How to buy ruggedised laptops
Written by: Simon Creasey | Published:

If you need to use the latest processor hungry applications while taking all the punishment the elements can throw at you, then these are for you. Simon Creasey has the details

The phrase ‘rugged laptop’ covers a vast array of different computers. These devices range from laptops that are used by tradesmen, who may from time to time drop their machine, all the way through to computers that are intended for use by military personnel on the frontline of a war zone, where the device needs to be able to withstand the harshest environments.

There are numerous different rugged laptops on the market fitted with lots of special features to meet these differing needs, but this plethora of options can make it harder for buyers – and especially first-time buyers – to establish which device is right for their business needs.

So what features should companies buying rugged laptops look out for and what should they avoid?

It may seem like a blindingly obvious piece of advice to start with, but when it comes to purchasing a rugged laptop, it is vitally important that users pick the product that matches their application.

That’s because according to Ben Walker, director of sales at GRiD, a surprisingly larger number of people make do with “semi-rugged” products in the hope of saving money, but in the longer term this approach rarely pays off.

“In the short term, yes, a cheaper product saves money, but in six months’ time, that product will need to be replaced and this comes with huge additional costs, not only for the hardware but in software certification, additional environmental and EMC qualification, and a new support and logistics plan to account for a different product,” explains Walker.

He says that to ensure people purchase the right device, users need to consider where the product is going to be used, what it is going to be connected to and how long they want the product to be in service.

For some users mobility is key, so a tough, compact tablet device that can be used on the go in the field is possibly going to be more useful.

“These are made with shock-absorbent materials and compression-sealed from sand, dust and liquids so they can withstand all in-the-field activity,” says Daniel Eden, sales specialist, rugged mobility, client solutions at Dell UK.

Although rugged tablets offer similar durability and many of the same features as laptop equivalents, the downside is rugged tablets cannot match the processing power of laptops.

The other key consideration from the outset when establishing which device is appropriate for your needs is how durable users need the laptop to be. There are a wide range of different factors purchasers can look out for on the durability front, says Chris Bye, president of Getac UK.

“IP ratings and MIL standards [MIL-STD] are the most widely recognised ratings for rugged devices because they tell a lot about the reliability and performance of a device out in the field,” says Bye. “The International Electrotechnical Commission’s IP Ingress Protection ratings classifies the degree of protection a device provides against dust and water.

“The rating gives two numbers; the first indicates the degree of protection (of people) from moving parts, as well as the protection of enclosed equipment from foreign bodies. The second defines the protection level that the device’s enclosure has from various forms of moisture, such as drips, sprays, submersions. MIL-STD is a military testing specification that indicates how well a device will cope with extreme temperatures, humidity and pressure.”

Manufacturers test devices in a wide range of extreme conditions to ensure their products are built to withstand everything that is thrown at them and so that they can meet the growing demands of field use regardless of industry sector.

Eden says tests for Dell’s Rugged portfolio span factors such as altitude, high/low temperature operational ranges, thermal shock, rapid dust resistance, explosive atmosphere compliance, vibration standards and shock resistance.

“Everything in our Latitude Rugged range is built to withstand the most challenging of conditions,” says Eden. “They all have exceptional strength and are built from the ground up with high performance materials for maximum durability and data protection. Along with high levels of military testing, many Dell Rugged products are built using impact-resistant polymers, sealed doors and compression gaskets for a tight, particle-resistant shell. Dell Rugged products are also certified for safe operation in hazardous locations and measured for radiated emissions, electrostatic discharge and electromagnetic interference.”

There are options on the market to suit most environments, so buyers need to make sure that the device will work in their particular environment, and establish how demanding that environment will be, says Chris Jones, sales manager of rugged computing at Ultima.

“Some fully rugged devices will work at -20oC and are capable of operating in driving rain,” says Jones. “They also commonly have brighter screens than consumer devices, which is essential if you are working outdoors.”

Some manufacturers have developed rugged laptops specifically for different industry sectors. For instance, Bye says Getac produces devices designed to meet the needs of multiple vertical markets including defence and security, emergency services, utilities, transportation and logistics, healthcare, manufacturing and automotive.

“Each product is designed with the needs of specific industry professionals in mind, primarily to help optimise productivity in their field,” says Bye. “These devices range from the wearable MX50 dismounted soldier device for military and defence personnel, to the ergonomic RX10 for emergency services and healthcare professionals, to the newly launched A140 14 inch tablet designed to better support those operating in the automotive sector.”

And even if these products do not exactly match an individual company’s requirements, some manufacturers are able to modify devices.

“For example, one customer may want just a single USB interface, and another customer buying the same product may require three gigabit Ethernet, two USB, 1553 bus to connect to aircraft and eight serial ports,” says Walker. “GRiD modifies each computer to accommodate exactly what the customer needs.”

Another consideration for users who want to use these devices in the field is sunlight readability. “Our Latitude Rugged notebooks feature direct-view outdoor-readable displays, designed so the monitor can be seen in all conditions, including indoors and in low-light conditions. They rely less on backlight brightness and therefore conserve battery life,” explains Eden.

He adds that given the amount of choice and different options on the market, it is vitally important that first-time buyers make sure they are aware and have researched the full range of rugged features.

“These include everything from glove-touch mouse control, Quad Cool thermal management, anti-glare screens, backlit keyboards and removable hard drives. A good ecosystem of peripherals helps to ensure all hardware is compatible with each other and optimised for use,” says Eden.

Of course many buyers – and particularly first-time buyers – will not know exactly what features they require until they start using the devices, which is why Bye recommends companies test drive rugged laptops before taking the plunge.

“It’s important to focus on the day-to-day tasks of the industry professionals who will be using the device and work with a provider that is willing to customise a device to fit those specific needs,” says Bye. “Pilot testing is an excellent way to determine how a device will perform in any given environment.”

This testing process will also give purchasers a feel for the support they can expect to receive from their chosen rugged laptop provider. It is a vitally important factor, according to Jones.

“After-sales maintenance is very important in this field and manufacturers generally turn around a repair in 72 hours or less,” he explains. “It is important to understand that most of these devices are used as tools to carry out a job and downtime can be expensive. For this reason, organisations should consider total cost of ownership when purchasing rugged devices and not just look at the initial purchase price. When the cost of potential downtime caused by using cheaper consumer-grade devices is taken into account, the total cost of ownership of the more expensive rugged devices can work out to be less.”

Offering high-quality and highly responsive after-sales support is something that rugged laptop manufacturers like Panasonic pride themselves on.

“Our standard warranty is three years for all of our products, with additional offerings to extend the warranty term and also include other warranty services like accidental damage,” says Jon Tucker, senior manager product marketing, computer product solutions, at Panasonic Manufacturing (UK). “Our clients need to have dedicated service provisioning to include things like hot swap buffer stock, next business day swap-outs and software re-build package services. All of the services are designed to keep our client’s devices at the maximum possible uptime to keep their workforce in operation and as efficient as possible.”

This also extends to aesthetics, which is a new consideration when it comes to the development of rugged laptops. Getac’s Bye says rugged devices are increasingly influenced by consumer grade designs and have therefore become thinner and lighter to appeal to tech-savvy field workers.

“However, there has to be a balance between consumer grade usability and durability,” says Bye. “All devices must be fit for purpose and able to operate in the harshest environments.”

It is a view shared by Tucker who says that the “consumerisation” of IT has led many organisations to demand devices that are “easy to use and nice to look at”, but also boast enterprise-friendly features and that all-important durability.

“At Panasonic, we have embraced this trend by adopting some consumer-like tech,” says Tucker. “For example, capacitive touchscreens so the user enjoys using the touchscreen, but with our know-how and experience still making the touchscreen work under wet conditions – something not possible with a consumer capacitive touchscreen device.”

He adds that the company’s ultimate drive is to provide “pleasing-on-the-eye devices that people will love to use, while still being durable and fit for purpose for the enterprise. One comment here though is we still get a lot of clients demanding that the device doesn’t look exactly like shiny, sexy, consumer devices to deter from theft. It’s an interesting balance to be achieved”.

Given how deft manufacturers of rugged laptops have been at meeting the ever growing demands of users in the past, don’t bet against them striking this balance in the future.

What to consider
The main dos and don’ts of buying ruggedised laptops

  • Do think about the processing power you require. If you don’t need much, you might be better off with a tablet.
  • Do consider the exact conditions the device will be used in. Will the user need to wear gloves or work in direct sunlight?
  • Do be clear about the extent of environmental protection you require.
  • Do carry out trials so that you can get a feel for how the device performs in the field before you sign on the dotted line.
  • Do consider ergonomics. The device has to be comfortable during prolonged use.
  • Do think about after-sales support. A prompt turnaround for repairs is often worthwhile, once the avoided employee downtime is factored in.
  • Don’t plump for the cheapest rugged laptop you can find. It is important to get a feel for the total cost of ownership before making any decisions, especially when buying in bulk.
  • Don’t be seduced by appearances. You need something that will last and the more something looks like a consumer device, the greater its appeal to criminals.

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