19 September 2020

Takes A Licking And Keeps On...

 ...pushing out those CPU cycles.

It's no secret I love rugged stuff. Radios, trucks, knives, guns, attack helicopters, construction equipment, indirect fire weapons, nuclear submarines, I love it all. Oh, and computers. I love rugged computers. But I love rugged computers for reasons beyond what draws me to all the other stuff. You see, I manage computers for a living - desktops, laptops and tablets. I'm always appalled at how 'unsurvivable' 95% of computer hardware is. I've seen plenty of laptop computers that have enough CPU and graphics power to run Assassin's Creed like a scalded dog, but if you sneeze on them you'll short out the motherboard. Likewise, those absurdly priced MacBooks or Surface laptops that can't survive a short drop from a couch to a shag carpeted floor (don't ask me how I know). I'm also thoroughly disgusted at the lack of upgradability built into modern high-end devices. I have a crackerjack Surface Pro that I got for use at work. It has some serious hardware chops and is a delight to use. Except that, after two years, the battery is going. Microsoft says I can't put a new battery in. So here I sit with an outstanding piece of hardware that is slowly dying because Microsoft refuses to provide a battery replacement methodology. 

Not mine, but looks like mine after it fell a short distance to a carpeted floor,
while wearing a 'milspec' protector and in a padded sleeve

But there IS good ruggedized hardware out there. For the past three years or so I've had a number of rugged laptops and tablets cross my desk. Things like Panasonic Toughbooks (various models and generations), a Dell 'business rugged' laptop and tough tablets like the Trimble T10. All of them are not just good computers, but can also take some pretty tough abuse and laugh it off.

And they can all be easily opened up for upgrades and component replacement. Batteries for example. Need to replace the battery in a Panasonic Toughbook? Just snap open the battery compartment, grab the handy battery tab and slide it out.

So, what draws me to ruggedized computers is that they are the opposite of what a metrosexual soy-boy gamer would choose to carry around in his woven hemp murse. No, a ruggedized computer is something the US Army would choose to strap to a 155mm howitzer to calculate explosive projectile trajectories. Yup, a manly computer for manly tasks.

What does this have to do with Amateur Radio? Think emergency communications (EMCOMM). If you are an Amateur Radio operator deploying for a real-world communications support mission you are likely going into a semi-austere environment. You may be dealing with environmental issues such as high humidity, rain, excessive heat, dust, smoke and rough handling. All conditions that will quickly bring a consumer grade laptop to its knees. Yet for EMCOMM a laptop is an essential item of equipment. Without a computer there's no Winlink, no Fldigi, no JS8CALL, no digital modes at all. And it's not just a computer, but a computer that can run for days or weeks under harsh conditions. A computer that can take a licking and keep on ticking.

Panasonic CF-19 running Winlink via an FT-991A.
A potent combo

Panasonic defined the rugged laptop industry in 1996 with the introduction of the Toughbook CF-25, and as you can imagine it didn't take long for the competition to come up with their own variations on the theme. Today companies such as Dell and GETAC make ruggeized laptops (and tablets) that match Panasonic Toughbooks at their own game. Plus, there's even more manufacturers making rugged tablets. There's a huge market for rugged tablets for use in surveying, field data collection and outdoor machine control applications, and some of the Windows 10 models I've evaluated make pretty darned good general use computers.

A Trimble T10 tablet I evaluated a while back.
It runs Windows 10 and is, essentially, an Intel i7 laptop
in tablet format. Impressive hardware!

However, all this ruggedness comes at a cost. Ruggedized laptops are heavier and bulkier than consumer grade laptops. Virtually all of them, regardless of manufacturer, are encased in magnesium alloy bodies. The magnesium bodies are what make them rugged. But the magnesium body serves another purpose; since many of these laptops don't have cooling fans, the magnesium body serves as a giant heat sink. Remember, a cooling fan needs holes to draw air in, and to push air out, and those holes are entry points for all the things we're trying to avoid - dust, moisture, dirt, smoke, etc. So ruggedized laptops are, literally, hermetically sealed - no air in, no air out. But the heat generated by the CPU and other components has to go somewhere, and where it goes to is the magnesium case, for passive dissipation. 

Since there's no active cooling in these laptops we come to another 'cost' - performance. Since the design goal is good enough performance under all environmental conditions, most rugged laptops have fairly mundane hardware specs. The idea is to provide good performance for office tasks (email, spreadsheets, word processing or custom apps such as police or fire response logging software) while keeping heat under control. To achieve this Panasonic, for example, uses the mobile versions of a lot of popular Intel processors (such as the i5). These processors trade performance for low battery drain and heat generation. Remember, the design goal isn't to be able to play Grand Theft Auto without frame rate issues. The goal is to be able to respond to emails with the laptop perched on the fender of a pumper truck in the middle of a California wildfire.

And there's another cost. Bucks. Lots of 'em. If you go shopping for a new rugged laptop you'll immediately get hit with sticker shock. A brand new full retail Panasonic CF-31 (one of their most popular models) will set you back over $3,500! Yes, that's thirty-five hundred bucks for a laptop that shares the same performance specs with laptops selling at Wal-Mart for less than $1,000. You pay a lot for the 'Toughbook' name (or Dell 'Tough Rugged' or 'GETAC'). But you don't have to! In fact, I don't know a single person who's paid full retail for a new rugged laptop. Most of these laptops are purchased in bulk by government agencies (at significant discounts), put in to service for a few years, then replaced. Since these computers don't physically wear out like consumer grade laptops, there's a huge supply of used Panasonic, Dell and GETAC toughbooks on the market. They may look like hell on the outside, but they are perfectly fine on the inside, and run great. You can find them for sale all over eBay or you can turn to commercial refurbishers like Bob Johnson's Computer Stuff, Inc or ToughRuggedLaptops.com. At outlets like these you can buy slightly older spec laptops in near-new condition for about 1/4 the price of a new one. These used laptops will run virtually all Amateur Radio software without a hitch.

Another great thing about the Panasonic line in particular is the modularity. You can replace just about anyting on or in a Toughbook with just a screwdriver. Break the screen on your CF-31? No problem, just buy a good used one off of eBay (there's hundreds of them for sale), unscrew the broken one and screw on the replacement. Want to add a back-lit keyboard to your CF-19? No problem. Just buy a used one off of eBay (again there's hundreds of them out there), loosen a few screws, pop off the old, pop on the new and you're back in business. Try that with your $400 Wal-Mart laptop. Or your $2,300 MacBook Pro.

In fact, Bob Johnson's Computer Stuff runs a YouTube channel with videos on how to do the most common upgrades and repairs to a wide variety of ruggedized laptops and tablets. Need to replace your CF-31 keyboard? Here's how: 

One of the things I'm following is the current effort to port Winlink to Linux. If it's successful that means the two key EMCOMM software packages - Winlink and Fldigi (along with JS8CALL) will run just fine on lower spec hardware under the Linux OS. In the used rugged laptop world there's a huge pool of early 64-bit processor units that really can't run Windows 10 all that well, but should do just fine with Linux. These older laptops are starting to sell for pennies on the dollar, which means Amateur Radio operators will be able to get all the advantages of a fully ruggeized laptop that can run all the critical software, at rock bottom prices. 

I'll be keeping an eye on this, so stay tuned!

W8BYH out