By contrast, semi-rugged notebooks, such as Dell's Latitude E6400 ATG, may have plastic screen lids and don't cover all their ports. They are also thinner, lighter and cheaper.
To maximize reliability, both fully and semi-rugged systems often use older and slower (but proven) components. Forget about getting the latest processors or high-speed hard drives; these machines are about reliably getting the job done, even if you have to wait.
Because these are rugged, outdoorsy types of notebooks, their options go beyond what you can get on a normal system. Some have heaters for hard drives and screens so they'll work fine in subzero temperatures, and many have optional backlit keyboards so you can type in the dead of night. Some, like Panasonic's ToughBook 19, have a touch-sensitive screen for drawing a map of the countryside or marking up a repair manual with notes. Many rugged systems come with a 3-year warranty.
These notebooks don't come cheap. Ruggeds typically cost between $2,000 and $5,000, depending on options, and semi-ruggeds go for about $1,000 less. But if reliability counts for everything, they're more than worth it.
There are three things that count when it comes to budget notebooks: price, price and price.
The basic recipe for baking a budget notebook starts with a processor such as an AMD Turion X2 or a Celeron, Pentium Dual Core or slower Core 2 Duo from Intel; don't expect a high-speed chip. Mix in 2GB of system memory, a 14- or 15-inch screen and a 160 to 250GB 5,400-rpm hard drive, and bake until done. The problem is that all the laptops in this category come out of the oven looking like they used the same set of cookie cutters, with little to separate them.
Because they have roughly the same hardware, they all end up about the size of a legal pad that's a little less than two inches thick, and they weigh 6 or 7 pounds. That's because cutting inches and ounces costs money.
There are a few happy surprises when it comes to configuration, though. Just about every budget machine these days has a good assortment of ports and a DVD-burning optical drive, although some can't handle the latest double-layer media. Plus, Toshiba's Satellite A305 comes with an FM tuner and the option to have two 250GB hard drives inside.
Don't expect stellar performance or full-day battery life, but this class of system can easily handle daily tasks such as e-mail, Web research and tapping out memos and reports. They start to bog down with computationally intense tasks like video editing or heavy-duty database work.
What's missing from a $450 budget notebook? A lot of the things that we've become accustomed to, such as a high-resolution screen, Bluetooth, a fingerprint scanner and sometimes a webcam. In some cases you can order them as options, but the money adds up quickly -- if you want any of these items, it might be a better deal to get a stripped-down mainstream system instead.
As the name implies, the mainstream notebook market is dominated by the systems that companies buy to outfit the majority of their mobile workers. They're more expensive than budget systems, while being bigger and heavier than thin and light systems. They are all about performance and reliability with solid components.
Rather than changing quickly as new components come out, the designs of these laptops tend to be locked in for a few years, and their accessories can be used by several generations. This makes it easier and less expensive for businesses to deploy and maintain mainstream notebooks, but it also makes them a bit less exciting for consumers.