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What is the best rugged laptop, and what does military grade mean?

Do you need a laptop that can handle the elements? Treat yourself or a loved one this holiday with the best rugged laptop that's tested against MIL-STD-810 standards for moisture, dust, and drop resistance.

Whether you're a student taking your laptop with you to class, or a worker who uses a flagship laptop in a construction area, it's important to have a laptop that can handle it all. Thankfully, many laptop manufacturers have begun to test their products against military durability standards. This means that you can get similar protection from water, dust, drops, and shocks to the ultra-tough laptops that the military and government employees use. 

You can even find rugged laptops with enterprise-level security software, which lets you password-protect your hard drive to keep your personal information safe. 

If you have someone on your gift list who needs a rugged laptop, I've put together the five best on the market I've broken down their features and price points to help you decide which model fits both your needs and your budget.

Also: The best rugged phones

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Great security and durability
  • Blue light filter
  • Tile tracker enabled
  • Decent battery life
Cons
  • Touchscreen only available on certain configurations
  • Configurations can be pricey
  • Not user upgradeable
More Details

Tech Specs: Screen size: 14 inches | CPU: Up to 12th gen Intel Core | RAM: Up to 32 GB | Storage: Up to 1TB SSD | Graphics: Intel Iris Xe | Battery life: 7.5 hours | Resolution: 1920 x 1200 | Touchscreen: On certain configurations 

Lenovo's flagship ThinkPad X1 Carbon laptop is one of the toughest models you can buy. It's tested against 12 different MIL-STD-810G standards for resistance to dust, moisture, drops, shocks, and more. It can even handle extreme temperature changes, direct sunlight, and exposure to fungal spores. 

Not only is the X1 Carbon physically tough, but it also has some robust security features -- like a built-in fingerprint reader, facial recognition software, and an optional privacy filter for the display. You can also connect a Tile tracker to the laptop in order to find it if it's ever lost or stolen. 

The laptop sports some impressive tech specs with a 12th generation Intel Core processor, up to 32GB of RAM, up to a 1TB SSD, and integrated Intel Iris Xe graphics. The 14-inch display gives you 1920 x 1200 resolution and a blue light filter to reduce eye strain while still providing excellent color, contrast, and detailing. And with a 7.5-hour battery life, you can get through almost a whole day of work or classes before you need to plug in.

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • OLED touchscreen
  • Excellent color accuracy and picture quality
  • Powerful configuration
  • 180-degree hinge
Cons
  • On the pricey side
  • Runs hot
  • Battery life severely decreased under load
More Details

Tech Specs: Screen size: 15.6 inches | CPU: 11th gen Intel Core i7 | RAM: 16GB | Storage: 1TB SSD | Graphics: Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 | Battery life: 9 hours | Resolution: 4K | Touchscreen: Yes 

If you're a creative professional or arts student looking for a durable laptop, you need the MSI Creator 15. Not only is it MIL-STD-810G certified for resistance to temperatures, dust and debris, water, drops, and shocks, it's purpose-built to provide creatives with everything they need to draw, animate, make 3D models, or edit photos and videos. 

The OLED screen provides excellent 4K resolution and features support for touch inputs, so you can use your favorite stylus to sketch, paint, draw, or take notes. It also is Calman verified for color accuracy, giving you 100 percent of the DCI-P3 color spectrum. It even supports Vesa DisplayHDR for crystal clear images. The MSI Creator 15 is built with an Intel Core i7-11800H processor, Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 graphics card, 16GB of RAM, and a 1TB SSD for all of the power and storage space you need for raw files and finished projects. 

The laptop features a 180-degree hinge that makes drawing, sketching, and sharing your screen with clients, co-workers, and classmates much easier. It supports Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth connectivity for fast web browsing and more reliable connections to wireless peripherals, while the MSI Center Pro app lets you monitor and control everything from CPU and GPU temperatures and workloads to battery usage. The battery gives you up to 9 hours of use on a full charge, which means you can get through a full day of work or classes before you need to recharge.

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Excellent security
  • MIL-STD-810 certified
  • 12th gen Intel Core CPU
Cons
  • No touchscreen option
  • No 4K display option
  • No discrete GPU option
More Details

Tech Specs: Screen size: 14 inches | CPU: 12th gen Intel Core i7 | RAM: 16GB | Storage: 512GB SSD | Graphics: Intel Iris Xe | Battery life: 7 hours | Resolution: 1080p | Touchscreen: No 

Whether you're working in an office or attending class, protecting your information is important. The HP EliteBook 640 G9 provides some of the best security you can get. Not only is this laptop MIL-STD-810 certified, it also uses HP's Wolf Pro security software suite to provide some of the tightest protections you can get outside of a military contract. 

Along with a built-in fingerprint reader and TPM chip in the motherboard, the Wolf Pro suite lets you use programs like HP DriveLock, which lets you password protect your hard drive, or HP Secure Erase, which allows you to erase all traces of sensitive files. It even works with the laptop's integrated webcam to automatically lock the computer when it can't detect you sitting at your desk. 

The EliteBook 640 is built with a 12th generation Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, Intel Iris Xe graphics, and a 512GB SSD for plenty of power and storage for everyday work. It also has a 7-hour battery life, letting you work almost all day before you need to think about getting to the nearest wall outlet for charging.

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Excellent display
  • Dual display design
  • Powerful components
  • Great durability
Cons
  • Very expensive
  • Dual screen takes time to acclimate
  • Short battery life
  • On the heavy side
More Details

Tech Specs: Screen size: 15.6 inches | CPU: Intel Core i7-12700H | RAM: 16GB | Storage: 1TB SSD | Graphics: Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060 | Battery life: 5 hours | Resolution: 4K | Touchscreen: Yes 

If money is no object in your quest to get a durable laptop, the Asus ZenBook Pro 15 Duo OLED is an almost perfect, high-end model for professionals and students. It features Asus' revolutionary dual-screen design, giving you a 15.6-inch main 4K OLED display and a secondary 4K ScreenPad. This offers you the same benefits as a multi-monitor desktop setup in a single unit. The ScreenPad can be set up with shortcuts to your most-used apps and files, shortcuts for brushes and effects in Photoshop, or monitoring CPU usage and component temperatures. 

Both the main display and ScreenPad are Pantone validated for color accuracy, providing you with up to 100 percent of the DCI-P3 color gamut as well as Delta E < 2. And if you need even more space to work, you can connect an external display to the laptop with the Thunderbolt 4 port; and you can also use the Thunderbolt 4 port to quickly transfer files between storage devices and your computer or to charge mobile devices. 

The ZenBook Pro 15 Duo is built with an Intel Core i7-12700H CPU, Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060 graphics card, 16GB of RAM, and a 1TB solid state drive. It comes packaged with a stylus to take full advantage of the touchscreen inputs as well as a removable wrist rest for better comfort while typing, drawing, or editing. And if all of this wasn't enough, the laptop is tested against MIL-STD-810G standards for moisture, dust, and drop resistance to protect the delicate components from environmental damage and accidents.

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Excellent battery life
  • 2-in-1 design
  • CNC machined chassis
  • Powerful components
Cons
  • 20-hour battery life when in saving mode only
  • No 4K screen option
More Details

Tech Specs: Screen size: 13 inches | CPU: 11th Gen Intel Core i7 | RAM: 32GB | Storage: 1TB SSD | Graphics: Intel Iris Xe | Battery life: 20 hours | Resolution: 1920 x 1200 | Touchscreen: Yes 

Whether you're a mobile professional, a commuter student, or have a hybrid work or class schedule, having a laptop with a long-lasting battery is important. The MSI Summit E13 Flip Evo can last up to 20 hours when you use the battery saver mode, making it ideal for anyone without a reliable wall outlet to charge it during the day. 

It also features a 2-in-1 design that gives you the best of both a traditional laptop and tablet, so you can navigate apps or take notes via touch inputs. The laptop chassis is CNC machined from aluminum for strength, durability, and a sleek design. It's also MIL-STD-810G certified for water, dust, and drop resistance. The Summit E13 Flip Evo is built with an 11th gen Intel Core i7 CPU, 32GB of RAM, a 1TB SSD, and Intel Iris Xe graphics to handle everything from slideshows and writing papers to attending virtual classes and streaming video. 

What is the best rugged laptop?

My pick for the best rugged laptop is the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 10. You can configure it with up to a 12th gen Intel Evo processor, 32GB of RAM, a 1TB SSD, and Intel Iris Xe integrated graphics. It also supports Wi-Fi 6 connectivity for blazing-fast wireless internet browsing and Bluetooth 5.2 for more reliable connections to wireless peripherals. It even has a built-in fingerprint reader to protect your data from unauthorized access, and you can connect a Tile tracker to the laptop to find your ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 10 if it's ever lost or stolen.

Rugged Laptop

Price

Storage

CPU

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 10

$1,397

Up to 1TB SSD

Up to 12th gen Intel Core i7

MSI Creator 15

$1,799

1TB SSD

Intel Core i7-11800H

HP EliteBook 640 G9

$1,798

512GB SSD

Intel Core i7-1265U

Asus ZenBook Pro 15 Duo OLED

$2,500

1TB SSD

Intel Core i7-12700H

MSI Summit E13 Flip Evo

$1,350

1TB SSD

Intel Core i7-1185G7

Which rugged laptop is right for you?

Beyond the usual laptop features -- like screen size and price -- a rugged laptop requires you to consider how much ruggedness you need. Manufacturers try to make the choice easier by dividing systems into "semi-rugged" and "rugged" -- the former meeting many everyday durability requirements, while the latter provides additional levels of protection for the harshest conditions. 

All of these systems will have passed testing for military-spec ruggedness (MIL-STD-810G or the more recent MIL-STD-810H standards) and some level of ingress protection (from dust and liquids). Semi-rugged laptops typically have IP52 or IP53 ratings, while more rugged models will sport IP65 scores that indicate greater dust and water resistance.

In addition to the level of ruggedness, other things to consider in your purchase include the resolution and brightness (measured in nits) of the screen, along with touchscreen sensitivity. Some rugged laptops have extra-bright displays of 1,000 nits or 1,300 nits, so they can be easily viewed in bright sunlight, and rugged touchscreens can often accept touch input through work gloves. 

Don't forget to research the brand's ecosystem if you're going to need docks, mounting solutions, or other accessories to complete your purchase.  

Choose this rugged laptop...

If you need...

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 10

A well-rounded and durable laptop for work or school

MSI Creator 15

A rugged laptop best suited for creative professionals and students

HP EliteBook 640 G9

A powerful, Intel-based rugged laptop

Asus ZenBook Pro 15 Duo OLED

A tough, high-end laptop

MSI Summit E13 Flip Evo

A rugged laptop with a very long battery life

How did we choose these rugged laptops?

Laptop manufacturers helpfully label these systems as "semi-rugged" or "rugged," with a few niche companies devoting their entire business to rugged portables. This makes it easier to separate rugged laptops from ones that may have some ruggedized features but aren't marketed to those who need specialized systems. 

The rugged laptops listed here are from major manufacturers in the space (Dell, Panasonic, Getac), including some with which ZDNET staff have had hands-on experience.   

What does 'rugged laptop' mean?

A rugged laptop, sometimes listed as a "ruggedized" laptop, is a computer that is built specifically to handle extreme situations and weather conditions. Many rugged laptops are water and dirt resistant, resistant to drops and shocks, and can operate in both very hot and very cold temperatures. 

These kinds of laptops are great for anyone who has to work outdoors for any length of time, such as people at construction sites, on geological surveys, and in the military.

What does 'military grade' mean?

A laptop that is listed as "military grade" doesn't necessarily mean that it was developed for use by the Army or other military branches. Rather, it has been tested against military standards for dirt and water resistance as well as resistance to shocks, drops, and operating temperatures. 

Laptops meant for military use are more rigorously tested against a laundry list of conditions, while commercially available laptops labeled "military grade" are only tested against a few of the MIL-STD-810 standards.

Does Apple make a rugged laptop?

At the time of writing, Apple does not have a ruggedized version of any of their MacBooks for sale, either through their official store or authorized sellers. You can, however, purchase rugged cases like the Urban Armor Gear for the 13-inch MacBook Pro, the Ibenezer case for the 13-inch MacBook Air, or the Pelican 1085 hardshell carrying case.

Are there other rugged laptops worth considering?

You don't need to have a military contract to get your hands on a laptop that can handle everything from coffee spills to commutes. And if you don't want to spend a ton of cash on a tougher laptop, you can invest in a ruggedized case for your current laptop. Here's a short list of alternative products that are great options:

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