ThinkPads are Ruggedized Machines

From time to time we get customer requests for "rugged notebooks."  The reasons for these are as varied as the ruggedized PC space.  Some customers are just tired of systems breaking because their users are hard on their PCs.  Others want to mount their notebooks in a patrol car or service vehicle.  Others want a system that can be flushed down the toilet and then driven over with a backhoe. There are many things that vendors can do to make their PCs ruggedized, and each vendor attacks the problem in different ways.  For protection against spills, there are things like spill trays, sealed keyboards, and rubber membranes that can prevent liquids from seeping into the system.  Putting rubber port covers or plugs in exposed ports can not only protect against spills, but can also keep dirt and grit out of the system.  Another part that vendors harden is the hard disk drive.  This is THE most common thing to fail in a notebook.  Ways to do this range from adding rubber landing pads to encasing the drive in gel.  Then they can add things like accelerometers to park the hard disk heads in case of a fall. Then there is the actual case itself.  The material of choice is usually magnesium as it has the highest strength to weight ratio of any commonly used material.  A hardened Mg case can really make the difference in the survivability of a machine. Hardening a notebook sounds great in theory.  The problem is that once you start adding protection material, several things start to happen:

  1. You increase cost.  A true ruggedized system usually sells for 2X over a non-ruggedized system.  Part of this is engineering and materials expense.  Most of it is just profit margin for the vendor.
  2. You add significant weight and thickness.  Many ruggedized systems come with handles for a good reason.  When you're lugging around 8 lbs., you need one.
  3. You have MAJOR problems with heat.  If you look at the specs of many ruggedized machines, you start to see that these aren't exactly cutting-edge systems.  Usually the technology is N-1 or N-2.  The processors are slower, the graphics are limited, and the configuration options fewer.  This is because the latest and greatest technology produces the most heat.  The usual way to deal with this problem is to add more air vents.  More air vents are not what you want when you're building a rugged system because they mean more places for things to enter the system and cause problems.  In addition, shock absorbing materials like rubber and foam are also great insulators.  If the system is going to last, the components must be kept cool.

Since none of the major PC periodicals want to do torture testing any longer, the gold standard in the industry for judging machine toughness is military spec (MIL SPEC) testing.  The relevant spec is MIL-STD 810F which deals with electronics hardware like PCs.  The testing criteria are fascinating, though the spec doesn't exactly make for page turning reading material.  The subcategories include mundane things such as temperature, humidity, shock, and dust resistance.  But then there are some very cool testing categories like "fungus," "explosive atmosphere," or "ballistic shock."  (Not to be confused with pyroshock which includes things like fiery explosions straight out of a bad Steven Seagal movie).  During testing humans are not required to be present, so these are some pretty rigorous tests.  In other words, long after fungus has covered your body, your machine should continue to operate normally. All in all, there are about 25 categories within the 810F spec.  In order to say you have passed MIL-STD testing, you don't have to pass all of them.  Even if a vendor passes only one, it can claim tested to MIL specs as long as somewhere in the literature it states which category was passed.  Most vendors, even with their "ruggedized" systems only pass a 4 to 6 of these subcategories -- usually things like humidity and dust resistance.  If you are looking for a ruggedized PC, it is always important to read the fine print! As many of you know, Lenovo does not have a notebook that we market as "ruggedized," but we continue to add more and more hardening features to our notebooks.  Indeed, the PC analyst group IDC has for years classified our machines as semi-rugged because we have been first to market with features like accelerometers, Roll Cages, full-contact display frames, and the like.  Many of our testing criteria go beyond industry standards.  It was past time for us to get third party validation that our machines could take on the rigors of use normally reserved for only the "rugged" category.  Earlier this year, Trace Laboratories took our ThinkPad T61 and ThinkPad R61 and put them to the test. The results are great news and a great testament to our engineers.  We passed the following tests:  Altitude (500.4), Humidity (507.4), Vibration (514.5), High Temperature (501.4), and Temperature Shock (503.4).  We almost passed blowing sand and dust test (510.4), but there was an error message on boot.  However, the system did boot normally after we bypassed the error message.  I count that as a half victory -- so a ThinkPad has successfully passed 5.5 MIL Spec tests. That in itself is an interesting data point, but let me put it into perspective -- we passed more MIL Spec tests with one of our "standard" systems than several of our competitors did with their "ruggedized" systems.  Dell's ruggedized Latitude D620 and D630 ATG only passed 4 MIL spec tests - low pressure, humidity, vibration, and sand/dust.  These are the exact same tests.  The only difference is that our standard system did this with no modifications, at roughly half the price, and was almost 1kg / 2 lbs. lighter in weight.

The other big name in the rugged PC space is Panasonic with its Toughbook series.  Panasonic has 3 subcategories of ruggedization in its Toughbook lineup.

  • FULLY-RUGGED - Especially for use in command and control situations.  These include models like the 30 and the 19
  • SEMI-RUGGED - For any user who is worried about their PC being damaged.  These are models like the 51 or 74.
  • BUSINESS-RUGGED - Not really ruggedized machines at all.  These are just capitalizing on the Toughbook name.  Models include the W5 or T5 plus a few others.

Our machines would equal or better Panasonic's durability vs. their "Semi" and "Business" rugged machines.  Depending on the application, a ThinkPad may even be a good match vs. a "Fully" rugged machine.  There are some tests where Panasonic does have an advantage like "rain" or "low temperature," but for many uses, a ThinkPad will work just fine. The choice is yours.  Buy heavy.  Buy expensive.  Buy old technology. Or buy a ThinkPad.