Measuring Durability in Rugged Notebooks


By Jeff Erlichman, 1105 Government Information Group Custom Media

Rugged notebook expert Roger Kay, President of Endpoint Technologies Associates, developed a scale for measuring ruggedness presented in his new research – Redefining Rugged - Assessing the Spectrum of Durability in the Notebook Market.

In Afghanistan, Warfighters want a fully ruggedized machine; one that is fully sealed with no fans, no openings, nothing that would allow water, dust or dirt to penetrate it; in other words, one that won't – and can't fail.

That's essential for our military on the frontlines, but is it the right level of rugged for you?

Helping you to make that decision is Roger Kay, President of Endpoint Technologies Associates, and a leading subject matter expert when it comes to rugged notebooks.

When 1105 Government Information Group Custom Media spoke with Kay last year for our 2008 Rugged IT Report, he was in the midst of writing a comprehensive White Paper on rugged notebooks. Now the research is completed and he has published Redefining Rugged –Assessing the Spectrum of Durability in the Notebook Market, which includes a new scale for measuring ruggedness.

In a recent interview with 1105 Government Information Group Custom Media, Kay described how mobile computing has spawned increasing needs for notebooks, tablets and PDAs that have a “greater degree of ruggedness.”

“The category is an open invitation to charlatans hoping to charge a premium for something they call rugged, but which is actually less. And how would an end user know it wasn't rugged until it broke?”

Mil Spec and IP Standards
The White Paper has made its mark on notebook manufacturers reported Kay. “The players have all contacted me about it. I've heard that some of their customers are aware of it and have begun to use it. And I intend to refresh it again this year with the new products coming out.”

Designing for toughness often means taking care of the details, things you and I would not ever think about explained Kay. As part of his research he read the entire 550 pages that comprise MIL-STD-810F.

In an experience he described as “painful because it is full of profound boring engineering stuff”, Kay said the spec goes into incredible detail describing “things you just don't think about such as: what happens if something gets mounted near a machine gun that keeps shaking?”

Along with the mil spec, Kay also researched Ingress Protection (IP) standards to determine what was relevant for notebook computers. Together these two U.S. government standards cover the rugged specification.  While there are many levels of MIL-STD-810F standards, Kay said most rugged notebooks should have at least an IP54 rating, which means they're protected against dust particles and water.

For Kay, the question naturally arises: Are you getting anything for your money? And what is the difference between “business rugged” and “semi rugged” or “partially rugged” and is there any meaningful distinction?

For a notebook to meet the fully rugged designation additional hardening is needed for protection from the environment (absolute temperature, rapid temperature swings, humidity, vibration and altitude), sealing against possible entry of dust and water and damage from drops or shocks.

“The primary test is whether it meets various military specifications.  In practical terms, the distinction is about how hard the thing can be slammed and still work,” Kay said.

Scaling Ruggedness
For his scale of ruggedness, Kay “narrowed down the measures to the ones that make sense and then looked at them in terms of likely use under fully rugged conditions and maybe less rugged conditions like in vehicles or just outdoor field service.”

Kay then established a point system for rating ruggedness that would assign points for each attribute to a particular computer so that you could determine its degree of ruggedness in an aggregated number.

“The purpose behind that was to try and collate some of the marketing hype that has begun to gather around the less rugged categories.”

According to Kay, somewhere between “non-rugged” and “fully rugged” are these mushy categories that are sometimes called “business-rugged” or “semi- rugged” or “durably reinforced”. 

For Kay, the question naturally arises: Are you getting anything for your money? And what is the difference between “business rugged” and “semi rugged” or “partially rugged” and is there any meaningful distinction?

“There are many ways in which companies portray them and there's a kind of inaccuracy about it that's troubling because the price you pay for the rugged features is fairly steep,” added Kay.”Just in very rough terms you might pay 4x the cost of a similarly specified notebook for a fully rugged version of the same. And you might pay at least 50% more for a partially ruggedized unit.”

“Because people are always defining terms their own way, if you go to Panasonic, they say 'business- rugged' means this to us and it is this product; and 'semi-rugged' means that to us, and it's this product,” explained Kay. “Well, they are right, but who else knows that? And is that consistent with GD-Itronix or Dell or anybody else who is in this business?

It turns out the answer is no.

The Ruggedness Scale
The Endpoint Technologies scale of ruggedness has 4 categories ranging from “non-rugged” to “fully-rugged”. “Each is defined quantitatively,” said Kay. “The categories are loosely associated with their common marketing names, but at their root they are identified numerically for greater specificity.”

Further, Kay pointed out that companies buying rugged systems should understand that the category labeled “Rugged” is completely sufficient for the most demanding field needs, including the military.

According to Kay the only reason that a “Rugged +” category exists at all is that some systems – notably a small sealed tablet from Panasonic, the Toughbook U1 – exceeds the specifications of MIL-STD-810F in two ways: it is dropped on concrete, rather than plywood over concrete; and it’s operating during the test, along with the fact that the U1 is dropped from four feet, rather than the generally accepted three feet, means that the U1 meets a higher standard.

“Thus, points in the rugged categories designate everything from ‘Non-rugged’ to ‘Rugged Plus’, but ‘Rugged’ is the mainstream category.” The categories, their point ranges and their common names are:

*Category: Rugged Plus = 420+ points.

Common name: Ultra Rugged
*Category: Rugged = 330-419 points.

Common name: Rugged
*Category: Rugged Minus 1 = 150-329 points.

Common name: Semi Rugged
*Category: Rugged Minus 2 = 70-149 points.

Common name: Business Rugged
*Category: Non-rugged = 0-69 points.

Common name: Ordinary

Using this scale Kay has assessed products on the market today, examining where they fall on the scale and matching that number up against street prices.

“Using regression, we have determined what the mean price or price range should be at each level and indicated whether existing products fall above the mean,” explained Kay, “which indicates that they are out of position from a price-ruggedness perspective, or below the mean, which implies that they are aggressively priced.”

Kay touts that this tool is not only for IT buyers, but also for vendors seeking to price their rugged products appropriately. The bottom line Kay said is “we hope that this method will help clear up some of the confusion that now reigns with respect to rugged notebooks.”

How Much Rugged?
So, how do you decide whether you need rugged? And how much rugged do you need?

You need robustness and ruggedness the more you move out into the field Kay noted. “If you have applications that require field service not in a stressful combat, police or emergency situation, you probably need a level of ruggedness, but not ‘fully rugged’”.

That might include the USDA food inspector, the DHS agent performing border inspections, the public utility crew using a notebook or a tablet. “People who want something a little more durable and have no intense requirement can go to lesser level of ruggedness,” said Kay. “They can make do with some of the innovations that are being integrated by many vendors generally into their notebook offerings.”

Here's what Kay says are business-rugged features:
* Magnesium alloy case

*Magnesium alloy lid enclosure

*Reinforced steel hinges

*Shock-mounted hard drive

*Spill-resistant keyboard with durable keys

*Flexible internal connectors

*Port protection (covers)

*Embedded wireless radios and antennas

*Long battery life

Finally Kay said in his evaluations he put “weight fairly heavily on Third Party certification. In order to keep the playing field level, I thought I'd have somebody like South West Research Institute (SWRI) do the mil spec testing and certifying and say here's what we did. Mil spec testing is quite extensive.”

“Plus, it would seem to me that if I were in government I would want to make sure that the stuff I was buying, especially if it was for military purposes, did have Third Party certification,” Kay added.

“I wouldn't want that audit trail coming back to me.”

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