The Great Durable-Laptop Debate

This laptop's speeds and feeds seem strong enough--but are its manageability features up to snuff?

The specs on this Wi-Fi router say it emits a clear signal anywhere in an office measuring up to 10,000 square feet--yet does this claim prove true in the real world?

This manufacturer says it offers on-site service for its product within one business day--but do its service reps actually show up on time?

These are just a few of the questions that have occurred to me in my ten years as a technology journalist, during which time I've evaluated hundreds of products--most of them mobile. Yet important questions like this usually go unanswered in the average technology story.

A lot of publications don't have the staff, resources, or sheer gumption to dig deeper than surface specs and perfunctory performance tests, preventing them from examining the issues that really matter to businesses. The stories that their readers often see barely go beyond what can be learned about a product from the manufacturer's own web site.

With Tech Treks, InfoWorld has kindly provided a place where I can ask these key questions about mobile products and trends, then hear answers from you--the readers who regularly deal with mobile products and issues on the job.

To that end, I've recently been giving more thought to a question that's been asked since the dawn of laptops: Just how tough is the typical notebook? When I started out in technology, manufacturers like Dell, HP, and IBM were careful not to use the word "rugged" to define their portables. That term was reserved for the few like Panasonic who sold truly ruggedized laptops, which stood up to military and environmental ruggedness standards, to vertical markets.

Over the years, as mobile technologies became both cheaper and more advanced, the R-word started sneaking into an increasing number of enterprise laptop product descriptions. While they still took care not to categorically call their laptops ruggedized, many vendors began to claim their corporate systems included rugged-esque features, such as hard drives with sophisticated shock-absorption capabilities and displays encased in magnesium-alloy frames.

Curious about how manufacturers are qualifying their ruggedness claims, I had conversations with product managers at Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Toshiba. I asked each one for specifics about how they test the durability of their systems. HP, Dell, and Lenovo were fairly cooperative if not effusive, offering up details like opening and closing lids 25,000 times to gauge hinge durability (HP); dropping notebooks on six axes from a height of 29 inches onto carpet to test hard-drive and display protections (Dell); and pouring four ounces of coffee, pop, or water over keyboards to determine spill-resistance. Toshiba refused to discuss any details about its ruggedness testing.

Despite the testing tidbits some revealed, none of the manufacturers were wild about the idea of any old publication simulating the tests, fearing that the average lab would be unable to properly replicate them (though Dell did post a cute video of one lab's durability tests that reminded me of a Tide commercial, where stains magically disappear from one frame to the next). Call me crazy, but something like "drop onto carpet from a height of 29 inches" sounds pretty straightforward. Maybe they worry the test lab would use a cheap cut pile instead of a good wool Berber?

The ruggedness issue has a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too feel, with manufacturers wanting carte blanche to call their business laptops durable without condoning much independent testing to back it up. Are corporate notebooks as hardy as their makers claim? You tell me at techtreks@gmail.com.

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