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December 2000
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Compare & Contrast

Rugged Laptops: SUV or Sports Car?

by Anthony Paonita


Rugged laptop choices are pretty limited, the province of one mainstream PC maker and a few specialists. Here's a sample of what's out there:

Panasonic USA

ToughBook 45 ( Reader Response: no. 285)

450 MHz Pentium III, 64 MB RAM, 6 GB hard drive, 24X Max CD-ROM, Windows 98 and a 12.1" active matrix display, 6.4 lbs.(with battery)

Price: $2200

ToughBook 37 (Reader Response: no. 282)

500 MHz Pentium III, 64 MB RAM, 8 GB hard drive, 24X Max CD-ROM, Windows 98, 12.1" active matrix display,6 lbs. (with battery)

Price: $2950

Other features: waterproof keyboards (3 year guarantee) magnesium cases, shock-mounted hard drives

* * * *


GoBook (Reader Response: no. 283)

600 MHz Celeron or 650 MHz Pentium III; 64-256 MB RAM; Shock-mounted 2.5, 6, 10 or 20 GB hard drive; 12.1" outdoor "Colorvue" display; 7.5 lbs. (with battery)

Other features: Waterproof, glow-in-the-dark keyboard, 56K modem or Ethernet card, Common radio module architecture wireless technology

Price: $4500

* * * *

Dolch Computer Systems Inc.

NotePac (Reader Response: no. 284)

Mobile Pentium II processor; 64 MB RAM, 10 GB EIDE hard drive (ruggedized); CD or DVD-ROM drives (optional) 13.3" active matrix display

Other features: Cast-magnesium case, can operate continuously in high-vibration environments such as off-road vehicles and propeller-driven aircraft.

Price: $5000

IT'S IRONIC, isn't it, that some of the qualities we like best in laptop computers--their lightness, portability and small size--are also their weak points. They are easily stolen or lost. And while they're handy to to carry around, they're just as easily dropped--and their delicate components are not made to withstand such accidents. And it always seems to happen that when you drop them, it usually happens in a totally inconvenient place, like onto a concrete sidewalk. Ouch.

Sometimes, a mobile, hard-charging lawyer just needs a computer with guts. It's not often that he or she has to go into a war zone, but there are construction sites to visit, heavy road use, temperature extremes and other conditions hazardous to the delicate innards of the typical computer. You just never know when a bulldozer's going to run over your laptop.

Fortunately there are manufacturers who feel your potential pain and have come up with what are called "rugged" laptops. They're the sports utility vehicles of the portable computer industry. Like those monster SUVs, these are not lightweights. And they look the part, with bulked­up plastics or virtually indestructible metal bodies. Their handling is clumsier than standard models, so don't even think of flinging them into the overhead compartment without putting in some serious gym time.

If you can imagine it, some rugged laptops have bulletproof screens -- perfect for a really tough case status conference or trial? They also come equipped with environmentally-sealed keyboards, intended to protect the user's data from, say, a toxic spill. But they'll also protect you from a coffee spill.

While these digital SUVs have tons of macho market appeal (they can survive machine gun fire, nuclear blasts, being run over by a Hummer) they're often dispatched to more everyday, normal working lives, serving utility companies and insurance salespeople. And they're not cheap, with some lines starting at about $6,000 (see chart).

Few Big Makes

The analogy only goes so far. Unlike wildly popular SUVs, rugged laptops are a limited, niche market. The big computer makers have, for the most part, steered clear of such models. In the laptop universe, lightweight and convenience are more important than durability, so they've ignored the rugged market. Just take one look at Sony's VAIO lineup, with its stylish and lightweight magnesium castings.

The word "rugged" isn't merely descriptive. Rugged laptops must conform to Army standards, in terms of crushability of both screen and chassis, as well as the ability to endure extremes of temperature and humidity. So when a computer maker calls a notebook "rugged," it's got to meet these standards.

All rugged laptops are Windows PCs (which will also serve as Unix/Linux boxes, if you're a true geek). Apple sells a laptop that's more durable than most, the iBook. It was originally designed to withstand the rigors of the school day. The company reputedly tested the iBook by dropping it six feet onto a concrete floor. But it doesn't meet the stricter rugged standards.

Of the major players, only Panasonic markets a true, rugged model, the Toughbook. It boasts such features as a waterproof keyboard with a three-year warranty (so go ahead, spill that Diet Coke), a 20-times stronger than normal magnesium alloy case and a shock-mounted hard drive.

The different models range from those suited for the "toughest field work" to one suited to the exec (or lawyer) on the move. There's even, if you can imagine it, a thin-but-tough model.

The Specialists

Rugged Laptops: SUV or Sports Car? Other than Panasonic you'll have to go to a specialist for a rugged machine. For example, Itronix boasts of a full range of heavy-duty beasts. But they boast reasonably speedy performance and won't break your back in the airport dash. Itronix's GoBook weighs seven and a half pounds and features a 12-inch color display that's bright enough to be seen outdoors, which can come in handy if you're investigating outdoor accident scenes or have secret meetings in the park with your investigator. There's also a slightly lighter X-C 6250 Pro model, with a smaller (10-inch) screen.

Another producer is Dolch Computer Systems Inc. Dolch offers environmentally sealed and ruggedized portables. According to Dolch, typical users include factory workers, field service technicians, navy personnel, offshore oil drillers and members of the Air Force. No mention of lawyers, though.

Rugged laptops deserve rugged printers: Cognitive has recently announced its Code Ranger, a small portable thermal printer. According to its maker, the Code Ranger will survive a six foot drop onto concrete.

You'll have to decide for yourself whether your work requires you to buy a rugged laptop. Or whether, like when deciding between a Ford Expedition SUV or a BMW 530i, it's better to have the tools to avoid accidents rather than survive them.

Anthony Paonita is a senior editor of The American Lawyer and a contributing editor to Law Technology News.

Editor's Note
2000 Law Technology News Reader Response Awards
Year In Review: 2000

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