April 29, 2011:
In this century, the laptop computer has become a common sight on battlefields. In support of this, many manufacturers have lines of "ruggedized" laptops aimed at the military market, and commercial users who need a machine that can survive in harsh environments. These heavy duty computers have been around for over a decade, and actually comprise "semi-rugged" and "rugged" categories. The latter are favored by combat troops, mountain climbers and anyone needing a laptop that can survive the harshest environments. The rugged laptops surpass the U.S. Department of Defense requirements (MIL-STD-810G) for battlefield laptops. This includes the ability to survive two meter (six foot) drops, extremes of heat and cold and have displays that can be read in direct sunlight.
The Gold Standard in this category is the Panasonic Toughbook CP-19 and CP-31. The main difference between these two is size. The CP-19 is a 2.3 kg (5.1 pound) model with a 10.4 inch screen and 9 hour battery life. The CP-31 is 3.7 kg (8.2 pound) laptop with a 13.1 inch screen and 5-11 hour battery life. Both have 160 GB hard drives and 2-8 GB of RAM. A DVD drive is an option for the CP-31. The durability of the Toughbooks is legendary, with only a few percent of them failing over their usual operational life of three years.
All ruggedized laptops are resistant to water, sand and multiple drops on hard surfaces. The best protected ones can be immersed in water for short periods. Most are only guaranteed to survive at least a 30cm (one foot) drop, and the extreme cases can handle two meter drops. All are protected against the relentless vibrations found in military vehicles and aircraft. All will survive temperature extremes (from -33 degrees to as high as 71 degrees Celsius). Many have glow-in-the-dark keyboards and most have color displays designed to be visible in bright sunlight. Also common are removable hard drives and a built in heater, to insure quick boot in very cold weather. Also common are a wide variety of wireless communication (WAN, WLAN, BlueTooth and CRMA), all of which can work with internal GPS, as well as a smartcard reader, and a fingerprint sensor for security. There are many other security features as well. For those operating in a combat zone, there is a stealth boot mode (no sound or light).
The ruggedness comes at a price. The semi-rugged laptops cost 2-3 times as much as comparable Windows laptops, while the most rugged cost six times (close to $4,000). The semi-rugged models are used for combat support personnel. This includes intelligence personnel using software based speech recognition/translation systems. Surveyors also prefer these models, as do administrative and medical personnel operating close to the fighting. Maintenance personnel carry laptops full of technical manuals and diagnostic/testing software. The most rugged models are preferred by special operations troops and commanders of small combat units.
There's a growing library of software for combat commanders, including map viewing and editing programs, as well as mission planning and software that allows viewing (and capture) of UAV videos. There's a lot of older software for mundane, but essential tasks like keeping track of personnel and supplies and scheduling.