What to look for in a rugged laptop or PDA

The fact that you'll pay a price premium for ruggedisation isn't at all surprising, and you'll need to get the balance right between price and protection. What you may not be aware of is that there's another balancing act you'll need to perform: one between the level of protection and the performance.

Rugged PCs invariably have a slower processor, less memory, a smaller hard disk and a smaller screen than mainstream equivalents. Sometimes they don't have CD/DVD drives either. The more rugged the PC, the lower the specification will tend to be. There are several reasons for this.

Small screens are much less prone to damage from flexing than larger ones. Rugged PCs also sell in fairly small numbers. Since it takes longer to recoup the development cost, there's no scope for introducing a new model every six months. The lower specification can also be to your benefit, though.

That might sound like a surprising assertion, but lowering clockspeed results in lower power consumption and longer battery life. Again, this is a compromise that many users of rugged computers are willing to accept, especially since the applications used on the move often aren't the most processor-intensive.

The big players

There are dozens of manufacturers of mainstream laptops and PDAs, but in the world of rugged computers, your choice is much more restricted, especially if you're in the market for a laptop as opposed to a PDA.

Panasonic is the best known supplier of rugged computers. The company offers six rugged laptops, one ultramobile PC (UMPC) and a so-called 'mobile clinical assistant' (MCA), aimed at the medical market. These systems vary from 'business rugged' to 'extremely rugged'.

Getac is Mitac's specialist rugged computer division, and it offers four rugged laptops, two 'durable' (rather less rugged) laptops, one rugged tablet PC and a rugged PDA. Itronix, the rugged computer subsidiary of General Dynamics, has two fully rugged laptops, one fully rugged tablet PC and a fully rugged UMPC. There's also a laptop referred to as 'vehicle rugged', which puts it down a notch in terms of durability.

These are the big three in the realm of rugged laptops, but you should also consider specialist companies such as Terralogic and Blazepoint. Occasionally mainstream suppliers will also introduce rugged PCs – Dell currently offers the semirugged Latitude ATG E6400 and the fully rugged Latitude E64 XFR.

If it's a rugged PDA you're after, you have a bit more choice. Companies offering such products include Psion, DAP Microflex, Motorola and TDS.

So whatever you're after, take the time to check out the market first. There are many different types of rugged PCs – and hopefully one that suits your needs exactly.