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Tough gear for tough travel woes

Meet the laptops, PDAs and luggage that won't get beat up in airplane cargo holds. Photos: Rugged stuff

Makers of tough-to-break, but often pricy, laptop computers and consumer electronics could get an unexpected boost from new carry-on luggage restrictions on flights to and from the United Kingdom.

Last week, British aviation officials, in response to what investigators say was a foiled terrorist plot, announced tough new regulations that temporarily barred travelers from carrying computers or other types of consumer electronics on airplanes. The stringent carry-on rules were eased Tuesday, but current restrictions on luggage size still make it tough on travelers.

While regulators in the U.S. have not yet gone that far, the new rules do raise prickly issues for anyone who would even think of carrying a cell phone on a plane: Would anyone in their right mind let baggage handlers get their hands on something as expensive and fragile as a laptop computer?

Probably not. But if you don't have a choice, there are some options, ranging from tough computers to luggage.

"What we have been seeing are more durable products, or products with more durable features," said Richard Shim, an analyst at IDC, citing the example of a Lenovo ThinkPad television spot that depicts a man dropping a laptop in a coffee shop. "The commercial market has been demanding it, and gradually the consumer market will as well, as we move to a more mobile computing environment," he said.

tough laptops

Travelers with a few thousand dollars to burn can get a so-called ruggedized computer from the likes of Panasonic, which was one of the first to tackle the rugged market with its Toughbook in 1998. More recently, the . Even bumper-adorned iPod shells are available.

Many of these notebooks are built with reinforced frames to make them more solid, hard drives with more cushioning around them, magnesium-alloy cases (for drop resistance) and water-resistant keyboards, Shim said.

Smaller gadgets, too, are appearing in hardier incarnations. MP3 player manufacturers, for example, have rolled out --but they're designed for the gym, not the cargo hold. Toughened-up tech equipment, too, has been used in initiatives to .

Or travelers could get a suitcase designed to protect a computer, with options ranging from OtterBox's relatively normal-looking "" to more hardcore buoyant laptop cases. Luggage manufacturer Targus also sells wheel-equipped overnight bags with padded laptop compartments inside for consumers who anticipate the need to stash their computers in their carry-on bags while traveling.

Indeed, it could be luggage makers, not tech-gear makers, who see a windfall from the new regulations.

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that the stringent carry-on rules set by British aviation officials last week were temporary and have been somewhat eased this week.