Wrapping up Speeds and Feeds, part 3: Ruggedness

Rugged laptops are available from several manufacturers, but they're too bulky and expensive for mainstream consumers. We need rugged consumer notebooks; here's how we'll get them.

As I continue to wind down Speeds and Feeds, I picked ruggedness as the topic for part 3.

In part 2 of this wrap-up series, I on Tuesday discussed reliability, suggesting that an increasing portion of the transistor budget in personal computers should be used to avoid, detect, and recover from hardware, software, and data errors.

Ruggedness, the ability of a PC to survive adverse physical conditions, complements reliability by further increasing the practical availability of a PC to do useful work.

As with efficiency in power management (part 1's topic), this is an area where PCs can learn a lot from cell phones. I expect my cell phone to continue operating normally unless it's physically damaged--and I expect that it will not be damaged even by fairly rough handling.

PCs, by comparison, are pretty fragile. I know that if I drop my laptop, even if it falls only a few feet to a carpeted floor, there's a good chance it will be damaged. The LCD could crack, the case could bend, the hard disk could crash, the battery latch could break. In fact, I've managed to do all of these things to one or more of the 15-plus laptops I've owned and used since 1984.

Not all laptops need to be rugged; for example, some laptops are used as small-footprint desktop computers and rarely moved at all, so ruggedness would be an unnecessary expense.

There are many situations, however, where greater ruggedness is obviously valuable: laptops for students (even in a classroom), field photographers, mechanics, factory workers, the military, and so on.

Some companies already make rugged systems for these applications, but demand for such systems is low, and they require a lot of additional engineering. The combination of small quantities and extra design work leads to very high prices; it isn't unusual to see rugged laptops with the features of a typical low-cost notebook selling for $4,000 or more.

There have been very few standard mass-market personal computers with any real degree of ruggedization. In the old days of 8-bit microcomputers, some consumer-oriented systems such as the popular Atari 400 and Commodore 64 were fairly robust due to heavy plastic cases designed to survive casual home use, but these weren't portable machines.

In the mid-1990s, Dell's Latitude line earned the favor of serious road warriors in part due to a high degree of ruggedness, if only in comparison with other mainstream laptops. Sometimes these Latitude models were the only survivors of annual notebook torture tests run by PC Computing magazine.

Panasonic's Toughbook line took over later in that decade as the first truly rugged notebooks. (I have a Toughbook 25 myself; alas, it's dead.) It's easy to see how these machines differ from ordinary notebooks: heavy magnesium casings with stiffening ribs to resist twisting, shock-mounted hard disks, water- and dust-resistant connectors, and so on. They aren't suitable for most people, though.

Three trends are bringing rugged systems closer to the mainstream today.

First, portable PCs are becoming increasingly more integrated into our daily lives. As power efficiency improves to the point that we can run them all day, portable machines will be even more important to us. But if these devices aren't rugged, we won't really be able take them with us as often as we'd like.

Notebook design
A simplified view of a small ruggedized notebook that I designed in 2005. Peter N. Glaskowsky

Second, the components themselves are getting smaller, lighter, and in some cases more rugged. It's possible to buy a decent dual-core CPU that doesn't need a huge heat sink. Solid-state disk drives are a huge step forward; and with 128GB of capacity requiring only 32 flash chips, they can be much smaller than traditional hard disks. Smaller, lighter components are easier to support and protect.

Third, materials science is making a lot of progress. The glass used in LCDs is much better today than it was a decade ago--better able to absorb shock and flex a little when needed. (It's actually a little scary just how flexible the displays of some super-thin notebooks are.) New chassis materials such as milled aluminum and CFRP (carbon-fiber reinforced plastic) can produce very strong machines, though in most consumer systems they're used to reduce weight instead. In the near future, carbon nanotube-reinforced materials will become available in commercial quantities; while expensive, they will be very strong.

These new materials can be used in new ways to make very rugged machines that don't have to cost dramatically more than existing systems.

In 2005, as a practical exercise, I designed a small notebook with a milled titanium case and a novel mechanical design that provided exceptional stiffness. With a fixed battery and few external connectors (another improvement enabled by new technology), it would have provided Toughbook-like ruggedness in a very small and convenient package.

That design didn't go anywhere, but there are plenty of designers out there. I expect that someone will develop something similar before too long.

The current Netbook craze is directing a lot of attention to ruggedness as a design goal. These machines are small, light, and obviously portable, but they tend to be cheaply made and more fragile than many consumers would like. Adapting these designs to more rugged enclosures would add significant cost, but I think there's a good market for such machines.

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