29 April 2018

Can It Take A Licking and Keep On Ticking?

Or, is it possible to find a laptop that can take a bit of real-world abuse in the rugged outdoors but not break the bank?

Ever break a laptop? Ask most heavy users of laptops and the answer will be yes (if they are honest). I'm in that august group, with no less than four broken units in my 25 years of laptop use. I know that's not a record. I've worked with folks who averaged one broken laptop every two years. At some point you begin to suspect it's intentional.

Not mine, but you get the idea

There's a reason organizations like the US military and police and fire departments spend big bucks for ruggedized laptops like Panasonic Toughbooks. These laptops get used and abused in ways most folks can't even imagine. Like being used as a coffee cup stand in a HMMWV somewhere in Afghanistan.

Most American taxpayers can't afford the entry price for a Panasonic Toughbook or its Dell equivalent (about $3,000, with middling performance specs). To be honest, very few need what a Toughbook offers, like the ability to keep working while being dragged around behind an ATV. But many users do need something in the middle - a laptop that is built into a rugged chassis that can take some real world knocks, bumps and a light shower without begging for mercy or just giving up the ghost without bothering to say goodbye.

Two very capable laptops that wouldn't survive a weekend trip to the mountains.
The Surface Pro 4 (left) is a replacement for one that suffered a shattered screen after a fall from 2.5 feet
 while in a heavily padded case.
The Acer (right) is a very capable laptop and a PC Magazine award winner, but the case is so flimsy that the trackpad
has gone 'wonky' and one of the USB ports has died.

But what does 'in the middle' mean? Well as interpreted by both Panasonic and Dell that means a laptop that has a rugged build but lacks the full MILSPEC rating for shock, dust and water resistance. These 'middle ground' laptops are built around a magnesium chassis, offer covered (but not necessary fully sealed) ports, sealed keyboards and rugged displays that are readable in full sunlight. Generally they are rated at the IP 51 or 53 levels for splash and dust resistance. An additional important consideration is that users can actually use them for day-to-day computing tasks. If you've ever tried to type on something like a Panasonic Toughbook CF-31 you'll quickly understand. It's like trying to type on a brick. These 'middle ground' laptops have keyboards and trackpads that are actually comfortable to use.

A number of manufacturers besides Panasonic and Dell offer beefed-up laptops. Lenovo and Dell offer units that are designed to survive a little rough handling in office or school environments. (My wife's school just bought a load of Dell Chromebooks for student use that seem to be built to the higher end Precision specs. Good idea, given how little regard most kids today seem to have for other people's property). But these laptops are not really designed for use out-of-doors in the elements, or to survive repeated rough handling.

A few years back I needed a new work laptop and after some searching settled on an Acer Aspire. This laptop has great specs and was a 2016 PC Magazine award winner in the low cost laptop category. What made it 'low cost' is the build quality. While not cheaply made, it's clear Acer reached the price point by sacrificing a sturdier build. The laptop is, to be generous, flimsy. For the first 18 months of use this wasn't a problem. But over time, with being schlepped back and forth to work, taken in and out of meetings, being used for demos and presentations, etc. the wear and tear began to take a toll. Now the trackpad suffers from the classic 'randomly wandering pointer' syndrome, one of the USB ports is intermittent and the keys have developed a mushy feel.

One day last year I took it on a mini DX-pedition to a local park to use it to drive my radio on digital modes. While operating at the outdoor site and watching all the spring pollen, dust and grass being kicked up by the wind I concluded that the time had come to replace the Acer and look for something that could spend a day outdoors without worrying about whether or not it would survive. My requirements weren't too stiff; Amateur radio software really doesn't put much of a strain on a modern system (can you say 'legacy 32 bit code'?). Any new computer would need to run Windows10, sport at least an i5 dual core processor, 8 GB of RAM, a 500 GB hard drive, a sunlight readable screen, have at least an IP51 rating for dust and water protection and be MIL-STD-810 compliant for shock and vibration resistance.

Two companies lead the market in building laptops that meet these standards. As discussed earlier, they are Panasonic with their iconic Toughbook line, and Dell with their 'Rugged' (5414) and 'Tough Rugged' (7414) lines. The Panasonic Toughbooks have been an industry standard for over 20 years. They are the 'go-to' laptops for most federal, state and local emergency response agencies and they have been so dominant in the market that I think they are reflexive purchases for most agency buyers  - you need a rugged laptop just put in an order for a Toughbook. Dell is a johnny-come-lately to the rugged laptop market, but I understand they are gaining traction fast, especially with IT managers who already have corporate accounts with Dell.

Panasonic CF-31 Toughbook.
When you say 'rugged laptop' this is what most people think of

A quick review of both manufacturer's offerings leads to the immediate conclusion that buying one would cause a process server to appear on my porch to hand me divorce papers. Apparently rugged laptops are not cheap to build. The entry point for a new Toughbook with the specs I outline above is somewhere north of $3,000. The same holds true for the Dell line. But there's also a huge market in refurbished models. While factory refurbished Toughbooks can be hard to find (most are third party refurbs), Dell actually does a lot of in-house refurbishments and those units (with full factory warranties) end up on third party vendor sites. In fact, eBay is full of Dell refurbished laptops of all varieties. But which one to buy? As I said before, I don't need a high end gaming machine, just a basic unit with good performance specs. Well it turns out Dell has pulled a Goldilocks on me, offering something 'in the middle' that is just right. Dell's 5414 series laptops sit just below their top-of-the-line military grade rugged laptops (7414 series), but offer just the right amount of performance and protection I'm looking for at a refurbished price level that won't cause divorce papers to magically appear.

The Dell 5414. Just rugged enough.

After haunting eBay for a few weeks I finally found a Dell 5414 that fit my needs. Actually, I did a little better than planned. It seems the rugged laptop market is rapidly moving beyond conventional hard drives and adopting SSD hard drives (it only makes sense - with no moving parts an SSD is inherently more rugged). So I managed to snag a  256 GB SSD model with 16 GB of RAM and a high resolution touchscreen. One of the interesting features of both this Dell and Panasonic Toughbooks is the number of legacy ports these units sport. Apparently the main customer base - emergency response agencies - are still hooking up to some pretty old devices. This Dell 5414 comes with a 9-pin serial port (DB-9), a VGA video port and a CAT5 LAN port. The 9 pin serial port will actually get some use, since there are radios being made (Kenwood TM-D710G for example) that still use a standard 9 pin serial connector. But the laptop also sports a plethora of up-to-date connection ports - USB-2, USB-3, HDMI, SD - lacking only the relatively new USB-C port.

The Dell is festooned with a wide variety of ports. On the opposite side
is another covered bay with two USB-3 ports and an SD card slot

All ports except the charging port and the docking stations connector on the bottom sit in bays with snap open covers. The integrated carrying handle may look goofy, but it's actually quite useful. This is not a light device (about 6.3 lbs!), so having a secure carry handle is critical, and the design does not interfere with typing.

But how about performance? Well, it's got an i5 dual core processor and uses Intel integrated graphics, so its no barn burner. But it's way more than capable enough to handle the ham radio software I run - Winlink, Ham Radio Deluxe, Fldigi, VOACAP, Chirp, RT Systems programming software. And it runs Microsoft Office just fine. With 16 GB of RAM and an SSD hard drive performance is actually quite snappy. The high resolution touch screen works great in full sunlight.

More than enough 'oomph' to run any current Amateur Radio software

So how does it work in the real world? After limited testing I can say, "just great!" Remember, one of this Dell's primary missions is to control radios and associated devices in the field. A quick test run to a local park for some HF & VHF operations showed the laptop fits the role perfectly. The plethora of USB ports makes it possible to simultaneously hook up the CAT control cabling for my Yaesu FT-857 and Signalink sound card modem and connect via USB to a Kenwood TH-D72 radio with a built-in TNC for Winlink operations. This was impossible to do with my old Acer unless I had an external USB hub available. Additionally the legacy DB-9 serial port will allow me to connect to my Kenwood TM-D710 without having to use a USB port as a surrogate serial port.

Operations in the field without having to worry too much about dust, dirt or heavy humidity. Yeah!

Some day I expect most of this connectivity will be handled by Bluetooth, but for now it takes cables and cables need ports, and the Dell 5414 excels in this area.

About half of this spaghetti mess has to connect to a computer

So the Dell becomes the system 'hub' and seems to handle the multiple USB connections with aplomb. Actually, Windows 10 handles the connections, and does it very well. I've rarely had 'connection drama' with the Windows 10 operating system like I used to have with Windows 7 or XP. It just works.

The Dell is slated to become my core laptop for daily Amateur Radio use, replacing the old Acer. But because of its rugged construction I suspect it will also end up being something of a daily work laptop, getting taken into environments that the Surface Pro might not do well in (like construction sites). So I'll report back occasionally to keep the readers updated on how the Dell is performing in the real world running Amateur Radio apps.


W8BYH out


  1. Ask most heavy users of refurbished gaming laptops and the answer will be yes (if they are honest). I'm in that august group, with no less than four broken units in my 25 years of laptop use. I know that's not a record. I've worked with folks who averaged one broken laptop every two years. At some point you begin to suspect it's intentional.

  2. Everything is possible in refurbished laptops. but i am not in support to buy refurbished, they may be cheap but worst for sometime. so, buy new laptops for gaming , personal use or business etc. you can feel better

  3. Hi, These Dell rugged series are fantastic! I've the 7414 i7 16GB, it works great...except the touch pad. What I like most:
    - The large number of port, including the RS232, as you have mentioned,
    - The swappable battery!
    - And finally, the side swappable SSD. This is great to have several OS on different SSD for each use case. Dell even provide the Windows 7 32bits drivers, which I use for a very old printer.
    This laptop is so durable and versatile, that if I have to keep only one computer, it would be this one.