While bashing around with a standard DELL Latitude D610 business laptop for more than 3,5+ years in Asia and the Middle-East, how would a rugged laptop, notebook have done in the same circumstances? The questions popped to mind on several occasions when the going got pretty tough for a laptop not designed for such extreme circumstances.
Not quite a rugged laptop - Dell Latitude D610
Here's a December 2009 rugged laptop market impression.
Let's face it, a DELL D610 Latitude D610 business laptop is not built for use in extremely dusty, bumpy, hot and humid conditions. Also, as so many, the D610 has design faults unavoidably made during the race to produce a new laptop before the competition does. But nonetheless, the DELL Latitude D610 somehow coped with the insane circumstances it was put in. Before that a DELL Inspirion 4100 shared the same fate but was retired from the travel scene because it became simply too slow for Windows XP Pro to run on.
Would a rugged laptop do better?
So would a rugged, MIL-STD-810 compliant laptop have done any better? Looking back on 3,5+ years of travel: Yes and No. The chance to have to deal with design and component failure is expected to be significant less. Extreme temperature variations are dealt with by design. Next to that, stupid accidents like tea, soup, beer, wine over the keyboard doesn't immediately threaten it's existence. Additionally engine grease, DOT4 brake oil and heavy tools don't mix well with a laptop designed for office use. In short a rugged, MIL-STD-810 compliant laptop has a much better chance of surviving extreme outdoor operating conditions.
MIL-STD-810 rugged laptop at the customs house
But from another perspective, a fully rugged MIL-STD-810 laptop does not do well while having to deal with customs, police and military in the Middle-East countries and Asia. Rugged notebooks just look too sophisticated and triggers inevitable questions. Also showing up in public places with a laptop that looks "too military" or "007" can cause suspicion. For overland journeys in the Middle-East region this will definitely cause trouble. A more stealthy look, blending in with 'normal' laptops does fit travel requirements much better.
Entering Iran with a MIL-STD-810 rugged laptop? Not such a good idea after all.
But what about operating systems for rugged laptops?
From reliability and stability point of view carrying a rugged laptop around with military specs is all in vain when it's running something like Windows XP, Vista or any other Microsoft variation. Rugged laptop hardware is tested to the extreme - and paid for to the extreme. So what about Operating Systems? The answer is simple, there is no off-the-shelf MIL-STD certified general purpose OS equivalent to this date.
Of course there are much better choices to make than Microsoft products, however it requires the user to have knowledge of for instance UNIX variants like HP-UX, AIX, Linux, Solaris or make a switch to a rugged Apple/Mac Laptop (does that exist?). Specially when specialist OS knowledge is not readily available, one has to be self-sufficient to a certain extend and prepared to do basic administrative tasks. For a UNIX variant that requires quite a bit of knowledge and skills. For Microsoft Windows it's basically learning by doing with the inevitable result of making an even bigger mess.
So a more reliable solution would be switching to a UNIX/LINUX variant and do a bit of reading and training to end up with a more reliable OS compared to Windows .
Rigorous drive imaging and hardware redundancy
Now the only reason why the same Windows XP Professional installation lasted so long on a 3,5 year+ journey was because of rigorous drive imaging and having at least 1 identical spare laptop. Backup drive images were restored numerous of times to work around the limitless reservoir of strange behaviors, lock-ups, slow startup and shutdowns of Microsoft Windows XP. From this perspective calling it a Non-Operating System would be more justified. So that's the second reason why a rugged laptop would not really outperform an ordinary business laptop like the DELL Latitude D610. Both would have to deal with the same operating system instability. On top of that having a 2nd identical laptop around does provide more operational continuity in case one gets stolen. Doing the same with a rugged laptop is quite expensive.
A simple Operating System benchmark
Traveling puts the laptop battery in the spotlight and practically everything is done to save battery life. A treasured feature is Hibernation mode. It prevents lengthy startups and shutdowns, thus saving the laptop battery. A simple travelers benchmark is the time needed to enter / exit hibernation mode. An example:
|DELL D610 Latitude
2 Gb memory
|Win XP Pro SP2 used
Win XP Pro SP3 virgin
|UBUNTU 9.04 virgin||25||42||48||15|
Note: Time measurements stops at the first wireless WIFI connection.
Measurements are purely indications, by no means scientific.
Logged time can easily vary with a few seconds.
Notable are the differences between used / virgin (CD) installation of Windows XP. UBUNTU Hibernation is slower than a full shutdown. Hibernation mode for windows saves roughly 2.5 minutes of battery life each time.
Hibernation mode itself isn't a simple feature, it requires robust design & programming. A stable hibernation function is a benchmark on itself. Not very surprising but Windows XP Professional has several issue's with hibernation mode. Most common are hangups while entering / exiting hibernation mode. UBUNTU hibernation mode is a tad more battery friendly but hasn't been tested much so far.
Operating System certification & standards
Operating Systems are mainly tested and certified in the area of safety and (online) security. Standards like EAL, SIL and DO-178B are well know in sectors like aviation, defense and the banking industry. For example many popular operating systems have EAL4+ certification which is mainly security related. Even Windows XP/Server 2003 has a EAL4+ certificate for a very specific software release with patches. However the EAL4+ doesn't say anything about overall reliability and stability.With "Automatic Windows Update" - the Microsoft on-line patch system - the EAL4+ certificate again isn't worth anything. It's possible to manually choose separate Windows updates and create a wildly new OS mix. Hence the perfect recipe for a new flavor of instability which Microsoft is notoriously good at. Not to mention poor quality of 3rd party 'time-to-market' Windows drivers.
Same recipe with a change - but not rugged
With laptop reliability and stability as an important asset during long distance overland journeys, a rugged MIL-STD laptop would take most of the hardware headaches away. However, a single rugged laptop will offer no continuity when it gets stolen. Nonetheless, in severe outdoor conditions, specially the cold, a rugged laptop is the only choice. An average laptop will definitely become unusable.
When hardware reliability and stability is important, at least the OS should meet similar standards. However when it should be easy top operate, most UNIX/LINUX OS flavors are still a bit too complex for the untrained user, specially if one needs to be self sufficient. For Windows the recipe has always been the same, re-install the lot fresh from CD - or apply rigorous drive imaging.
A bit more ruggedness would be great, however a 2nd identical laptop would also. Cost is certainly a factor when it's about 2 rugged laptops. And that's for those who have the space / opportunity to carry extra equipment around. On top of that, having a laptop that looks non-sophisticated even a bit out-dated is, without question, a big plus. Explains way better to customs when crossing borders.
So for the future, the same laptop recipe is continued, but with a change. UBUNTU is installed as a 2nd Operating System on a different harddisk. Let's see how well it does in the coming years of overland travel.
Below a quick scan of the rugged laptop market in December 2009
fully rugged laptop
DELL Latitude XFR d630
Fully rugged laptop
BSI M230N General Dynamics Itronix gd8000
DELL Latitude E6400 XFR rugged laptop Group Mobile Panter 2000 CV fully rugged laptop.
RuggedNotebook RNB 320 MAX fully rugged laptop