Tough Love.
June 14, 2010 1:24 PM   Subscribe

Looking for advice on refurbished Toughbook laptops.

Currently, I have a Toshiba Satellite and I work in an automotive shop. This thing has held up pretty well for about two years now, but it's subjected to a really abusive amount of dust, oil, and grease. So, given the cheap construction of this laptop and the environment that it's in, I have to think ahead towards its replacement.
I'm about to expand my capability into reflashing and reprogramming automotive computers and reliability is a paramount concern. If something goes wrong during the programming, it'll turn the car's computer into a $1000 brick. The dusty, wiggly USB ports in this Satellite aren't going to cut it for that kind of procedure.

I'd like to hear about your positive and negative experiences with refurbished Toughbook units.
posted by Jon-o to Technology (4 answers total)
I took a refurbished semi-rugged Toughbook (CF-T5) on a 16 month bike trip, and it survived just fine, despite multiple drops. It was just stuffed in a pannier, or inside another bag - no special padding or protection. This little anecdote doesn't really help you with your situation though - the dust and grease of an auto shop are quite a bit more extreme, but you'd probably be looking at one of the fully-ruggedized models anyway.

You may want to check with your local police force or other mobile city department - I see a lot of Toughbooks built into cop cars and bylaw enforcement cars here...

Also, think about sealing the USB ports and using a USB extension cable, so you're not plugging anything in directly to the system.
posted by dttocs at 2:14 PM on June 14, 2010

I've owned rugged laptops for over a decade now, four Toughbooks and a Gobook, and am currently typing this on a Thinkpad. If that tells you anything. Curiously, none of them died violent deaths, just became unreliable or unbearably outdated. I'm presently too cheap to snag a newer CF-19, but I haven't sworn off the breed entirely.

Many Toughbooks on the used market are sold without a hard-drive caddy and its associated custom cable, because some goober yanked the drive to comply with a data-destruction policy, and took the caddy with it. This renders the machine useless unless you can buy a new caddy and cable, which are scarce and expensive. It also means the seller hasn't thoroughly tested the machine. I strongly, strongly recommend buying only a complete and working machine with an OS already on it, even if you reinstall it the first day.

As for the USB problem, Toughbooks use plain old bog-standard USB connectors*, which are only special when the little gasketed cover is closed. Which obviously won't be the case while you're flashing an ECU. Some of them (the CF-19 and possibly the 18 and others) do have a ruggedized USB cable that fits into the regular port, but then secures to some adjacent chassis part. This is head and shoulders beyond anything else on the market, and is probably exactly what you're looking for. Dttocs is on the right track with the extension cable!

Speaking as someone who does vehicle flashing 40 hours a week, I can say that the (un)reliability of a USB port has not been a problem for me. My work-issued laptop is a regular old Dell, and I've had far more issues with the battery than the USB ports. After all, having the machine go into suspend is just as bad as a disconnection, but it happens deliberately when the battery gets low! Set your power alarms accordingly, calibrate the battery gauge often, and never start a flash without some serious cushion, time-wise.

Remember also, that the moment you tell someone a piece of hardware is rugged, they stop caring about it. Toughbooks are very tough, yes, but they're not indestructible. If you have employees handling the machine, impress upon them the need to treat it as gently as a normal laptop, such that maybe-survivable impacts are the exception, not the rule.

(* Yes, there are little reinforcing brackets inside some Toughbooks, decreasing the port's tendency to get ripped off the motherboard should you drop it with something plugged in. The USB device or its plug will still probably be destroyed though, since nobody's ever put a USB port in a recessed, angled, or otherwise protected place.)
posted by Myself at 3:59 PM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wow, if the price of an interruption in the flashing PC is $1,000K, I'd be ensuring that the PC that is doing the flashing is as reliable as possible.

How about:

- Use a long USB cable that runs from the garage into a less hostile space (the shop office?)

- In the less hostile space, use a regular desktop PC with redundant power supplies, mirrored RAID HD's and UPS.

- Remote control the desktop PC with a laptop PC via VNC (or similar remote desktop software), connected either wirelessly or via ethernet cable.

This way, the flashing machine stays out of harms way. If the laptop is damaged, no big deal, just get another one to run a VNC client on. If it damaged during flashing, again, no big deal, you just gotta now go into the office to monitor the finishing up of the flash.
posted by de void at 7:23 AM on June 15, 2010

Err, $1,000. ignore the K.
posted by de void at 7:27 AM on June 15, 2010

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