How Dell's modern day torture dungeon inspires rugged notebook designs

Water hose test

As someone who babies his gadgets with cases and covers to ensure that my tech purchases look pristine, even after several years of use, I never imagined holding a fire hose to spray a jet of water onto a Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme laptop located on a grey concrete floor ten feet across the room.

To my amazement, not only did the laptop survive, but its designers told me that it was made for abuse. Can my sheltered MacBook Pro with Retina display survive the harsh reality of real-world abuse without a fitted plastic cover on, I wondered quietly. Then, thoughts of being able to work from home while sunning on a sandy California beach if I had one of those notebooks filled my head.

When you buy a laptop or tablet that's marketed as rugged, how do you know the kinds of abuse the system is capable of handling? Enterprise notebooks made for use in the field are designed to survive impact, water, dust and heat, and Dell shows us how it ensures that its ruggedized notebooks are tested so that they don't fail when you need them most.

Built Dell strong

A few weeks ago, Dell flew me out to the company's Round Rock headquarters just outside of Austin, Texas to talk about the company's enterprise notebook designs and tour a torture lab that's the modern day equivalent equivalent of a medieval dungeon designed to incite fear in even the strongest of gadgets. These stress tests ensure that only the best designs survive and that businesses can be confident that failures don't happen during mission critical tasks.


Dell's Austin presence is immediately felt from the moment I deboarded the plane, with numerous large banners advertising Dell's products and services at the airport terminal. Shuttled to the Round Rock facility along with a handful of other journalists, I found Dell's aging facilities newer than HP's acquired Compaq campus in Houston, but not quite as modern as Lenovo's Research Triangle Park, North Carolina offices.

From the condensed tour that I was given, it seems like Dell gave its product testing engineers less space on its sparse campus compared to its two rivals. Engineers, designers, product testers, customer service representatives and other support staff all share the approximately ten or so buildings.

The classroom is the harshest environment

Even though Dell's Latitude Rugged Extreme notebooks have been subjected to construction sites and war zones, Anthony Burdant, Senior Mechanical Engineer at Dell Rugged said that the worst environment for a laptop is the classroom.

If a laptop can survive in the hands of thirty students, it should breeze through the military standard (MIL-STD) specifications tests. Before a Dell product is sent to an independent lab for rugged certification, Drew More, Executive Director of Dell's rugged line explains, Dell performs its own tests at even more stringent standards. If the notebooks can survive Dell's tougher test criteria, then they should fly through the independent lab certification.

For example, if MIL-STD testing requires laptops to survive 26 drop tests at a maximum height of six feet, Dell will pre-test these systems in its own labs with more drops at higher heights.

"We perform these tests on the very first prototypes and continue testing on each subsequent build until we launch," Moore said. "In fact, we feel that the testing of the first prototypes is the most important testing that we do. The point of the lab is to identify weaknesses in the design so that we can modify tooling and other manufacturing parameters to correct them."

Dell has rain chambers, like the one seen below, to test the laptop's ability to withstand water, drop testing machines, chambers simulating dust storms and a saline tank to ensure that components do not corrode.


Even though the company is proud of its Latitude Rugged and Latitude Rugged Extreme lines of notebooks designed for road warriors in the field, Dell told us that it took its rugged testing to the next level when it launched the durable Chromebook 11 ($249, £170, AU$320), a product specifically designed for the academic environment. With the Chromebook 11, Dell included its best design principles for rugged durability from its commercial line, delivered it in a fun package for the classroom and made the product affordable.