While broken, damaged, or otherwise banged-up systems are the bane of every laptop owner, rugged and semirugged systems (companies apply the terms loosely according to their own standards) are often hampered by limited configuration options and outdated parts. Dell hopes to energize the rugged laptop market with its first such model, the Latitude ATG D620. Rather than designing a new system from the ground up, the $2,499 Dell ATG--our review unit configuration cost $3,145--is a beefed-up version of the popular Latitude D620 laptop, adding a new outer case, a shock-mounted hard drive, and other heavy-duty extras, which tack about $1,000 onto the price of a similar, nonrugged Latitude D620. While it doesn't look or feel as tough as the Panasonic ToughBook 74 or the Itronix Hummer GoBook VR-1, it is one of the more configurable rugged laptops you'll find. Dell's wide-ranging customization options make the Latitude ATG D620 an attractive system; even if it's not the toughest laptop around, it is certainly one that can survive a really rough day at the office.
The ATG in the system's name stands for All Terrain Grade, a bit of playful promotional copywriting that brings to mind SUV ads showing attractive young adults offroading though the mud. The system looks like an armor-clad version of a standard gray laptop from Dell's Latitude line, with parts of the lid padded out like a car bumper. The chassis is still made of a magnesium alloy, but the new hinges are reinforced with steel.
Measuring 13.2 inches wide, 10.75 inches deep, and 1.75 inches high, the Dell Latitude ATG D620 is slightly larger than a standard Latitude D620, but it still qualifies as a midsize laptop. The extra weight (7.1 pounds; or 7.9 pounds with the A/C adapter), however, makes this a backbreaker for daily commuting. For use on a construction site or in a work vehicle, the added heft is a reasonable trade-off. The rugged Itronix Hummer GoBook VR-1 weighs about the same, despite having only a 12.1-inch screen.
The screen bezel, the keyboard tray, and the keyboard are black with silver accents, lending the machine an industrial look. The touch pad has two sets of mouse buttons--one above and one below the touch pad--along with a more traditional ThinkPad-style pointing stick in the keyboard, so you should be able to find an input style you're comfortable with. The keyboard tray itself is sealed, offering resistance to dust and minor spills. We tested the system with a few small water dribbles, and it easily survived our hazing. While it doesn't meet military specs for truly rugged laptops (MIL SPEC 810F), it does meet the requirements in certain categories, including vibration and humidity.
The lid includes two small, red task lights positioned above the screen, which illuminate the keyboard when operating in low-light situations. When mounted in a vehicle at night--one of Dell's suggested uses for the Latitude ATG D620--the red light is much less distracting to the driver than your typical white or blue keyboard light. An ambient light sensor can also automatically adjust the screen brightness to provide good readability in different environments. Both features can be turned off if you want to preserve battery life or you just find them annoying.
The 14.1-inch screen features a 1,280x800 native resolution, the same as that of a nonrugged Latitude, and is designed to perform well in outdoor daylight situations--a weak point for many laptops. The brightness maxes out at 500 nits (a common measure of luminance), while most other laptops run between 200 and 300 nits. We found the screen bright and easy to see--and its maximum setting was uncomfortably bright in a typical indoor environment. In direct sunlight, the screen was much less washed out than those of standard laptops.
To keep your data safe, the ATG D620 ditches the more common 2.5-inch hard drive for a smaller 1.8-inch version, which is then stuffed into a custom, shock-mounted 2.5-inch hard drive bay. You lose some speed and capacity, but hard drives and their spinning platters are notoriously fragile. If you're in a situation that calls for a rugged laptop, you'll want the extra data protection--even at the expense of a few rpms. The rear ports--two USB 2.0, Ethernet, modem, VGA, and serial--are protected with a plastic cover, but the side ports (headphone, mic, PC card, and two more USB 2.0 jacks) are left exposed. We would have preferred to see all the connections covered (as on the Itronix Hummer)--a little sand in a USB port can ruin your whole day.
Configuration options are identical to the nonrugged version of the Dell Latitude D620, so much so that Dell says IT departments can roll out their standard Latitude D620 images on the new hardware. Our review unit included a 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7200 CPU, 1GB of DDR2 RAM, an 80GB hard drive running at 4,200rpm, and integrated Intel 950 graphics. You can knock the price down by about $600 by moving down to a 1.6GHz T5500 CPU and 512MB of RAM. The two most recent rugged laptops we looked at had less powerful CPUs--a Core Duo T2400 (Panasonic ToughBook 74) and a Pentium M (Itronix Hummer).
Windows XP Pro is the only operating system choice, although Windows Vista will be added as an option soon (current buyers will get a coupon for a free Vista upgrade). In general, systems aimed at consumers will offer only Vista once that OS is launched, while systems for business users will continue to be available with XP through 2008.