Rugged Notebooks Explained: How Tough is Tough Enough?

Life on the road isn't easy for a business laptop. From being stuffed into bags and thrown onto airport security trays to getting pushed under seats and crammed into overhead plane compartments, these notebooks take a lot of abuse. It's no wonder some manufacturers are making a big deal about promising extra protection. Commonly referred to as business rugged laptops, these machines offer enhanced durability features yet aren't noticeably armored or unduly heavy. But how tough are business rugged laptops, and how do they compare with their semi- and fully rugged notebook cousins?

Many laptop makers claim that their machines meet specific rugged standards, such as the military standard called MIL-STD-810G. This spec covers a wide range of extreme conditions, including drops, shocks, vibration, and humidity. Sometimes a third-party group is brought in to verify that a given system is business rugged, but most often laptop makers do their own testing. That's why you'll often see language such as "designed to meet" or "tested to meet" certain standards. Digging deeper reveals that this spec is merely a set of guidelines and suggested testing procedures.

"It's the wild west or a gray zone anytime another term is added to ruggedized, apart from fully ruggedized," said David Daoud, research director of personal computing at IDC. "It's up to the vendor to explain what they mean by [business rugged] since these standards are really defined by marketing and the customer base target."

Vendors typically choose which trials a ruggedized laptop will be designed to survive. The bottom line is that shoppers need to look closely at what sort of hardships a rugged portable is promised to handle and how the company backs up these claims. Laptop buyers also should determine exactly what their rugged needs are and how much of a premium they're willing to pay to get them.

What "Rugged" Means

The MIL-STD-810 environmental durability standards were originally created back in the 1960s by the US Department of Defense as an aid for designing military equipment to be used in combat areas. MIL-STD-810G is the latest iteration, a massive tome more than 800 pages long. Within it are detailed instructions for conducting 28 survivability tests ranging from exposure and high altitude to extreme temperature, vibration, and drops. Because of the cachet attached to meeting an actual US military standard, laptop makers have flocked to the 810G specs, using them as a marketing tool.

Another specification sometimes listed by laptop makers is IP65, part of the International Electrotechnical Commission's IP set of international rugged guidelines. The IP, or Ingress Protection, spec is less comprehensive than MIL-STD-810G but also less complicated. Each number represents the level of protection offered. The first numeral ranges from 0 to 6 and describes intrusion by solid objects, including anything from large body parts on the low end to small particles of dust at level 6. The second digit stands for exposure to water, with zero offering no protection and 8 signifying that the device can be completely submerged in liquid without suffering damage. At level 6, a machine can withstand being sprayed with jets of water for at least 2 minutes from all angles.

Ruggedness Breakdown

You're probably wondering just how sturdy rugged laptops really are. After taking a hard look at what manufacturers offer, we can say these machines definitely are more robust than mainstream consumer and business laptops. However, they range widely in terms of claimed durability. Shoppers will also pay extra depending on how much protection is offered. Here's the breakdown.

Business Rugged Top Pick: HP EliteBook 8460p

At the low end of the rugged scale, laptops with the business rugged moniker tend to have a few features built into them for greater durability. These enhancements include spill-resistant keyboards, drains on the notebook's underside, and shock-mounted hard drives. Also included is some form of chassis reinforcement, typically magnesium. Expect to pay about $1,000 for a base configuration, or $350 more than a similarly configured consumer notebook.

The platinum DuraCase on the EliteBook 8460p is not only tough, it also looks executive-chic. This 14-inch workhorse sports precision aluminum alloy hinges, titantium alloy display latches, and a DisplaySafe frame to keep your screen intact. We also like the smooth and accurate glass touchpad and helpful security tools.

Base Price: $999
Quick Specs: 2.3-GHz Intel Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM, 320GB, 7,200-rpm hard drive

Semi-rugged Top Pick: Dell Latitude E6420 ATG

Costing about $1,500 (or more than a basic laptop), semi-rugged machines are often touted as meeting some of the MIL-STD-810G criteria for toughness, including the ability to withstand drops from as high as 3 feet. Users will find shock-mounted hard drives, spill-resistant keyboards, and magnesium construction here as well. Some units even offer optional heated hard drives and watertight port covers.

The E6420 ATG has Latitude guts but serious durability, thanks to a Tri-Metal design and a powder-coated magnesim alloy base. This 14-inch notebook also features a spill-resistant keyboard, port covers to protect from dust, and-just to make sure the world knows you mean business-an optional carry handle. A touchscreen option enables use with gloved hands.

Base Price: $1,949
Quick Specs: 2.5-GHz Core i5 CPU, 2GB of RAM, 250GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive

Fully Rugged Top Pick: Panasonic Toughbook 31

The big boys of the rugged laptop world, these portables feature the durability bells and whistles. Fully rugged notebooks are made to meet or exceed many of the MIL-STD-810G specs, including vibration, drops from as high as 6 feet on hard surfaces, and exposure to the elements. Fully rugged laptops often adhere to the IP65 code as well. Expect closed ports, magnesium enclosures, and shock-mounted and heated hard drives. To operate above 15,000 feet, an SSD is also likely. All this doesn't come cheap, with prices ranging from $3,000 to $4,000 for base configurations.

Any laptop you can drop from 6 feet qualifies as fully rugged. Panasonic claims that the Toughbook 31 has the world's most rugged design, and we believe it. In addition to a super-bright 13-inch touchscreen display (1200 nits), this notebook offers drop shock protection and 810G and IP65 certification. Other features include an integrated webcam and up to 20 hours of battery life when you spring for the second bay battery.

Base Price:$3,328
Quick Specs: 2.26-GHz Core i3 CPU, 2GB RAM, 160GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive

LAPTOP Senior Writer