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January 2000

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Buying Laptops

Haven't Dropped Your Laptop Yet? You Will!

More vendors are offering rugged laptops, but not on the cheap.

By Paul Nesdore

WITH A dramatic increase in the number of mobile lawyers, and the high cost of laptop repairs, more firms are demanding "ruggedized" laptops that can resist damage from spilled coffee, severe weather, and the inevitable trip and fall.

Historically, most vendors focused on "soft environment" computers. Now, there are increasing options for "tough" computers, that range from slightly durable (just a magnesium alloy case) to complying with the U.S. ruggedization standard, MIL-STD 810E. (And even stronger models can be ordered on a custom design basis.) Examples of new durable models are Compaq's Armada line, Panasonic's Toughbook family, Argonaut's ruggedized and "marinized" models and Amrel's Rocky series.

But not all durables are equal. The Armada laptops have increased damage resistant components but do not comply fully to MIL-STD 810E. The same is true for Panasonic's Toughbooks, which comply with MIL-STD 810E test procedures for drop shock, vibration, dust and moisture, a subset of the full standard. Amrel's line of Rocky laptops meet the MIL standards.

Full MIL-STD-810E compliance translates to a very durable computer. For example, the "rain" spec requires the computer to operate in rain at four inches per hour, with drop sizes ranging from 0.5 to 4.5 mm over a 30-minute period.

One of the drawbacks of early ruggedized models was their lack of upgradability. Some companies, focusing more on sturdy and less on rapid-fire technology changes, said they simply could not afford to upgrade faster than every six months. But now, many manufacturers are are using open architecture, to allow easier upgrades.

Extreme Durability

If you really want or need an extraordinarily rugged laptop, you will have to make out a very big check. Some users, such as the military, insist that the units exceed the 810E standards. For example, some firms need laptops that comply with TEMPEST EMI/EMC (electromagnetic interference/electromagnetic compatibility) standards. But these units can run from $11,000 to $14,000, making them too pricey for anyone who doesn't absolutely need the special compliance.

Other firms need computers that can operate in severe climates. Maxwell Microsystems, for example, builds computers to use LCD heaters to operate displays at very low temperatures.

Air density is another factor. MIL-STD 810E specs call for operation at 15,000 feet altitude, which suffices for laptops taken on commercial airlines. But if you go where the air density is lower, there's trouble. Ordinarily, hard disk heads fly over the disk surface at a height designed for altitudes from sea level up to 15,000 feet (the MIL-STD 810E requirement). If you operate in less dense air, the head will crash.

If you want to fly unpressurized at 40,000 feet you can't do that with a rotating medium. The alternative is solid state storage, but then, the price jumps by a factor of 10, reports the company. And at lower air densities, cooling fans need to drive more air to achieve the same amount of cooling than at lower altitudes.

Laptops used in most law firm environments probably do not require the full 810E compliance. The major concerns would be shock resistance from dropping the laptop; bounces in an overhead airplane bin; and latte spills. However, if there are cases where outdoor activity is required, you might want to consider rain and moisture-proof units. If you have any of these special requirements, be sure to ask your supplier exactly what 810E standards are met, as the word "ruggedized" is used very loosely in the industry. If you really want to be certain, order the full MIL-STD 810E from NIST (National Institute of Standards and technology) so you can quote chapter and verse when querying the vendor.

The bottom line: You can have all the ruggedization you want, if you are willing to pay for it. But don't expect MIL specs computers for CompUSA prices, warn manufacturers.

Check the labels and compare the protections against your actual needs. And take heart: you can expect to see more vendors offer increasingly rugged prices at decreasing prices. With mobile computing expanding, ruggedization may soon become the standard.

Paul Nesdore is president of MetaWord, Inc., a high-tech editorial services company located in Wellesley, Mass.

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