Desktop PCs, once installed, remain motionless on a desk and are virtually immune to physical damage. About the worst that can happen is for coffee to be spilled on the keyboard, or possibly the computer being jolted during a move from one office to another. But as more businesses adopt mobile workforce strategies, and as service organizations scramble to put mobile computers in the field in a race to maximize customer satisfaction levels, the vulnerability of the laptop becomes a major problem.

Further, the problem will only increase as the number of laptops grows. IDC, a Framingham, Mass., market research firm, shows an inflection point in the first quarter of 1999 where the percentage of laptops to total PCs started to increase. IDC reports that in the third quarter of 1999, laptops constituted 18.5 percent of total PC systems with 5,068,820 units counted.

In large corporations where tens of thousands of mobile computers are being used in the field daily, damage costs can grow out of control. To counteract the increasing rise in repair costs, PC vendors decided to add ruggedized features to their laptops. The ruggedization ranges from merely supplying a magnesium case to ruggedizing each individual component inside the case. One of the standards that these ruggedized vendors looked toward satisfying is the Department of Defense’s MIL-STD-810E.

Let’s talk rugged

Compliance with MIL-STD-810E is an important goal because the standard prescribes a variety of tests that equal the abuse a laptop might sustain in actual usage. Take for instance the rain test. This requires the computer to be operable after being showered with water of a specified droplet size, at the rate of 4 inches an hour for 30 minutes; in other words, a torrential downpour. Other tests include shock, vibration, altitude, thermal extremes, thermal shock (rapidly changing temperature), and acceleration tests.

One thing a buyer should be aware of is the difference between compliant and certified. When a company states its product is compliant, it means it believes the construction is sufficient to pass the MIL-STD 810E tests, and the company probably performed the tests themselves. What is even better is if the vendor states that its product is MIL-STD 810E certified, which means that the product has been formally tested against the standard by an independent laboratory.

In viewing the vendors offering ruggedized models, there is one laptop that stands out that is not only certified at MIL-STD-810E, but actually exceeds it. The laptop is produced by Amrel of Arcadia, Calif. The ruggedized series known as Rocky is MIL-STD 810E certified for altitude, salt fog, temperature, dust/sand, rain, vibration, humidity and shock.

The Baja torture test

Imagine a test where you blow dust at your laptop for hours at a time; vibrate it all day for days at a time; subject it to altitude variations of 0 to 10,000 feet; operate it in temperatures reaching 130 degrees F; virtually soak the laptop in water for two days; and expose it to humidity of 95 percent for prolonged periods. While this may seem like a specially designed test to force a laptop to fail, the truth is that this was an actual situation.

Kacey Smith, author of the Baja GPS Guidebook for off-road dirt bikes (www., went biking through Baja California with her companion to scout routes for the guidebook. Kacey carried a Rocky inside her backpack.

One of the most severe conditions Rocky encountered in the Baja was dust. The Baja is extremely dry, and riding behind another bike, one is smothered in dust. “Your entire body is bathed with it,” Kacey remarks. “Your eyes get caked, and when you blow your nose, you get dirt for weeks. This is major dust.”

Kacey expected that after days of riding, Rocky certainly would have some dust inside—especially considering that even when she wrapped her diskettes in a zip-lock bag and placed them inside a Tupperware container, she still found dust on them. Although Rocky functioned perfectly under these conditions, Kacey was skeptical. She took Rocky to Amrel and had them disassemble the laptop and blow out the dust that Kacey was certain was inside. Kacey comments, “I figured there would be weird Baja bugs, cobwebs and dirt in there. There just had to be.” Amrel pulled the unit apart. Kacey first remarked that it appeared perfectly clean. Then Amrel engineers blew out the inside with an air gun. “I expected to see clouds of dust. Not a spec came out. It looked like a brand new computer,”she added.

But that wasn't all Rocky was subjected to in the Baja. Once during an unusual downpour, Kacey and her bike mate finally got to the shelter of a mining hole in the side of a mountain, only to find that on opening her backpack, there was a lot of water inside. “When I pulled Rocky out of the backpack, the water came flooding out. I thought that I had really done it this time.” But when Kacey turned Rocky on, it booted right up.

In addition to this abuse, Kacey rode over bumpy roads nine to 10 hours a day, seven days a week for three and a half months, and even fell off her bike with the backpack (and Rocky). There were altitude changes of 11,000 feet and a temperature of 123 degrees F where Rocky sat in a black backpack in direct sunlight. “In fact, my partner got heatstroke. But Rocky didn’t,” Kacey quipped.

Why the road test is important

While such a torture test may seem like the exception, similar conditions exist for a large variety of business such as electrical power companies, oil and gas works, and police and fire departments.

Dick McCreary, chief of police of Ostrander, Ohio and an electrical engineer, is instrumental in providing consulting to police departments on MDCs (mobile data computers). McCreary comments that in general, keyboards and cables suffer damage the most. After that come floppy disk drives, hard disk drives and an occasional broken LCD display caused by the laptop careening around inside the cruiser during a high-speed pursuit.

At other times, damage is actually the result of the way the laptop is installed. McCreary reports there are instances of poorly designed or installed MDC mounts that swing and impact the dashboard when a cruiser rounds a corner at high speeds. Although the computer vendor can’t be responsible for poor mounting, the fact is that the computer still has to be able to sustain the shock. This is where MIL-STD-810E comes in with its standards for mechanical and high-impact shock as well as acceleration tolerance. McCreary adds, “In the heat of the moment, officers have been known to leave their laptops on the roof of their cruisers and take off, having the laptops crash to the concrete below.”

The complete ruggedized laptop

While the rugged features of a laptop are important, if it doesn’t have certain other qualities, the value of the ruggedization is lessened. One important feature is upgradability. Companies that have purchased ruggedized laptops are reluctant to replace them with new ones because of the cost. If the laptop lacks upgradability options, many users are forced to hold on to inadequate equipment. Rocky seems to have that problem licked. Amrel designed Rocky with an open architecture, which allows the CPU/HDD/RAM to be easily field upgraded.

Another problem with laptops in field service industries is the ability to view the screen under a number of adverse lighting conditions. Amrel assists here with its Alpha-Star sunlight-readable LCD. Other portable features Rocky has include an option of four COM ports (two internal), an internal LAN card for network hook-up, and custom vehicle docks with hot-dockable capability. And Rocky can also be fitted with a Pentium III 450MHz.

Unlike vendors who think ruggedized means only a magnesium case, Amrel designed Rocky to be ruggedized at the sub-system level. There is, for example, a Fault Tolerant Isolation Chamber (FTI) that triple seals the motherboard and electronic components. In addition to providing the HDD with a shock-resistant wrap, Amrel also offers a ruggedized internal LAN card option.

Look to the future

Laptops and portable devices are soon going to overtake desktop units. This means that more portable computers will be abused in a variety of hostile environments. For companies heavily involved in field service where the aggregate assets of its mobile computers amount to a significant budget number, ruggedization is essential. While ruggedized computers cost more, companies need to look at TCO (total cost of ownership). Replacing several damaged laptops is bound to exceed the cost of one ruggedized model with a long life. If TCO is important for your company, you might want to try Rocky; after all, it survived the Baja.