If you havent dropped your laptop yet-you will

Paul Nesdore

MetaWord Inc.

Ruggedization of laptops was once a niche offering by vendors. But now, vendors who originally produced mainly soft environment computers are producing more durable models. The demand for laptops that are damage resistant is the result of the dramatic increase in the mobile workforce and the subsequent increased costs to repair units damaged in the field.

To meet this demand, manufacturers are presenting a variety of tough computers that range from slightly durable (just a magnesium alloy case) to complying with the U.S. ruggedization standard, MIL-STD 810E.

Examples of durable models are Compaq`s Armada line, Panasonic`s Toughbook family, 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. This is the same situation for Panasonic`s Toughbooks that comply to MIL-STD 810E test procedures for drop shock, vibration, dust and moisture, a subset of the full standard. Amrel`s entire line of Rocky laptops are certified at this standard.

Full MIL-STD 810E compliance represents a very durable computer. For example, the rain spec requires the computer to operate in rain at 4 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. Linda Talcott, director of marketing at Amrel says, “The priority in the design of the ruggedized version was to make the unit last for the long term. So a lot of ruggedized units would be lagging in technology, speed and not at the same standards as the regular off-the-shelf systems.” She explains that they were just too costly to upgrade every six months to keep up with technology.

Now, vendors are getting smarter. Talcott explains, “With Amrel`s system design we are trying to provide an open architecture which besides the ruggedization will give you the opportunity to upgrade the system-CPU, memory-so they can be as current as the soft environment systems.” Amrel`s line of Rocky laptops starting range is from $4,000 to $5,000, having just introduced their Pentium II version, Rocky II+.

There are requirements, often by the military that place demands on computers above and beyond the 810E testing. Many must comply with TEMPEST EMI/EMC (electromagnetic interference/electromagnetic compatibility) testing. Ken Maxwell, owner of Maxwell Microsystems, builds custom ruggedized computers. For EMI compliance, Maxwell explains the special considerations to pass TEMPEST requirements. “All of our computers have at least 0.090 aluminum casing that gives you pretty good shielding. Everything is contained in the aluminum except a cable or two. And then if we have to, we can put EMI shielding over the LCD to reduce its emissions.”

Although users other than the military require higher EMI tolerance, the economics prevents casual users from purchasing these units. Some of the configurations that Maxwell produces range from $11,000 to $14,000.

Usage demands drive the higher costs. For example, Maxwell uses LCD heaters to operate displays at very low temperatures. “We won`t let them power up until the LCD is up to temperature. But one of the things we can`t solve is the storage temperature of the TFT LCDs. The lowest temperature you can store TFT LCD devices is -20 C, but some military uses require -45 C.”

Air density is another factor to be considered. The MIL-STD 810E calls for operation at 15,000 feet altitude, which suffices for laptops taken on commercial airlines. But go where the air density is lower, and there`s trouble. Ordinarily, the hard disk heads fly over the disk surface at a height designed for altitudes from sea level up to 15,000 feet. If you operate in less dense air, the head will crash. Maxwell explains, “If you want to fly unpressurized at 40,000 feet you have to go to solid state storage. Then the price jumps by a factor of ten.”

It comes down to the fact that you can have all the ruggedization you want to purchase. Maxwell quips, “People want MIL specified computers for CompUSA prices.” The good news is that prices are coming down as more large vendors offer ruggedized models. “With mobile computing expanding, I wouldn`t be surprised if ruggedization becomes standard,” said Talcott.

Paul Nesdore is president of MetaWord Inc., a high-tech editorial and publishing company based in Boston.

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