Over Hill? Over Dell.

A Guide to Rugged Laptops

Q: I'm planning this long trip through Southeast Asia, and I'd like to haul a laptop along for journal keeping, digital photos, and the occasional e-mail. I'd take my Dell Inspiron, but I'm worried it won't survive the bumps and bruises. Can you recommend a machine that's up to the task?

The downside of today's cheapo laptops is that they're not built to last—lots of flimsy latches and ill-protected screens. There are some specialty models around, known as rugged laptops, that are designed to weather the worst. But if you'd rather not pay too dear a price, you can probably make out OK with a mainstream option that's built more like a brick than a wafer.

If the phrase "ruggedized laptop" rings a bell, that's because a zillion newspaper stories paid homage to such computers during the invasion of Iraq. Our soldiers need the hardiest laptops imaginable, and they zoomed toward Baghdad carrying hardware that's tougher than month-old Tater Tots. Military laptops must conform to a certain set of specs, known in Pentagonese as MIL-STD-810F. Basically, if it can't survive being frozen, dropped, broiled, and soaked, it can't go in G.I. Joe's knapsack.

You needn't be an enlisted man to own such a robust laptop, though you will need a healthier-than-average checking account. One military favorite is Itronix's GoBook (itronix.com), especially the "ultra-rugged" GoBook Max. Unless you're planning to wade into pools of caustic chemicals, however, the Max is probably overkill, and a plain ol' Go-Book will suit you fine. Regardless of how low-end a GoBook you settle for, though, it's going to set you back over $4,000.

A more reasonable ruggedized pick is Panasonic's ToughBook (panasonic.com). Try scrounging around the online shops for the ToughBook T1, which weighs less than 2.5 pounds yet can survive the worst that the Laotian jungle has to offer. Ten minutes of surfing was all it took for Mr. Roboto to stumble upon a sub-$1,300 gem from thenerds.net.

OK, let's get super-geeky for a sec here, a'ight? If you're really serious about toting around a troop-worthy computer, the number to look for on the specs list is the IP rating. Short for "ingress protection," this is the number that tells you how well the laptop handles being inundated with dust (the first digit, on a scale of 1 to 6) and liquids (the second digit, 1 to 8). So an IP rating of 68's as hard as they come, while an 11 is the digital equivalent of the 98-pound weakling.

But know what? You needn't necessarily go the ruggedized route. Believe it or not, there are plenty of mainstream buys out there that'll likely survive your exotic quest, especially some secondhand models. Given your modest computing requirements while on the road, an older laptop could suit you fine. An older machine might even be built a tad more sturdily than its present-day kin, which put an accent on price and sleekness rather than stoutness.

A perfect example is the Toshiba Satellite line, circa 1997-2000. Yes, there were some problems with the floppy drives, though they can be fixed with a freely downloadable firmware upgrade. But the hard plastic casing is tough to crack, let alone scratch, and the screens are bordered by similarly durable material. Mr. Roboto lugged a Toshiba Satellite Pro 445CDT to Greenland in 2000, and it lived to tell the tale. He'd be loath to attempt the same feat with his beloved Sony VAIO PCG-GR390, which lacks the Toshiba's squat build.

WinBook's laptops (winbook.com) are renowned for resilience, having passed several of PC Computing's "Notebook Torture Tests" with flying colors; the X4, in particular, is known as a silicon soldier. The IBM ThinkPad T23 was tops last year, and it's a Mr. Roboto pick if only for its classic "eraserhead" mouse.

Remember, all the armor plating in the world ain't worth a rat's patoot if you lose the thing on the Plain of Jars. So the advice here is to bring along some backup CDs, and e-mail your journal entries to yourself or a loved one whenever possible. That way, should a computing disaster strike, all those precious memories of bumming around will be preserved. Oh, and send Mr. Roboto a nice souvenir. Preferably something made of tungsten.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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