Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Why Apple Needs A Ruggedized Notebook

Last week, my colleague at Low End Mac Adam Robert Guha announced that he is probably going to replace his 12" PowerBook with a Lenovo ThinkPad T60. Adam has had a clamshell iBook, a PowerBook G3 Lombard, a 400 MHz Titanium PowerBook G4, and the LittleAl PowerBook, so he knows Apple laptops well. Why would he consider switching to a Windows PC?

As Adam explains it, "Apple just doesn't offer what I need right now." In short, Adam likes the MacBook and believes its polycarbonate case would be rugged enough, but says the 1280 x 800 display resolution is not enough for his needs and he doesn't like glossy screens, and while the 15" or 17" MacBook Pros offer enough resolution and are available with matte displays, his experience with owning two metal-skinned PowerBooks has convinced him that they are not sufficiently rugged for the sort of use he subjects his notebooks to: "I'm not particularly thrilled at repeating the whole metal-casing 'looks great when new' ordeal that I went through with my TiBook and my 12" PowerBook."

Adam says that what Apple needs is a "more rugged version of the MacBook Pro. I'd gladly pay a little bit more for a more rugged case, perhaps similar to that of the black MacBook, and I would think that people who plan to use the Mac for business (those who travel frequently) would also appreciate a stronger case. I'd also like to see it able to accommodate more RAM (2 GB isn't enough) and have better access to the hard drive in case something should happen. Think of it as a 15.4" MacBook."

I agree. I love my 17" aluminum PowerBook, and since it is used mainly as a desktop substitute machine at a workstation hooked up to a keyboard, pointing devices, my printer, and so forth, case ruggedness is not high on my list of priorities for it. After a year of service, it is still cosmetically flawless, since I still use my G3 iBook and sometimes my Pismo as my road warrioring machines. At four+ and six+ years old respectively, both of these polycarbonate-cased laptops have stood up very well. However, for really rough usage, I would really like something even more robust than they are.

I also agree with Adam about the MacBook's screen resolution. That 800 dpi vertical depth is not really much more accommodating than the 768 dpi of my iBook and Pismo's SVGA resolution screens, and that's the dimension I want more room in. The 900 dpi depth of my PowerBook's screen is the minimum I'm comfortable with now. But back to our main topic - ruggedness.

Last fall I conducted a serial correspondence with a reader who is a liveaboard cruising sailor, and who had found that his iBook wasn't really adequate for the rigors of life afloat, nor was the navigation software he wanted to use always available for the Mac OS. While the MacBook's ability to run Windows natively would have addressed the latter issue, he wasn't convinced that it would prove any more durable than the iBook did, and in the end opted to switch to a PC notebook.

I've been writing for marine and yachting magazines for more than 20 years, and I would love to be able to recommend Apple notebooks as ideal seagoing computers, but the fact is that one of the several water-resistant and "ruggedized" PC notebooks available makes a more practical choice, and one of the reasons why the availability of marine navigation software for the Mac is so limited is that Apple has never made a laptop system that was really well-suited to life at. sea.

Not to say that there is no nav software available for the Mac. Global Mapping Systems' GPSy Pro X Global Positioning Systems (GPS) software is Macintosh only, and is one of the best, if not the best GPS software solutions on the market - designed for boaters and people who use large or complex map images.

In the context of use on small vessels, the only really sensible choice of platform among current Mac models would be a MacBook,, which with its polycarbonate case, will be better equipped withstand the inevitable bumps and shocks associated with an on-board environment than the metal-skinned MacBook Pro.

However, the uncomfortable fact must be conceded that no Apple laptop comes close to meeting the rough-use standards and weatherproofing set by ruggedized laptop computers in the PC orbit.

GPSy Pro's developer, Global Mapping Systems, suggests that the best operative mode aboard a small yacht may be to mount the GPS receiver and/or GPS antenna in the cockpit; then use a long cable extension to pull the NMEA signals into a dry cabin where you keep your notebook. Alternatively, you could investigate some means of weatherproofing your MacBook, such as a data "kiosk" type enclosure.

However, such elaborate measures will not be as necessary with ruggedized PC laptops. Panasonic, for instance, has carved out a particular niche in the computer market by offering ruggedized laptops exclusively, available in an amazingly comprehensive array of specifications engineered for waterproofness/water resistance and shock resistance, from mildly ruggedized consumer units to fully ruggedized military notebooks. For more information, visit:
http://www.panasonic.com/business/toughbook/home.asp

Britain's TerraLogic makes a range of ruggedized and waterproof computers:
http://www.terralogic.co.uk/

MaxVision’s MaxPac families of rugged portable computers are Windows or Linux workstations designed using a unique box-in-box shock isolation plus a rich set of standard I/O such as Gigabit Ethernet and Firewire, and as many PCI or PCI-X slots required for special I/O cards:
http://www.maxvision.com/

Itronix Division of General Dynamics features the fully ruggedized GoBook XR-1 Notebook, the lightest and smallest rugged notebook available and the first to carry the General Dynamics brand since the company was acquired by that company in 2005, The GoBook XR-1 meets MIL STD 810F (military standard) ratings for drop/shock and vibration and the IP54 (ingress protection) standard for water and dust. The entire notebook is water tight and features a keyboard that can withstand liquids and abrasive dust and dirt particles commonly found in outdoor and industrial environments. The notebook’s sealed design can even withstand bleach-water submersion and scrub tests. Itronix also makes the GoBook VR-1 semi-rugged notebook:
http://www.itronix.com/

DRS Tactical Systems offers ultra rugged computer solutions for harsh military environments on the ground, at sea and in the air:
http://www.drs-ts.com/

Stealth Notebooks' Rugged NoteBook WARRIOR V features a sealed magnesium alloy chassis with NEMA 12/IP52 environmental protection to handle adverse operating conditions:
http://www.stealthcomputer.com/portables_notebook.htm

HyperData offers several models of ruggedized PC laptops:
http://www.hyperdatadirect.com/product/Rugged-Laptop.htm

Even Dell recently Launched its first ruggedized notebook, the Latitude ATG, actually a "semi-rugged" machine designed for people working in tough environments. The Latitude ATG meets military standards for vibration, humidity and altitude, and is designed to protect against accidental bumps, moisture, and other elements users might encounter working in the field.

The Latitude ATG features an Core 2 Duo processor, a shock-mounted hard drive and super-bright 14.1" display, spill-resistant keyboard, port covers and high durability paint and is designed to withstand challenging conditions commonly associated with military environments, construction sites and first responders, such as police and emergency organizations. For more information on Latitude ATG visit:
http://www.dell.com/ATG

The U.S. Army has an interesting Website on rugged computers.

Most "ruggedized" PC laptops are framed in magnesium, and some get thick rubber cladding as well. In the interest of water-resistance, some of these machines don't come with built-in speakers, while others have their speaker shielded behind a membrane.

Some police forces have discovered that ordinary laptop computers may last as little as a week on the job, while "ruggedized" units last substantially longer, although the Panasonic units reportedly have some difficulty surviving if they the pavement from the top of a police cruiser it it is traveling at more than 30 miles per hour.

Truly "ruggedized" laptops are a niche market Apple probably would never be interested in pursuing, but I can't help thinking of a Latitude ATG-style "semi-rugged" MacBook in, say, olive drab or gunmetal gray with a weatherproofed keyboard, display and ports, sitting in the back of a military HumVee or police cruiser, or alternatively one in nautical red, white, and blue livery running GPSy Pro in, say, the cockpit of the winner of the Bermuda race.

Getting a subcompact MacBook Pro out the door to occupy the market slot vacated by the 12" PowerBook and as yet unfilled has to be job one for Apple's notebook designers, but once that mission is accomplished, a ruggedized machine that would address the needs of users who use their computers in harsh environments, or just want a tough 'Book (no pun intended) they can toss in a backpack without worrying about scratches and dents should be next on the agenda.


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cmoore@macopinion.com


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