Military deployments often involve hardship. That can be in the form of both the nature of the mission itself (Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.) and the nature of the conditions on the ground in terms of heat, cold, dust, sand, moisture, and other problems.
Those deploying–as well as those going on one-year remote duty hardship assignments where family members are not authorized–often turn to rugged laptops, rightfully thinking that unprotected gear of the same nature won’t last too long in a tough environment.
What do you need to know about rugged laptops before you buy? Understanding some basic concepts about these laptop computers can help you make a more informed decision about what model to buy and why. Plus you will also have a good idea about the life expectancy of your mobile computing devices on and off deployment.
The Basic Enemies Of All Laptops
Some people aren’t sure what kind of protection they should be seeking from a rugged laptop or tablet. What are the natural enemies of hard drives, optical devices, RAM, motherboards, and even display glass?
- Magnetic fields
- Salt water
- Drops, falls, impacts to the machine
- Extreme cold
When selecting your computer, do so with these hazards in mind.
What Models You Should Buy
There are too many new makes and models of tablets and laptop computers to suggest any single one. The Panasonic Toughbook is a model some have gravitated toward in years past, and ditto for the Lenovo Thinkpad 11e or the rugged version of a Dell Latitude.
But next year these could all be obsolete thanks to some new innovation in mobile computing, a better design, or other factors.
There is so much difference of opinion (in some circles) over which brands are best that the most helpful advice in this area is to start looking for ruggedized notebooks or rugged laptops made by a company you already know and trust.
What To Know About Rugged Laptops Before You Buy
The first thing to understand about a rugged laptop is that they are not bulletproof. We mean that in most senses of the phrase–they are tougher than standard laptops, are built to resist falls, impact (from a certain height), moisture, dust, sand, etc. But they are not hermetically sealed, are still susceptible to dirt, dust, heat and other factors, etc.
This generally means that you should not realistically expect your laptop–even a ruggedized one–to survive the deployment. You should not assume that your equipment will continue to function long after your return from duty. Anticipate the wear and tear you will put your computer through just being deployed, never mind the weather conditions and other factors.
The rugged design of your laptop is meant to help it survive extreme conditions and still provide the expected functionality of any laptop; the “armor” a rugged computer has doesn’t protect it 100%.
In fact, you may need to aggressively clean and maintain your computer depending on the severity of the conditions you deploy to.
Don’t purchase a rugged machine expecting to never open it, replace a faulty hard drive, etc. It’s best to assume you may need to get very familiar with your gear when going on a TDY or deployment to an area that will demand a Toughbook or other models.
Pros Of The Rugged Laptop
The first and most obvious perk of purchasing a rugged laptop such as the Dell Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme is that it is designed to survive harsh environments. Ever taken your cell phone to the beach only to get a warning screen that the phone was getting too hot in the sun? A ruggedized laptop is designed to counteract such tough conditions.
Accident-prone users will appreciate the “fall rating” of these machines–some are rated to withstand impact from falls as high as two feet.
Other pros–rubberized bodies to resist moisture, spill-resistant keyboards, more durable display glass, etc. Some two-in-one laptops don’t get as high ratings for durability as their “fixed” counterparts, but there are versions that can withstand difficult conditions.
Some of these models are designed to be modular and user-friendly in the custom mods department. That is one of the biggest advantages of certain models.
Not all toughbooks are made the same–some feature many options for ports for RFID gear, blu-ray players, etc. One trick to buying a rugged laptop? Knowing your uses for it in the field. If you don’t need hardcore processing power for the most resource-intensive video games, you may find your options much wider.
If you need a laptop to edit video and share images, your chief concerns will be performance related. If you’re more about writing, researching, or doing other less-media intensive work, you may find it helpful to sacrifice a bit of performance in favor of other relevant-to-you features.
Those who need these machines for gaming purposes do well to ask a lot of questions pre-deployment about the nature of internet connectivity at the gaining location–a high-powered laptop does you no good if the connectivity at your deployment won’t support your intended purpose for the laptop. If you can, know before you go!
Cons Of The Rugged Laptop
The most obvious cons associated with purchasing a Toughbook, Thinkpad, or Probook is price. Some rugged laptop gear is advertised starting at $400, with bigger and more impressive models going as high as $3600. In some cases you get exactly what you pay for.
In others it pays to consider buying a bare bones model and customizing it with the exact features you want (assuming that model is customizable). But price is going to be a big issue for rugged protection–servicemembers should anticipate this.
Weight Issues–Rugged Laptops Are Heavier
One of the chief complaints from some circles about ruggedized laptop gear is that it can be decidedly heavier than a Macbook Air. Fortifying a computer requires added weight, you should anticipate this.
Another con of the rugged laptop is an issue mentioned earlier in this article–you may need to become very familiar with your computer. You should also NOT assume that you won’t need replacement parts during your deployment. A space laptop battery (or two) plus a space, unopened external drive for emergency backups will help a great deal, and a sealed, unopened internal drive replacement is also a very good idea.
Cons of the rugged laptop include price points–not just for the machine itself but also for the replacement parts mentioned above–you will spend more up front on this machine and it is entirely possible you will lay out a significant bit of cash for a computer you get only a year’s worth of use out of.
But that’s not really the point when preparing for a deployment–the idea is to bring a piece of home–and a way to connect to the folks back home–with you in a situation that has otherwise been (traditionally speaking) a time of great separation and hardship for the service member and loved ones.
Tips For Buying Rugged Laptops
Make a list of the current specs you are using with your existing laptop. Try not to get a slower machine than you already own! Decide how much you want to upgrade with your new rugged computer, keeping in mind that it may not survive the deployment depending on conditions.
Always use a reputable dealer. Avoid fly-by-night websites, sites that have few reviews or have many negative reviews. Always ask for a military discount and it’s helpful to explain up front when talking to a rep or a dealer that you specifically need a rugged laptop for military field work.
As always, OPSEC is incredibly important–never reveal to a customer service rep that you are buying a laptop to take on a deployment with you or discuss the actual nature of your pending TDY or overseas duty. Just explain to the rep that you have a requirement to operate a computer in whatever conditions you expect to live in after your arrival in the host country.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News