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Durable Laptop Suggestions for the Desert? 82

Posted by Cliff
from the portable-GHz-in-the-sandbox dept.
glarbl_blarbl asks: "My brother is assigned to the 82nd Airborne in the US Army. His last laptop was a Sony Vaio whose power jack and hard drive both failed after about three years, and it didn't see anything worse than a state college dorm. He has just been ordered back to Iraq, and as the family computer geek I have been trying to help him with some general advice - but I have no experience with laptops in exotic environments. Does anyone know which brands/models would be better suited for life in the desert?"
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Durable Laptop Suggestions for the Desert?

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  • by HotNeedleOfInquiry (598897) on Wednesday September 07, 2005 @09:36PM (#13505776)
    If it's mission critical and you might be stuck without spares, change out the hard drive every 2 years. They wear out.

    If it were me, I'd safely pack and carry a preloaded backup drive.
  • Ruggedized laptops (Score:5, Informative)

    by Bastian (66383) on Wednesday September 07, 2005 @09:36PM (#13505778)
    The keyword you're looking for are "ruggedized." If he's going to be in a really dusty place, you might want to look into getting one that's envrionmentally sealed, but those aren't the best things because they generally have very low-power CPUs, rubber chiclet keyboards, and the like in order to get rid of all openings in the case.

    The only major consumer line I know of is Panasonic Toughbooks.
    • For the price of a Panasonic Toughbook, you could buy 5 or more cheapo laptops and just give them away as they start to come apart. Since he's not going to be working in truly hazardous conditions, ie dust only, he should be fine for months with any cheap LT and a vacuum cleaner.

      Besides, he'll have a ready made beowulf cluster and backup space!
      • I doubt your average squaddie has enough baggage allowance to carry 5 laptops.

        In a dusty, sandy environment, the most important thing *has* to be that it's sealed. If not, you can guaranteed that all the shit that gets inside it will kill the fans, CD/DVD and possibly hard drive in pretty short order.

        Plus a ruggedised laptop will be squaddie-proof - throw it across the room, drop your bags on it, throw it out of the truck or whatever, it'll survive. The same could not be said of any five regular laptops!
  • Panasonic Toughbook. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Saeed al-Sahaf (665390) on Wednesday September 07, 2005 @09:36PM (#13505779) Homepage
    Panasonic Toughbook. At least that's what we send, but we're only Air Force. Though I have seen them bounce down the stairs from the flight deck to the cargo area of a C-17 a few times and work just fine. Seem to hold up to moderate grit as well.
  • The MIL SPEC laptops (Score:4, Informative)

    by jmauro (32523) on Wednesday September 07, 2005 @09:37PM (#13505786)
    These ones will take a lot of abuse. I use them in the California and Arizona deserts every so often without too much trouble.

    Itronix GoBook [itronix.com]
    Panasonic Toughbook [panasonic.com]

    They are more expensive than your average notebooks but the extra costs means they take a beating from a baseball bat and still be fully functional. Also unlike some of the other types of MIL SPEC notebooks these actually look and function similar to a regular notebook.
    • If a ruggedized laptop is too expensive, and you try a disposable $1000 laptop, consider replacing the hard drive with a flash device. Besides eliminating most of the moving parts, it will reduce heat and increase battery life.

      Here is my first froogle hit [logicsupply.com] but many others exist. Many modern laptops can boot from a cheaper USB flash device too, but an external gizmo may be undesirable.

      • Be careful with this. Some flash devices have a limited number of times any one memory section can be written to. Even a write-life of 10,000 writes is a lot.

        If you go this route, turn off swap and set up a ramdisk and configure your OS to use it for temporary files.
    • From the Itronix site: "...as well professional "road warriors" whose notebook must *reliably* endure the tumultuous and often unpredictable conditions that come with using a notebook on the go." "Itronix recommends Windows® XP" Surely those 2 phrases should not be on the same page????
    • It's been a few years since I worked with them, but when I did, the Panasonic was not as well sealed as the Itronix. Unless things have changed, I'd be more worried about sand and water getting into the Panasonic. Hammerhead [walkabout-comp.com] tablets are probably the best sealed I've seen.
    • The Itronix GoBooks look pretty good.

      We are in the process of rolling them out to our ~200 field techs right now.

      We need them to work in pretty much any weather that Canada can throw at us, both indoors and outside.

      Also, these are the laptops that our local (Winnipeg.MB.CA) police have in their cars, and they seem happy with the laptops' ability to absorb abuse and resist ... fluids.

      On the other hand, the RCMP uses Toughbooks (the ruggedised version) and seem happy with them. Our field techs have also bee
  • I remember reading something about the Panasonic Toughbooks being used in all sorts of horrible enviroments. A quick Google retieved these links...

    Panasonic(R) Toughbook(R) 29 Wins Laptop Magazine Torture Test [prnewswire.com],
    Panasonic's own case studies [panasonic.com].

    I can't seem to find any links Re: military/sand, but again I seem to remember something about the Toughbooks being used in Iraq (#1, #1.5 or #2, I'm not sure). I've never used one myself, but it may be a place to start!

  • by Myself (57572) on Wednesday September 07, 2005 @09:49PM (#13505869) Journal
    The magazine Pen Computing [pencomputing.com] has a nice lean towards ruggedized machines. You can always count on them for brutally honest, brutally violent reviews of the latest from Panasonic, Melard, Itronix, and whoever the latest challenger seems to be.

    The issue currently on the stands is the 2005 Buyers' Guide, which deserves a read. A few issues ago, they paid a visit to a durability testing lab. The photos of the shower stall, drop test, hinge exerciser, button pusher, and screen scratcher were hilarious.

    My personal go-everywhere machine is a Toughbook CF-M34 [wikispaces.org]. It's tiny, doesn't weigh much, and takes whatever I dish out. The other day I had it standing on top of my car when a gust of wind shoved it over the edge. A little chunk of metal was liberated from the hind corner when it hit the concrete, but the running apps didn't crash, and there was no cracking of the case beyond the ding. Thank goodness for padded hard drive mountings!

    The main concern you have with desert operation is dust. A washable keyboard will let you simply rinse the grit out from under the keys. Rubber port covers will keep gunk out of the PCMCIA slot, for instance, when it's not in use.

    There's an option in the BIOS of my '34 for "high-temperature operation". What it does is stop charging the battery when it reaches 80%, since operating a lithium-ion battery above its rated temperature is as simple as derating its maximum charge. Going to 100% at high temperature would significantly shorten the cycle life of the battery.
  • First off, you want to get Alcohol 120% and learn to use it. If he plays games and such, you don't want him swapping discs unless he absolutely needs to. Every time you open the drive, you let in sand.

    Next, look for all the openings. The RAM cover, HD cover, battery cover; anywhere sand might creep in. Tape all thoes closed with duct tape or strapping tape. That will keep sand from creeping in.

    Get more tape and some cheesecloth/filter paper. Find the vents for the heatsink and the modem/LAN jacks. Co
    • I'm not sure a normal notebook is a good idea in the desert, and certainly not one capable of playing anything resembling a modern game.

      The main problem will be heat. Ok, you're in a desert. That's one strike. Now you need to keep the thing sealed. That's going to include intake and exhaust. That's a very serious strike. We have to almost completely discount any notebook which is going to require a fan and which doesn't have any measures already in place to seal the inside of the intake/exhaust. That
    • After googling, I am also reading suggestions that you take at least one spare power supply with you, as well as a spare battery. These tend to go bad in the field, and once they do, you're out of business unless you have a spare.

      Take everything with you that you think you might need, it's much harder to get things once you're in Iraq.

      And thank you for your service to our country.

      Jon Acheson
  • by BrianRaker (633638) on Wednesday September 07, 2005 @09:58PM (#13505919) Homepage Journal
    And I'll say it too. Panasonic ToughBooks [panasonic.com] are the way to go. Used to service these things for the US Army back at Fort Campbell and the top end units you could have a HMMWV run over it and it would survive: LCD OK, powered on OK and booted straight into the OS. Got a couple back from NTC at Fort Irwin (tank training, in the middle of the desert) and all but one came back unscathed. The one failure was due to a crappy LS-120 drive.
  • Whatever laptop you get, I recommend you keep backups of everything on a jump drive. Plug the thing in whenever you set up the machine and make a batch file to do the backup. Those solid-state drives are pretty darn hardy and even a ruggedized notebook can suffer a head crash when slammed when the drive's spinning.
  • by GrpA (691294) on Wednesday September 07, 2005 @10:14PM (#13506006)
    That's the question you need to ask. Once answered, you will find the right hardware.

    Ruggedised stuff usually is not that cheap.

    Aside from ruggedised computers, as a general rule, Toshiba stuff usually stacks up pretty well, but even Toshiba's break things like plugs and drives pretty commonly.

    Aside from high strength, also consider small. Small size automatically improves structure (think inverse square law)... Half the size, means four times the structural strength... Although it's actually higher, because all you are really reducing is the form factor.

    I have a small 90's era Libretto that I carry around to play GO on, so it gets very harshly treated. But it's suitable for travel as well. PCMCIA adaptors are small, hard to break (if you get good ones) and cheap to replace if they do. It gets dragged around with me everywhere, and it's still working. And I don't really take care of it. But I can log on to networks, comprise emails, play go and serve files... It's great.

    Something similarly small, and perhaps second hand (newer palmtops often have overheating problems) makes a great PC with little weight or space taken up.

    But maybe a PC isn't the best choice? Perhaps a games box, eg, PSP or DS.... Or even a palm device?

    Again, the smaller, the easier to cart around, and the stronger.

    Finally, what are his friends carrying around? Something similar is often a good idea, even if it's not the best choice.

    Think of something to just get the job done. If it's just for a few years, consider something that will just last that long. Also field strippable can help (Seriously!).

    And keep in mind that in a year or so, he'll know what he wants. Better then to get you to send it to him, so whatever he leaves with might only need to last a year.

    Finally, keep in mind the operating system you choose. You want something he can fix himself, even if he needs to blow it all away, so being able to boot from a CD or USB you include and fix all might be a good idea too.

    Just some thoughts.

    GrpA
    • I agree, ruggedized stuff is very expensive.

      I work for a paving company, and our equipment shop uses a laptop for vehicle diagnostics. We bought them a Compaq two years ago or so (right after they were bought out by HP) and have had no problems at all with it. It's no battleground, but it is a fairly dirty environment (oil, grease, bit of asphalt, gravel, etc.. all over the place) and it gets tossed around a fair bit when it's being hooked up to and unhooked from machines all the time. People always bash
    • a small 90's era Libretto that I carry around to play GO on, so it gets very harshly treated

      Harshly treated? Well, I guess if you scratch the grid onto the lid and really smash those stones when placing them, you could get some harsh treatment by playing go.

  • These guys [miltope.com] build rugged computers, but I don't know if they sell to individuals.
  • No fans (Score:5, Informative)

    by strikethree (811449) on Wednesday September 07, 2005 @10:30PM (#13506113) Journal
    You will want a notebook that does not use any fans. I am in Iraq right now and the dust here is like an ultra-fine baby powder. It gets into EVERYTHING. If there are no fans, you will find less of this dust inside of your laptop. I have a Sharp Actius PC-MM20. It is awesome here. While other laptops have dropped dead from sucking in too much dust, my MM20 keeps rocking.

    strike
    • Amen, brother. I've never owned a laptop with a fan, nor do I intend to. The magnesium-alloy case on my Toughbook isn't thermally ideal, but with the little heatpipe spreading things out, it works great as a heatsink.

      I've seen models, I think from Itronix, that actually include a heat exchanger. The air inside the laptop is circulated by one fan, and outside air is blown across the exchanger by another fan. They achieve desktop-like CPU clocks, with no dust intrusion. When it gets clogged with dust, just ho
  • Fujitsu P1120 (Score:3, Informative)

    by jgartin (177959) on Wednesday September 07, 2005 @10:33PM (#13506134) Homepage
    I used this notebook for 15 months in Iraq. It's small, easy to carry, and heat resistant. It doesn't have a DVD drive, though. The P2120 does--it's a very similar model. Both notebooks have a multivoltage power adapter--a very important feature for any notebook you're going to use overseas.
    • You're right, the p1120 is an astoundingly durable extremely small heat resistant wonder of a laptop. Its also fanless which is also a benefit (reports of one 20mm fan for the PCMCIA card...?). However, I'd be a little hestitant about recommending it for use in a desert. I've dropped mine from all sorts of heights, accrued many "dramatic wounds" all over the case. Once I dropped it off the bunk bed and it fell onto some rebar I had sticking up... I call that wound Posiedon. Very strongly built, althoug
    • Almost all laptops already come with multivoltage. In a small survey of a dozen or so I couldn't find one that didn't. Mostly the power bricks are rated for 50-60 Hz 100-240V - which covers everything commonly on the planet. Voltage conversion is the expensive electronic part of international power.

      Then all you need is a _plug_ converter - that is, a piece of metal and plastic that makes it fit in the right holes. These are very cheap. For instance, a european/israeli plug is $0.99 from Bombay Electro
  • I always thought UltraSPARC based laptops were really unique and cool. Unfortunately, the military is just about the only market left for them.

    http://www.rugged-systems.co.uk/pdf/V2%20Unix%20L a ptop%20-%20RSL.PDF [rugged-systems.co.uk]

    Tadpole even makes a dual processor UltraSPARC laptop, the bullfrog. It's quite a beast. You can order it with up to 16GB RAM. I got a quote on a fully decked out bullfrog:
    List Price $46,933
    Discount ($3,248)
    Your Discounted Price $43,685
    ....An x86 machine is more economically re


  • I believe you're looking for a Panasonic Toughbook [panasonic.com]. These are standard issue in the Air Force for any portable computer not confined to an office setting. They even make one that's designed to military specifications. They are a bit expensive, but I've even seem some with armoured keyboards. They should be able to handle desert abuse with little problem.
  • Sorry if this has been posted before, it's late and I have work to do.

    http://itronix.com/ [itronix.com]

  • One with a warranty (Score:3, Interesting)

    by zentu (584197) * on Wednesday September 07, 2005 @11:42PM (#13506520)
    Seriously, He won't be moving his laptop. My buddy, Aaron, who went just got a $700 Laptop, He didn't move it from the Air conditioned Dorms the entire time he was there, They have no reason to do anything out side of the complex, so he doesn't need anything 'ruggigized' it is just an extreem waste of money. Spend the money on a backup drive (teach him how to use it, and not to leave it plugged in) and a warranty just in case. Preference is one of those no questions asked, break me in three years to make sure you get your *free* upgrade.

    Aaron had only one problem, he got a cheap referb, and 3 days after his 90 day warranty was up (and only like 10 days in the harsh environment), it died, the IDE controller died, and fried the HDD, there went all of his work on his book. So he went and bought another one, a $1000 Avaratech (that was twice the machine) but adding a $150 warranty upgrade.

    When his brother, Nathaniel, got told he was going 3 weeks after Aaron got the new one, to join his MI National Guard Unit that was already over there, we asked what he needed, and Aaron said, "Decent power, a charger (with internatinal just in case), and an ethernet jack, you won't be wireless or moving it. Period."

    When Nathaniel went he had no problems beyond the crap that was installed on the laptop when he bought it (a new model [cheap Toshiba with out wireless] from Ebay that had been gotten from BestBuy 2 weeks before school started that was cheap at the time [$650 after rebates] and gotten 1.5 months later for $700 with no rebates).

    Nathaniel has returned with no problems, exept now that he is on a college campus, he wants WiFi, and Aaron, who is still over there for another 4 months at least, has had no problems (beyond Adware and the ilk, even war doesn't get you away from that crap).

    • Sooo right! He won't be taking it into battle. It would be staying in his room just like the dorm. Just get a regular laptop and don't buy something rugged and expensive like a toughbook.
  • Get a good warranty (Score:4, Informative)

    by austad (22163) on Wednesday September 07, 2005 @11:58PM (#13506597) Homepage
    My buddy went to iraq and got an HP business laptop. 3 year warranty with next day parts. Although when he called them, they said it takes them a couple days to get parts to Iraq.

    Don't buy a crappy consumer model, order it from their website from the small or large business section to get what you need. Keyboards in the desert die every few months, and your cdrom won't last more than 2 months. Even if the thing is ruggedized, sand is still going to work its way in there and hose the thing.
  • I'd recommend you look at how easy the laptop cases are to open... Get one where it's easy to blow out the sand with a dusting can. I would avoid HP for that matter, although they do offer pretty sweet machines (mine's 2 years and only dead pixels on the screen have annoyed me 'til it was fixed) Hope this suggestion helps. Keeping a laptop sealed out won't work, at least not as well as one where it's easy for the sand to fall out. Consider that when looking at them.
    • IBM are great for easy to open units. The keyboard, palm rest and trackpad come straight out on my T40 if you whip out a couple of screws, then you can hoover / blow out the insides with compressed air.

      Even better, it doesn't void your warranty as you have to do all this to install a mini-PCI card. Of course, if you phone IBM and ask them how to get your RAM out of a hoover, they might get suspicious...
  • And I will be taking an up-armored Panasonic Toughbook [toughonline.com] with me. We use them regularly in the field, and I've been impressed so far with their durability. I've seen them dropped, thrown, punched, kicked, pushed off tables, etc. No one can break stuff like we can ;)
  • Depending on the circumstances, something like an iBook might even work fine. I know of at least one iBook that survived a tour in Iraq recently. From what I hear, it had some battle scars, but still worked fine when he got back.
    • I love my iBook but...

      I wouldn't call it rugged. I recently got a new-ish g4 iBook, and though it's more durable than my earier one (white g3 iBook; the plastic creaked when you picked it up and peripheral connections were made out of easily breakable plastic), I reckon it'd still be much more comfortable on a desktop than in a warzone.
  • Well... I haven't tried to take my thinkpad to anywhere exotic, so can't recommend it to you, but take a look at these "customer stories" for Thinkpads (the acting is rubbish!):

    The Legends of Thinkpad [ibm.com]
  • Why not a HUMMER [gizmodo.com]? :)
  • You might want to ask someone who is there already. SGT Kobus is chronicling his deployment through Kuwait and Iraq at Lost In Iraq [lostiniraq.com]. I know he's gone through several digital cameras but all he's had to replace on his laptop was the power supply.
  • I had a Toshiba Satellite. It worked pretty well, but you have to blow out the fans and interior semifrequently. Sager makes good laptops, but the one that I knew of out there had pretty big problems with the power supply dying in the heat, and in general being very hot.

    You can pick up Satellite's pretty cheap now (A15-S157 is my particular model). It's still going strong.
    • Above it's posted that you can't have a laptop capable of playing games... Sure, in August, outside, it's too hot for that. But I played Battlefield on Veterans Day over there, I played Quake3 on July 4th. It's really not *that* bad of an environment unless you're in the south, closer to Kuwait (where the British are).

      I really just recommend a semicheap laptop. Put it away when you are away, knock the dust out when you start hearing the fan grind.
  • You might want to take a look at the Twinhead http://usa.twinhead.com/ [twinhead.com]. I haven't personally used one, but we did consider it, along with the Panasonic Toughbooks, for ruggized laptops.
  • What work for me while I was in Iraq was a small notebook with a hard case.

    Depending on you budget, this would be the best solution. A metal or plastic carring case with some foam padding will protect it during transport.

    I learned this lession a few years ago. Most laptop damage won't occur while you're using it but, when its packed for transport.
  • If all he wants to do is email, the Dana might be a good choice. It's a Palm device, it has no moving parts, it's tough, it can run off AA batteries or rechargeables, and it is available with WiFi. And it's relatively cheap at around $300.

    If you want something to play games on or run normal software, of course, this isn't going to work.

    Jon Acheson
  • Here in south Texas we have semi-desert scrub conditions (sand, wind, heat, humidity). PLUS, we have contractors that work continually in sandy, gritty conditions. So the laptops are pretty much subjected to what you'll experience in Iraq and the other mideast countries.

    The best laptop IMHO, for that climate would have to be Panasonic's Toughbooks. These dimwits would leave ordinary laptops in their trucks all day long with the windows rolled up (130F+!) and the LCD's would be black as night.. Simply put, r
  • by Eol1 (208982)
    Somebody else said it but want to restate it. Any laptop should do as long as it is no fan / fan minimal. Also working in Iraq and using a regular IBM X40 . While it isn't *toughened*, it also runs low power / low heat ... fan almost never kicks in. Haven't had a problem with it the entire year I have been hear ... working like a champ.

    As for the panasonic toughbook series, not worth the price in my book. Have used them in the past and just aren't worth the additional cost UNLESS you are dealing with w
  • by St. Arbirix (218306) <matthew.townsend ... m ['l.c' in gap]> on Thursday September 08, 2005 @02:51PM (#13512366) Homepage Journal
    The computer doesn't really matter if you cover it right [protectcovers.com].

    Otherwise, I suggest a PowerBook. I beat someone with mine a couple of months ago and it still works fine.
  • Store the batteries in a cool place (50-80F if possible) and they will last much longer and need fewer recharge cycles. There is no need to stick them in a refrigerator, but even that would be better than leaving it out in the sun... as long as moisture doesn't get 'em. Maybe next to the vent of an air conditioner.

    Someday there will be battery chemistries where heat won't be a problem (demonstrated this year at a tech expo in Japan I think), but for the moment all common batteries perform better in mode

  • im typing this on my xplore tablet pc. with a bluetooth usb connection to my sprint cell phone. internet practically anyhere.
    waterproof and mostly drop proof. magnesium case. 9400 mha battery gives me 5 hours of unconected use.
    with 2 of them i can go for most of a day of solid use.

    price ouch!! start at about 2200 and go up from there.

    but it is nice. i dont worry about breaking it much.

    www.xplore.com
  • I dig for dinasourse in the desert and I use a Panasonic Toughbook. It's great because the LCD is sealed against dust.

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