• U.S.

Here Come The Hard Cases

3 minute read
Adam Cohen

Sure, it was fun holding a laptop at arm’s length and letting go, watching as the Intel Pentium-powered bugger hit the ground with a solid thwack! But I actually got more pleasure just from splashing my Diet Coke onto the keyboard. There was something oddly riveting about seeing the caramel-colored liquid whoosh over the letters of the alphabet and settle in between the keys.

O.K., maybe I was having a little too much fun playing with the Rough Rider III, a “ruggedized” laptop designed to take a licking and let you keep on pointing and clicking. These machines are made to boot-camp standards to resist impact, temperature extremes, rain and dust. Many have bright screens, in case you need to read e-mail under a blinding desert sun.

Conventional laptops, with their fragile keyboards, delicate screens and sensitive, plastic-encased electrical systems, are accidents waiting to happen. Not their ruggedized kin: they offer tough magnesium cases, hard drives encased in protective gel, insulated Coke-proof keyboards.

Most are bought by police, the military and hard-core industrial users–think factory-floor supervisors inputting data in a cloud of dust. But you don’t need to be running a textile mill–or Desert Storm–for such computers to make sense. One estimate has U.S. businesses losing more than $1 billion in broken laptops this year, about 14% from sales divisions (that’s a lot of laptops falling from overhead bins or rattling around rental cars).

The problem is that ruggedized laptops are often heavy–and pricey. That Rough Rider III runs $5,000. The good news is that manufacturers have begun courting the consumer market. Panasonic, the field leader, now offers so-called semi-ruggeds. The Toughbook 72, introduced last fall with a Pentium III 700-MHz processor, is water-resistant, can survive a 1-ft. drop onto concrete and sells for $2,700. The Toughbook 37 Ultra-Slim–just 1 in. thick and 4.4 lbs.–is around $2,000. Ruggednotebooks’ XE-620 runs about $3,000. Other companies in the space: Melard, Itronix and Dolch.

While Panasonic sold five times as many ruggeds as semi-ruggeds a few years ago, now it’s selling about equal amounts of the two. There’s no doubt a bit of tech machismo is at work: ruggedized laptops exude the same cool as a Land Rover in a suburban driveway or Timberland boots at a backyard barbecue.

With prices tumbling, such models make sense for any road warrior who’s ever blanched as airport security bobbles his laptop. Manufacturers emphasize that the machines reduce not just replacement cost but also downtime, because traveling execs can’t work if their laptops don’t. I’ll add one more upside: being able to drink a Diet Coke while you’re at your computer without fearing for the worst.

You can e-mail Adam at cohen@time.com

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