Suggestions on laptops that can take abuse
December 8, 2009 2:21 AM   Subscribe

Rugged laptop filter: Other than the various models of Panasonic Toughbook (as used by the military, etc) what laptops can be considered somewhat ruggedized? I'm also thinking of laptops that are not specifically designed to be abused but have a reputation for being very robustly built, such as the old IBM Thinkpad T and A series.

At least one aspect of ruggedness is more easy these days - drop a 80GB or 160GB Intel SSD into the laptop instead of a rotating drive. Much simpler than the days when there were gel shock and vibration packs around a 2.5" HDD.

From the dust/dirt, drop resistance, liquid ingress and general tough construction perspective, I'm wondering if Panasonic has any serious competition in the fully-ruggedized laptop market yet. There is also a series of partially protected laptops sold under the Toughbook name that do not have the full protection level...
posted by thewalrus to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I used to own some Itronix machines.

They had incredibly heavy chassis, entirely made of metal, thick rubber borders, glow in the dark keyboards, all sealed ports, gaskets on every opening, etc. I would drop the thing on the pavement from waist height to shock people.

Now, actually, for the majority of purposes you don't need any of that. Dell's Latitude and Precision lines have all-metal chassis (of course, there may be exceptions and you'll want to double-check this). My Precision M70 is a freaking tank, has been dropped, had fluids on it, and traveled across the world repeatedly. It looks bombed-out from all the scratches and the peeling finish, but all that I've had to replace is the battery. The paint is falling off the magnesium chassis after 5 years, but the exposed bare metal looks gorgeous.

You're probably going to get people in here talking about how durable their Macs are, but as someone who's repaired a lot of Macs, I'll have to respectfully totally disagree. The thin metal surrounding the LCD is held together with clips, even the slightest bend destroys their bonding power. The CDROM slot will stop working if there is a tiny ding in the case. Etc. Even the new "unibody" models do not recover well from impacts, and are not designed to be serviceable in any way, which should be a prerequisite for a machine to survive the zombie apocalypse or your messenger bag etc.
posted by fake at 3:48 AM on December 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Another ruggedized brand used for the military is GETAC. Rugged Notebooks is also a source; I think they re-brand or modify laptops from other companies because we've definitely bought a GETAC from them, but with the Rugged Notebooks logo.
posted by hellogoodbye at 4:42 AM on December 8, 2009

HP has some similarly ruggedized laptops available, although they are quite pricey. They also claim that many of the business-class notebooks meet various military standards with regards to dust/shock, etc.
posted by Beefs at 4:53 AM on December 8, 2009

Dell has recently entered the ruggedized & semi-ruggedized laptop market. Their XFR is a fully-ruggedized laptop designed to compete with armored Toughbooks, at a similar (or likely, slightly lower) price point. Their ATG model is semi-ruggedized. Essentially, this means it's built to the same durability spec for most areas but doesn't feature full armor plating that would protect it from extremely high falls or getting run over.

My organization has been demo'ing some ATGs for a couple months and we've really fallen in love with them. We recently placed orders for a pretty significant quantity. They're a fantastic blend of durability & build quality, manageable weight, and (comparatively) low price. They typically run around $1800-2000 apiece, depending on the specs. They can be configured with touchscreens, GOBI internal wireless for whatever carrier you need (and GPS), etc. They also include the old PCMCIA cardslot, which is essential for many organizations that use such a medium for wireless or GPS accessories. Webcam, bluetooth, etc are all standard.

The ATGs feature shock-mounted hard drives (just like the Toughbooks) and can be configured with SSD drives for a small premium. The display internals are shock-mounted too, to protect from constant vibrations from living in a vehicle, etc. The main chassis is reinforced at key locations, and there is virtually zero flex in any of the typical spots on a laptop (keyboard tray, top bezel, screen back, etc). The keyboard tray also has a spill-resistant backing, though it's not as protective as a fully rubberized keyboard that most Panasonics (and the Dell XFR) feature. In other words, it's fine for protecting the guts from most little spills/moisture/etc, but it might not protect it if you use your keyboard as a coffee mug coaster while driving ;-)

Also, the screens on the ATGs are insanely bright. I've never seen such an outdoor-readable screen before, especially at this price point. Really, really impressive. The laptop is vey light for how well-built it is and definitely feels like it can take a beating. Although it's not armor-plated all around, the screen back is a hard alloy or plastic that feels very sturdy. There is also a rubberized cover for the back/bottom of the laptop that covers the various ports for dust intrusion protection.

Like I said, you can get a fully-spec'd model including touchscreen for about $2k. Not a bad deal at all.

If you have any specific questions about the ATGs in particular feel free to MeFi Mail me, I'll be happy to help you as much as I can.
posted by sprocket87 at 6:03 AM on December 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

The Dell Latitude D series isn't a ruggidized laptop, but it is pretty darn sturdy. I'm talking HP Laserjet 4 kind of sturdy. We haven't gotten any of the new E series yet, but I've got a five year old D610 in my desk drawer that looks like its been through a battle zone and still runs like a champ.
posted by cimbrog at 6:15 AM on December 8, 2009

I've used many Toughbooks, from the tiny CF-15, the tablet CF-18/19 and the laptop style CF-29/30 models for the past few years. The keyboards on the smaller ones were too small for long term development, so the -29 was my workhorse of a machine. It is still going strong after five years of daily use in the field. As you mentioned these are from the era of 2.5" HDs suspended in full-height cages, so they are not light-weight machines. The built-in carry handle is great and makes them suitable for hand-to-hand combat.

As fake wrote, some folks will extol the longevity of the MacBook models. I have a 15 inch MacBookPro that outlasted two CF-18's, despite being used in very similar situations. It clearly isn't designed to anywhere near the same weatherization, so I wouldn't use it in the rain and mud the way my CF-29 has been abused.

The non-traditional designs like the IX-104 are interesting in application specific ways, but we had battery failures and a fan get stuffed. The Switchback is another interesting handheld, but the price/value ratio never made sense to me.

For most of the rugged laptops, you really need to NEED it before it makes sense. Are you damaging laptops on a regular basis, but are close enough to civilization to replace it? You can go through nearly ten regular laptops before it is worth buying an Itronix or Toughbook at retail. Are you rafting down the Amazon and only have room for one laptop? Then a fully rugged model might make sense.
posted by autopilot at 6:41 AM on December 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

You mention the old Thinkpads, but I think the current set are also pretty tough. For example, my Z61t has a drainage holes for keyboard spills, an accelerometer to park the hard drive if it senses motion such as a fall, and fairly tough, user-replaceable parts.
posted by exogenous at 7:00 AM on December 8, 2009

Yes, I agree with exogenous. I'm not sure my Thinkpad is as tough as the old ones, but it had a helpful video when I first started it up showing off the lovely drainage holes. (I was very tempted to pour something through the laptop and then call up asking why my laptop wasn't working perfectly; after all the video says I can pour things through it!)

I consider the thinkpad tablet I have to be robust in a travel-around-civilization way; but I wouldn't take it rafting down the amazon, no.
posted by nat at 7:54 AM on December 8, 2009

Not to be a machead, but I'm surprised at how well the two power/macbooks I've owned have lasted. I got a 12" maybe 5 years ago, used it for two and then gave it to a friend. It's still going strong.

I replaced it with a 15". Three or four times I've fallen off my bike with the thing in my backpack, hit the road pretty hard, it's made substantial contact with the ground more than once. Each time I'm sure that I'll get home and open it up to find a cracked screen or something like that. But it's still going strong.
posted by kjell at 9:47 AM on December 8, 2009

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