Tough Competition: How Rugged Computing Is Growing with the Rest of the Laptop Market

By Michelle Maisto  |  Posted 2009-03-23

Tough Competition: How Rugged Computing Is Growing with the Rest of the Laptop Market

At a time when both business users and consumers are turning away from desktops and embracing more mobile computing, a handful of laptop vendors are looking to take this trend one step further.

Rugged mobile computing, whether with semi-rugged laptops or full rugged machines, is expanding at time when laptops have now exceeded desktops in terms of both shipments and revenue for PC vendors.

In the third quarter of 2008, for the first time ever, global notebook PC shipments exceeded desktop shipments, according to data from iSupply. The trend continued into the fourth quarter, exceeding desktop shipments by 3 percent.

Now that every major PC vendor is shipping laptops, many are looking for smaller, but highly specific areas to move into next.

One of those areas is mobile workstations.

The other is rugged and semi-rugged laptops.

While rugged and semi-rugged laptops have always had a place with the military, utilities, and local and state law enforcement, these machines are also being used in the health care industry, since can they take spills and can be cleaned. At the same time, the federal stimulus package is expected to put money into the hands of construction companies, which may in turn buy new laptops to help with green-lighted projects.  

"There's a greater movement toward mobility, and more players are looking toward niches in the rugged market," said Richard Shim, an analyst with IDC.

Dell, he points out, is a recent entrant, looking to compete against Panasonic-an old pro when it comes to rugged computing thanks to its Toughbook line.

The rugged market is also ill-defined, explains Shim.

For images of recent entrants to the rugged laptop space, click here. 

Military specifications, or mil-specs, were designed by the military to communicate their needs to vendors, and they refer, for example, to how durable or watertight a device is, or whether it's safe to use in a combustible environment.

"You can meet some aspects of mil-spec and not others," said Shim. "So someone can say, -We're rugged, we meet mil-spec,' but you still have to ask how many specifications, and which ones? There's [no governing body] to enforce the standard."

Nonetheless, the benefit of moving into the rugged space, said Shim, is that "there are higher prices and better margins, as compared to the traditional notebook market."

The impact of the overall economy is another reason for the rugged growth.

"People want to get more life out of their systems," said Shim. "The concept of -good enough' computing is past. Devices have enough performance power, and now it's just a matter of taking care of them so they can last."

In the past few weeks, a number of PC vendors-Dell, Panasonic, Motion Computing and General Dynamics Itronix-have all released new rugged devices. eWEEK has a sampling of some recently released rugged devices, along with a quick look at a few-but by no means all-of their features.

GDIs GD8000


GDI's GD8000

General Dynamics Itronix released the GD8000 on March 16, a long-coming update to its rugged notebook line. With the GD8000, GDI particularly emphasized improvements in three areas:

??Ç         Viewability: This was addressed with GDI's DynaVue technology. Military and field service workers make up a considerable portion of rugged device users, so a crisp, readable screen in all outdoor lighting conditions is essential.

??Ç         Increased ruggedness: GDI went beyond industry testing standards for both how many drops to concrete a single powered-on GD8000 can withstand (26 drops from 42 inches) and the amount of water it can stay sealed against.

??Ç         Improved battery life: According to GDI, battery life was boosted from the 8 hours in its GoBook XR-1 to 10 hours with the GD8000, which it credits Intel technology.

Specifically, that improvement comes from an Intel Core 2 Duo SL9400 processor, along with a 120GB hard drive and 4GB of DDR3 (double data rate 3) memory, and an Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 4500MHD.

The GD8000 has a 13.3-inch screen and weighs 6.9 pounds in its basic configuration; pricing begins at $3,800.

Panasonics Toughbook 30; Dells Latitude E6400 XFR


Panasonic's Toughbook 30

Improved memory and better screen visibility are also a priority for Panasonic. In January, the company announced it was updating these features in its Toughbook 30 laptop and Toughbook 19 tablet computer.

The Toughbook 30-which weighs 8.4 pounds and retails for $3,649-received a touch-screen, as well as a 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SL9300 processor and an optional maximum of 4GB of DDR2 RAM.

The Toughbook 19-weighing in at 5.1 pounds and retailing for $4,749-received the same 4GB of memory and hard disk drive storage capacity as the Toughbook 30, but was updated to a low-volt Intel Core 2 Duo SU9300 chip running at 1.2GHz.

Both also feature anti-reflective screen treatment, have shock-mounted hard drives and spill-resistant keyboards, and can weather drops from 3 feet. As of October 2008, the two are also available with Qualcomm Gobi technology, enabling them to connect to UMTS and EV-DO cellular networks worldwide-a feature Panasonic announced it would include in all its mobile computing products by the end of the first quarter of 2009.

Panasonic's rugged offerings include Business-rugged, Semi-rugged, Fully-rugged, Vehicle-mounted-rugged and Ultra-mobile-rugged lineups.

Dell's Latitude E6400 XFR

Dell introduced a new rugged notebook on March 10, also with Intel inside: the Dell Latitude E6400 XFR. Its housing is made of the same high-tech polymers used to make ballistic armor, and the notebook can survive drops to concrete from 4 feet when powered down.

The Latitude E6500 XFR features a 14.1-inch screen that's available as a touch-screen, and is designed with a boosted backlight and reduced reflectivity for better visibility in bright daylight.

On the inside is a 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo 9600 processor, a Nvidia Quadro 160M graphics card and dual-channel DDR2 memory.

The E6500 XFR weighs 8.5 pounds, and pricing begins at $4,299.

Motion Computings J3400


Motion Computing's J3400

Motion Computing also added to the rugged space this March, with the introduction of the J3400 tablet computer.

The Motion J3400 is geared toward health care, auditing, utility and construction verticals-or really anyone who can benefit from a 3.6-pound device that's easy to grip, has lots of connectivity options and comes with a dual battery in place that can offer 8 hours of work time.

The J3400 has a 12.1-inch screen with an active digitizer-essentially, a touch-screen that can be used with a stylus-and combines View Anywhere technology with AFFS+ technology to create what Motion calls "the best outdoor display on the market."

It has a 180-degree viewing angle, whether used vertically or horizontally; a 700-to-1 contrast radio; and an LED backlight that gets 20 percent better battery life than previous display technologies.

The benefits of AFFS+ technology are said to be  sunlight readability, enhanced indoor color vividness and lower power consumption.

The J3400 has been drop-tested from 36 inches and offers the option of a solid-state drive (SSD), which uses nonvolatile memory such as flash or volatile memory such as SDRAM to store data, which, among other benefits, offers protection against bumps, drops and extreme vibration.

Connectivity comes via Wi-Fi, 3G, Bluetooth and optional mobile broadband. Customers have their choice of a 1.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor SU9300 or the 1.4GHz SU9400. Pricing starts at $2299.

Other Rugged Offerings


Other Rugged Offerings

Geared toward the health care industry-with its nurse-white looks-Panasonic calls its Toughbook H1 a mobile clinical assistant.

The rugged H1 has a shock-mounted 80GB hard drive and a 10.4-inch display with both touch-screen and tablet digitizer input. It weighs 3.4 pounds, has an integrated handle for easy carrying, and comes standard with an RFID reader, 2-megapixel camera, full-resolution fingerprint reader and a contactless smartcard reader. 

Connectivity options include Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Qualcomm's Gobi technology for global 3G mobile Internet access, and the H1 runs on a 1.86GHz Intel Atom Processor Z540.

And finally the most format-challenging of the rugged offerings we've seen lately is the Adapx Capturx for ArcGIS, a rugged pen-and-software solution that's perhaps best explained through its recent deployment by the Santa Barbara, Calif., fire department.

When fighting fires, conditions change quickly, and communication between field crews, helicopters and incident command posts is essential for strategizing and creating "incident action plans." Looking at large geographic areas, the Santa Barbara crew has always found paper maps easy to use, but the paper-based information was difficult to communicate in real time, as well as during post-fire surveys.

With the Adapx Capturx for ArcGIS solution, the department now creates field maps with Capturx software, which, when printed-with normal office paper and ink-include a barely noticeable digital watermark.

In the field, firefighters use a rugged Adapx digital pen-which can write on a number of surfaces in poor conditions and is said to feel like a ballpoint-to write on the maps as usual.

With each ink stroke, however, the data is digitized; each mark on the paper map creates a new feature or annotation that is geospatially referenced and added to the shared ArcGIS geodatabase once the pen is docked through the USB port of a laptop. The data can also be sent directly to Microsoft Office applications and Autodesk.

Even if the map is destroyed or lost, the fire fighter's notes or directions have been saved and can be reproduced. Special weather-resistant notebooks from Rite in the Rain can also be used with the pen and software.

The Adapx pen can hold approximately 55 pages of data, front and back. The OneNote pen retails for $349, and the ArcGIS solution is $1,495.


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