A case for rugged laptops?

I'm not a gentle laptop user. They get tossed in my car, jammed in my bag, and slid off my lap.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

I'm not a gentle laptop user. They get tossed in my car, jammed in my bag, and slid off my lap. My white MacBook is only white in a few spots now (the keyboard and wrist-rests a fairly disgusting shade of gray). Kids, however, make me look downright clinical in my use and care of my computers.

I bought my wife a laptop a while ago to check her email, surf the web, and generally stay in touch. Not surprisingly, a couple of the kids quickly adopted it as their primary computer. It was a cheap HP/Compaq, but it certainly met the needs of the average computer user quite well and was wicked cheap to boot. I'm actually a big fan of HP products: they're aggressively priced, they offer a lot of choice in components, and have reasonable build quality for the price.

Until the last year or so, though, every HP laptop seems to have its power plug placed in a location vulnerable to impact and has been a point of failure for several laptops owned by friends, family, and colleagues. Same goes for a whole generation of Dell laptops. A year or two of wiggling, pushing, pulling, and resting ultimately breaks connections between the power supply and the motherboard, rendering the laptop useless, or at least in need of repair.

Needless to say, no matter how much I reminded the kids of this vulnerability, they all still managed to toss the laptop on the couch, precariously balanced on its power cord. That power supply died this weekend. The 17" desktop replacement that I passed onto my oldest son (also an HP) is faring a bit better in the power department, but the screen hinges are badly damaged and the plastic casing has cracked in a few spots. I'm not confident it will survive a summer of schlepping around the house and to friends' houses ("Hey, don't carry a 9 pound laptop by the screen! It's going to break!"...."OK, yeah, sure, Dad").

My kids are hardly atypical users, though. Anyone younger than 20 doesn't remember when laptops cost several thousand dollars. When I went to college, I took a computer as a graduation gift instead of a car. The prices were comparable. Now, laptops are everywhere, they're cheap, disposable, and no longer the sole domain of the business traveler who carefully stows it in his/her bag every night. They are now the platforms of choice for everyone who wants to get on the Internet. And thus, cheap netbooks are the only growth sector in the PC business.

So we can take one of three approaches to these computer-abusing kids. The first is to scream and yell at the little monsters to the tune of "Another Brick in the Wall" until they're too scared to use, much less break, their computers. The second is to purchase really cheap netbooks because their size tends to make them fairly rugged (as my 17-year old can attest, wear and tear takes a much larger toll on large notebooks than it does on the typical light netbook) and their cost makes them disposable. The third is to spend a bit of extra money and buy something semi-ruggedized like the Classmate PC, the new Dell Latitude 2100 (which I still maintain is too pricey to be competitive with the Classmate), or even a MacBook (I may be tired of Macs in general, but they do withstand abuse fairly well, especially with their new MagSafe power adapters).

As tempting as the first option is (mostly because The Wall was such a brilliant album), our goal must be to get kids utterly comfortable with a computer from an early age. Remember when your parents used to tell you to "look it up" when you asked them how to spell a word? They weren't being lazy: they wanted you to independently seek out truth and knowledge (maybe that's a bit of a stretch, but the independent part is true). The phrase "Look it up!" takes on a whole new meaning when the sum of human knowledge is a few mouseclicks away. One unfortunate side effect of this necessary comfort level with computers, though, is the lack of reverent, fearful regard for their care and safety.

I can live with that. That's why we have netbooks. The tree hugger in me rails against the idea of "disposable" computers. However, a reasonable lifespan for a standard notebook is only 3-4 years anyway. If even 50% of my $200 netbooks make it 3 years, I'm still coming out ahead financially and I have a form factor that works nicely for the majority of non-Shrek-handed students. 50%, by the way, is incredibly conservative; many should hit that 3-year lifespan. Find a reputable recycler (many of whom are free or low-cost) who doesn't send your ewaste to Africa for small kids to burn, and the environmental impact of this choice can at least be minimized.

Here's where the Classmates and their semi-rugged ilk come in, though. Whether you're talking Kindergartners or college kids, these things will be subject to spills (of juice and beer, respectively), drops, and shoves into bags (or cubbies for the little guys). For less than $500, the Convertible Classmate gives you tablet functionality, a useful software suite, and a power adapter with an incredibly tough housing that puts HP's to shame. Dell's 2100 offering, though a bit heavier, is obviously designed to take a blow as well. Spill-resistant keyboards? Check.

Is the extra cost worth it? I think it depends on your usage model. In a 1:1 setting, though (including a netbook as a supplementary machine for college students), where you can anticipate heavy usage over at least a 3-year period, the extra cost simply makes sense. As I use the Convertible Classmate every day (and I spend a lot of time on a computer), I could certainly see it lasting for a few years. It just feels solid. I'll be looking to get my hands on a Dell 2100 to see if my initial impression of poor value versus the Classmate is justified.

What's your model of choice? Disposable and cheap or semi-rugged and a bit pricier? Or something else, like desktop labs? Talk back below.

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