing out, and that is a total no-no for a rugged machine. Good news here. All three machines have hinges that seem to come right from a bank fault. We do not expect any of them to break or wear out.

Touch Screens/Pads
At Pen Computing Magazine we've always championed the use of digitizers and touch screens, and we feel that they are especially useful in vertical market applications where it is often not possible to use a mouse or even a touch pad. All three manufacturers realize that and offer touchscreen versions of their products. The Itronix and the Panasonic came so equipped, and we really missed the touch screen on the Amrel. All touch screens were of the passive variety, which means that they could not run the new Windows XP for Tablet PCs OS even if Microsoft made it available as a separate purchase. All three notebooks came with standard rectangular touch pads with left and right mouse click buttons below. The GoBook also has an enter bottom between the two mouse buttons. Appreciated.
Rugged notebook keyboards must do more than those on standard notebooks. They definitely must be full size so that the keys are large enough to be used even with gloves on. However, the keyboards must also be sealed against moisture and dust, and if a computer is to be used at night, the keyboard must be illuminated. How did the candidates do? The Panasonic and the Itronix keyboards are sealed but both offer standard, separate, full-size keys with good tactile feedback. The Rocky's keyboard consists of a rubber sheet with chiclet-style keys molded into it. This definitely offers the most protection but requires some getting used to. The GoBook has a white keys that glow in the dark thanks to being made of phosphorescent plastic, a very clever solution. (The only problem may be that it cannot be turned off.) Amrel and Panasonic both offer backlit keyboards that were not present in our review machines. All machine offer brightness and volume adjustment via the keyboard. Only the CF-28 brings up onscreen icons that indicate what the function does.
Other Controls
Like most notebooks these days, the three test machines are equipped with numerous small LEDs that provide all sorts of status information. The GoBook has the most and they are also the most clearly (albeit not most elegantly) labeled. Personally, I don't think those tiny lights are that important, especially since most are almost impossible to see and read. If anything, I'd rather have a camera-style status LCD.
Connectivity Issues
There was a time when having a serial and a parallel port was pretty much all that computers had. Those days are gone, and even rugged notebooks are expected to have extensive connectivity options built in. All have serial and USB ports, all have audio in/out and at least one USB port. All have at least one sealed PC Card slot which in all cases can also be used for the thicker Type III cards. The CF-28 also has a full-size parallel port connector, but it is the only machine with just one speaker. No big deal as listening to stereo music from notebook speakers isn't high on our list of requirements for a rugged notebook. Each has a modem and a LAN port. All have a proprietary docking connector for their respective docking solutions. All have infrared ports, but none has a Firewire port or an (increasingly popular) SD Card slot. Each company paid great attention to sealing ports via a variety of methods. The GoBook's sealed doors usually have two springloaded latches, reducing the probability of opening one by mistake.
All three of the notebooks in this review are rugged, but just exactly how rugged are they? And how is ruggedness measured? Per dictionary the word "rugged" is defined as "robust" and "hardy," or "strongly built and constituted." The latter is what we generally mean when we refer to a computer as "rugged." However, there are no simple, universally accepted definitions as to what makes a device rugged rather than just well built or durable. Although there are a variety of testing methods and ratings, there is no single entity that manages, monitors, and enforces a set of ruggedness standards for mobile computers. In the United States, you will most often encounter references to MIL-STD-810, IP ratings, and NEMA protection ratings. Here is a bit of background:

MIL-STD-810 goes back to December of 1961 and described "Environmental Test Methods for Aerospace and Ground Equipment." It was initially published as a slim 66-page US Air Force document. Over the past 40 years, six revisions were written and the latest, 810F, has grown into a 540 page document. The MIL-STD, as is, provides a large number of tests and testing methods to determine the effect of natural and artificial impact on equipment. Interpreting what it all means may require a good deal of research. Product spec sheets often state something like "designed using MIL-STD-810 test procedures." Since there are hundreds of them and they test different degrees of protection, the mere reference to MIL-STD-810 provides only little information. Find out which tests were performed, whether test reports are available, and whether the tests were done inhouse or by an independent testing lab.

In an effort to avoid the complexity and vagueness of MIL-STD references, some manufacturers provide IP (Ingress Protection) ratings for their equipment. IP ratings consist of a single number, such as IP44, and classify the degree of protection provided for electrical equipment by enclosures. The first number indicates, on a scale from 0 to 6, the protection against solid objects penetrating the housing. The second number gives, on a scale from 0 to 8, protection against penetration by liquids. For both numbers, a 0 means no protection and the highest number maximum protection. A rugged device may, for example, have an IP54 rating. The "5" means that the device offers complete protection against contact with live and moving parts and also offers protection from dust deposits. The "4" indicates protection against splashing from any direction.

The National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) provides yet another classification system. NEMA 250 describes a variety of different enclosures and how they hold up against different environmental impact. Amrel, Itronix and Panasonic each provide a good deal of information on ruggedness testing performed on their machines. We listed some in the comparison table. More is available from the companies' websites and by request. I have personally seen Panasonic's environmental testing labs in Osaka and those tests are brutal. Amrel and Itronix perform similar tests, and each company will be able to provide detailed test results.

What it boils down to is that determining whether or not a device is rugged enough requires quite a bit of work. You need to figure out how the computers will be used and what sort of abuse they are likely to encounter. You then need to communicate with the manufacturers' reps and determine how those requirements match up with their test results. More likely than not, they will be honest. No one wants to make a big sale just to see their units failing in the field.

That said, we can make some statements and observations about the ruggedness of the three machines in this roundup, but whether they matter depends entirely on your intended use. For example, while each of these machines will likely survive repeated drops from about three feet, the extra protection of a set of beefy rubber bumpers definitely provides an extra security blanket. Bumpers are low tech and take up extra space, so it's a mixed blessing. Anyway, the Amrel has four very big ones screwed on to its lower four corners, the Panasonic has small hard rubber bumpers built right into its ever elegant design, whereas Itronix forgoes bumpers altogether.

LCDs are among the parts most likely to break in a notebook, and they are also among the most costly to replace. Proper mounting is important and all three companies do that. A stiff LCD housing is very important so that it won't twist and break the display. In that arena all three of these machines are infinitely better built than your average consumer notebook. The Panasonic and the Itronix flex just a tiny bit, the Amrel not at all. Everyone wants a large display these days, but the larger the display, the more likely it is to break. Keep that in mind when deciding between the 12.1" and 13.3" options offered by Panasonic and Amrel.

Another important aspect of ruggedness is protection from the elements. A standard notebook won't survive long in the rain or in a sand storm, or even in a dusty environment. That's where the IP (Ingress Protection) rating comes in handy. All three claim an IP54 rating. The "5" means that the device offers complete protection against contact with live and moving parts and also offers protection from dust deposits. The "4" indicates protection against splashing from any direction. Again, manufacturers all have done specific tests that may or may not apply to your situation. In addition to the IP number, you may have a preference on how they achieved this degree of protection. Amrel, for example, offers a separate rubber plug for each connector and opening--a grand total of 15. This means that if your application needs, for example, a serial cable plugged in, only that plug is opened and all others stay in place. The Panasonic has most of its ports located along the back of the unit, behind one large hinged door. The door has rubber flaps to allow access to the USB and the serial port, but if you need the PS/2 port, the entire door must remain open. The GoBook is inbetween, with some ports (USB, LAN, modem) covered by individual plugs and others (serial, dock, video) behind a sealed door. The Amrel offers the most protection, but all those plugs make for a somewhat cluttered look.

One area that's more important than it appears is the display lock. If you fold down the display of a rugged notebook it must securely remain in that position. You don't want it to flip open all of a sudden, risking its destruction. Also, should the notebook fall, a securely fastened lid offers greater structural integrity. The GoBook II doesn't have an active lock. Instead, it has two cylindrical snaps that hold the display in place as if fastened by a couple of magnets. The two cylinder snaps won't let the display be twisted sideways. We would have preferred that they grip the display a bit more firmly. As is, they open easily. Itronix says they stayed away from an active latch because computers so equipped tend to be difficult to use in field service applications where a computer must be opened and closed many times a day, perhaps by someone wearing gloves. The Panasonic has an active springloaded and center-mounted clasp. It firmly and securely holds the display in place, yet is very easy to open. The Amrel has an active center-mounted retainer that very securely snaps in place over the main part of the notebook. It is relatively thin and not easy to open, but if it breaks you simply open four screws and replace it with a new one.

Wireless connectivity has become an absolute must-have offering for rugged notebooks that are often used miles away from the next phone jack or LAN connector. All three machines are capable of accommodating just about any of the commonly used wireless radio systems either internally or via PC Cards. The CD cases of both the Itronix and Panasonic notebooks are ready to accommodate antennas.
Media Bays
In the best of all worlds, you'd have everything you'll ever need all built into your notebook. Big "three spindle" notebooks do just that, offering hard drive, optical drive and floppy drive all in one box. That takes quite a bit of real estate, something which the relatively compact and sturdily built heavyweights in this review don't have. The solution is easy: while everyone needs a hard drive, not everyone needs both a floppy and a CD drive at the same time, and so these three notebooks all come with a "media bay" that can accommodate a variety of options. The Amrel's and the Itronix's are on the right, the Panasonic's on the left, and all can accommodate either a floppy drive, an optical drive (each manufacturer offers many different drives), a second battery, and in the case of the Toughbook even a specially designed telephone line tester module. All offer standard CD-ROM and DVD drives as well as CDRW drives, and Panasonic, which makes its own optical drives, also has a combo DVD/CDRW drive. Of significant importance on the road is the ability to insert a second battery. The Amrel's packs an additional 48.6 WHrs, the GoBook's 34.4 WHrs.
Bottom Line
All three of these rugged notebooks are well designed and very well built. All are technologically up-to-date and all can be bought with just the options you need. One manufacturer may not offer all the same options as the other, but by and large the offerings are comparable. At decision time, what it may come down to are very specific requirements that only one of the three may be able to fulfill. Examples are the Rocky's individual plugs for each connector or its ultra-sealed keyboard. Or the GoBook's powerful P4 CPU which provides more punch for certain applications than the competition's P III processors. Or the Toughbook's overall fit and finish that no one can match. It may also come down to one of the companies' being able to meet special requirements for a large-volume customer. One thing is for sure. There are no losers in this trio.