Rugged Laptop Filter
August 20, 2006 12:04 AM   Subscribe

Help my father choose a ruggedized laptop for use in a salt-water environment!

My father is hoping to get a job as crew on a 60' sail yacht. He's looking for a laptop that's rugged enough to survive at least a year of consistent contact with a salt water environment, and powerful enough for basic computing tasks -- organizing digital pictures and word processing, mainly, with the possibility of using the machine as a backup chart plotter via Garmin Bluecharts or similar software and his GPS (already a ruggedized unit). He isn't really a power-user, but would like to be able to keep connected when possible.

The boat is large enough that water splashing directly onto the machine is not likely to be an issue, but the air will be very salty and spray may exist. His current PCs are a homebuilt dual Pentium III tower, and a G3 Pismo laptop running OS 10.4. The obvious answer for "ruggedized laptop" is "Panasonic Toughbook," but those are terribly expensive and have many features that aren't essential (touch screen, etc). What specifications should I be specifically looking for, and who makes laptops that meet them? Is the toughbook worth the premium in a harsh environment like this? Are there any more budget-friendly alternatives that're similarly hardened?
posted by Alterscape to Computers & Internet (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You should look in the direction of used machines. I bought a used Itronix laptop not long ago - a clunker- 266mhz. But it ran Win2k and did all my daily email/web stuff just fine. And I dropped it onto concrete several times with no problems.

But yeah, don't buy new, and don't buy fast. Look for something in the 500mz range, with the absolute minimum in necessary features, on eBay, and you'll find what you want for less than a grand.
posted by fake at 12:49 AM on August 20, 2006

Look for something in the 500mz range, with the absolute
minimum in necessary features, on eBay, and you'll find what you want for less than a grand.

Considering I paid $700 for an athlon 1600 a few years ago, and I see that an Athlon64 3500+ refurbished notebook runs $419 right now on ecost right now, I'd recommend the used refurbished route over eBay.

Otherwise, I generally echo what the first poster said - get a cheap notebook that your father won't be sad to trash when it's all done and over with. Maybe get two machines, with the backup in a vacuum sealed case until the first one starts acting up and a USB case for the hard drive? I'd be woried about the electronics on the motherboard going more than anything, all modern hard drives are internally sealed, and a case would make it accessible even if the first notebook goes belly up.
posted by jedrek at 4:13 AM on August 20, 2006

"... all modern hard drives are internally sealed ..."
posted by jedrek at 7:13 AM EST on August 20

Actually, no commercially successful hard drive has ever been sealed to atmosphere. Hard drives only work at all because an extremely thin layer of air above the fast moving platter(s) allow the read/write heads to "fly." In fact, if you just take drives to a low enough pressure environment, they'll quit working because there isn't enough air to fly the heads correctly.

Corrosion of circuit boards isn't the problem most people think it is, in a marine environment. But water gets more places than ever you give it credit for being able to do so, until you see it first hand. Especially if you take a laptop up on deck, even on a 60' yacht.

My suggestion? Mid-line commercial laptop(s), frequent and tested backups, service plan(s), and an unflagging commitment to keeping the computers below decks and dry.
posted by paulsc at 4:52 AM on August 20, 2006

I've had good luck on the boat with an older model from Twinhead. I've no idea if their newer ones are any good. This kind of machine is often described as "semi-rugged" which is what you want if you're looking for something just tough enough to survive getting dropped to the cabin floor and splashed with a bit of water.
posted by sfenders at 6:06 AM on August 20, 2006

Considering I paid $700 for an athlon 1600 a few years ago, and I see that an Athlon64 3500+ refurbished notebook runs $419 right now on ecost right now, I'd recommend the used refurbished route over eBay.

The ruggedized laptop market is more than a little different from these steaming hot gaming notebooks.

First, a 500mhz proc is an advantage- you don't need a fan, or a vent, to cool it. Just heatsink it to the chassis. Truly rugged machines are engineered to minimize moving parts. And 500mhz is plenty for Picasa.

Second, most processes that require a rugged machine (remote data gathering, work in the arctic, oil fields) have no need for some 64bit widescreen media center. A monochrome display (which is more legible in sunlight and dark) and a meager amount of RAM is plenty.

Third, the consumer Toughbooks that approach specs like yours aren't truly rugged- they're just aluminum-clad, and the drop-and-water-safety sheets reflect that. On a boat, with salty, humid air, and the potential for spills, they wouldn't last a day.

Finally, I made my Itronix recommendation because they are excellent, truly rugged machines made by people who understand how to ruggedize a computer. That, plus the regular backups paulsc astutely mentioned, should be plenty for anyone. An external CD burner and a pelican case may be the best way to back things up. (As many rugged machines will be will not include an integrated optical drive).

For storage, just get a drybox and a packet of dessicant, and it will keep forever. Let us know what you end up choosing!
posted by fake at 8:27 AM on August 20, 2006

Definitely, Itronix, the *good* ToughBooks, or a RuggedComputing model; used, and buy a Pelican Laptop case to keep it in when you're not using it.

On review, yeah, what fake said.

And yeah, a backup machine in a sealed bag, and enough tools *in that bag* to do an HD transplant.

And an external DVD burner for backups.
posted by baylink at 1:25 PM on August 20, 2006

I have a friend who is a yacht captain and sails constantly. All of his equipment is awesome. Cameras, laptop etc. It's the same stuff he uses on land-not special sea-fairing stuff.

The difference is that he purchased some really nice lined aluminum containers for each thing. He also keeps packs of dessicant in the containers to keep them nice and dry. He's never had a problem in the several years that he's been sailing.
posted by snsranch at 3:22 PM on August 20, 2006

I'm a marine biologist so I have lots of experience using computers on boats. There is nothing that will survive getting wet or regular exposure to spray. Panasonic toughbooks are what we use for deck work, or in semiexposed situations like on a small whaler etc. They get salty but can be wiped down and do quite well. Regular PCs and laptops are what we use in the wheelhouse or below decks on a yacht. Those environments are perfectly fine for regular electronics.

90% of boat electronics meet their maker in one of two ways: you drop them in the water while you're getting on the boat or you spill a drink on them in rough weather. Pelican cases that float while full with closed valves solve problem number 1 most of the time. Never ever putting liquids on the computer surface solves problem 2. Backing up twice is standard procedure fo important stuff.
posted by fshgrl at 8:46 PM on August 20, 2006

« Older It Feels Like They're on me Right Now   |   Peace and Prosperity of the late 80's and 90's Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.