When the traveling gets tough, so do laptops

These days, business travelers can never be too sure when they may need to check in their mobile computers at the airport. The best contingency plan is to be prepared when the time comes.
Written by Jeanne Lim, Contributor

If road warriors are ever unfortunate enough to have to check in their laptops at the airport, then their best bet would be to get ruggedized--or rugged--notebooks that are able to withstand the punishing journey as they make their way through cargo belts.

Early this month, U.S. and U.K. air travel authorities imposed restrictions on carry-on luggage after British police foiled an alleged terrorist plot to blow up a few commercial aircraft mid-air, en-route from Britain to the United States.

While the restrictions were subsequently lifted, the spotlight has been cast on the question on what business travelers should do to protect their IT assets, specifically laptops, if they are indeed caught in such a situation.

Rugged notebooks, or even semi-rugged notebooks, which have been built to withstand the trauma of hard knocks and extreme handling, can answer the call of duty.

The toughest of ruggedized notebooks are those that have undergone the rigors of military testing, which include drops from a height, vibration, thermal shock, water resistance and altitude tests.

For instance, Panasonic's Toughbooks, possibly the most well-known among rugged notebooks, already spot features that meet the Military Standard 810F (MIL-STD-810F) specifications.

Other popular ranges of rugged notebooks include Amrel's Rocky and Mitac's Getac.

Checking in a non-rugged notebook?
According to Philip Devlin, product marketing manager at Hewlett-Packard's mobility business unit in Asia-Pacific and Japan, users should take note of at least four precautions to insure themselves against any mishaps to their notebooks, if these devices have be checked in.

1. Ensure that the notebook is powered down or put onto hibernation mode, to fully protect the notebook system from unauthorized access, before you check the item in.

2. Invest in a well-designed laptop bag. That extra few dollars will go a long way toward helping you better protect your notebook.

3. It helps to clearly inform the airport authorities that you are checking in a notebook so that, in addition to putting on a "Fragile" sticker onto it, cargo staff will be encouraged to take extra precaution when handling these electronic devices.

4. Ensure that your notebook is clearly tagged or labeled with your name for easy identification later.

Show of strength

According to Wataru Matsumoto, director at Panasonic, all the company's semi-rugged machines--targeted at business users--are "100 percent" manufactured in Japan with ultra-strong magnesium alloy covers.

"This particular magnesium cover is 20 times stronger than plastics and six times stronger than titanium," Matsumoto told ZDNet Asia. When incorporated with a "unique wave design" on the top cover, Toughbooks are able to withstand up to 100kg of pressure, he said.

Another test that the Panasonic notebooks undergo is the drop test, which involves dropping laptops from a height of 30cm and from 26 different angles. Matsumoto said: "This is a good equation for business travelers who need to check in notebooks at airports. For commercial laptops which [did not undergo] all these physical tests, breakage is very easy."

He noted that for commercial laptops, hinges are one of the most common parts that break within the first or second year of everyday usage. To mitigate this, Panasonic puts its Toughbooks under an endurance test where hinges are opened and closed at least 30,000 times, he said.

Another test that these laptops undergo is the keyboard typing test. In this particular test, keys on the keyboard are struck 2 to 5 million times to make sure they can withstand the most vigorous usage.

While Toughbooks may give the impression that they are tough and thus heavy, the converse is true, said Matsumoto, noting that the lightest Toughbook weighs 1.29kg and the heaviest, 1.53kg. Another important feature of the notebook is its long battery life, which ranges from 6.5 hours to 12 hours, depending on the model.

This feature is important, said Matsumoto, as Toughbook buyers typically travel "80 to 90 percent of the time", and may not have access to places where they can charge their laptops whenever they need to. He also said that most of these laptop buyers are classified as "professional consumers", which include doctors, lawyers, insurance agents and businessmen.

The price of semi-rugged Toughbooks ranges from S$3,499 (US$2,190) to S$3,999 (US$2,500). More than 400,000 Toughbooks were sold in 2005 alone globally, according to Panasonic.

Data protection
Business travelers who check in their laptops will have to take extra precaution against situations where their luggage can be mishandled by incompetent airport ground staff. This is crucial, especially when laptops are likely to carry important corporate or personal information.

For this reason, Panasonic has secured its Toughbook with a hard-disk lock, where the hard-disk functions in sync with the motherboard and can only be accessed with a password. So, if a machine is stolen and the thief tries to access information contained in the laptop, he will be prompted to key in a password upon powering up the notebook. If he fails to enter the correct password three times, the hard-disk automatically reformats and all data is erased, said Matsumoto.

Even if the thief attempts to remove the hard-disk and connects it to another system, he will still not be able to access the data as the hard-disk has to synchronize with the original motherboard in order to work. Similarly, if the thief attempts to put a new hard drive into the stolen Toughbook, the machine will be rendered useless as the motherboard needs to access the original hard drive in order to function.

"The security is a plus point that most corporations will like," said Matsumoto.

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