Tough Notebook Challenge: Which Notebooks Take A Beating And Keep On Booting?

Oh, the possibilities for disaster.

The CMP Channel Test Center put rugged notebooks from Toshiba, Acer, Dell and Panasonic through a series of real-world disaster tests to see which would survive and how each would stand up. Two survived to the end. Two made it part of the way.

An Acer TravelMate 4720, a Panasonic's Toughbook CF-Y5, a Toshiba Tecra A9-S9017 and a Dell Latitude D630, each were put through our tough notebook challenge tests: being pulled off a desk by the power cord, dropped from three-and-a-half feet, having four ounces of soda spilled onto the keyboard and then, the grand finale, being dropped down a flight of stairs.

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Slide Show: When the Cola Hits The Keyboard -- The Tough Notebook Challenge

Lenovo and Hewlett-Packard, invited to provide notebooks that could take part in the test, each declined participation.

The environment used for the tests was typical of an office. The desk furniture and carpeted floor in the test area provided real world conditions for three of the five tests -- tripping over the power cord attached to the notebook, spilling soda and dropping the notebook. The tests done on the desk simulated various accidents users can have when working in an office. Before the notebooks were banged up, engineers ran PassMark tests. All of the banging-up and spilling was done when each notebook had the power on.

The tripping-over-the-cord test simulated a user passing a desk,accidentally tripping over the cord and having the notebooks fall to the floor. The test itself was easy to do, but hard to watch. The trip test consisted of pulling a power cord while attached to a notebook.

Spilling soda on the notebooks was the most fun and hardest for the notebooks to pass. Because soda is a good conductor, any pin size hole located between a keyboard and the inside of a notebook can short circuit the electronics.

The drop test simulated having a notebook fall from a person's hands. The distance of the drop was about the height of the desk -- about three-and-a-half feet.

The last test simulated dropping a notebook bag with the notebook in it down a set of stairs.

The tests were each monitored by two solution providers: Nick Gigante, an account executive with Future Tech Enterprises, Holbrook, N.Y. and Shiv Kumar, executive vice president of ZSL Inc., Edison, N.J. After each test, Gigante and Kumar gave us their expert opinion on whether the systems survived. The VARs looked for cracks in the LCDs and body. They shook each notebook to see if anything got loose inside them. They booted the notebooks to make sure that the notebooks could power up. They also moved the mouse and used the keyboard after each test, to make sure that the notebooks were usable.

Here's what happened: Tripping over the power cord and knocking the laptop off the desk:
All four notebooks survived the test. However, Dell made a slight rattling noise when we shook it to see if any components were loose.

The desk drop test:
All four notebooks passed this test, where each unit slipped out of a pair of hands and dropped to the carpeted floor. The Panasonic, the Acer and the Toshiba all booted up right away. Dell passed the test, but took a long enough time to reboot that it could make a butter-fingered user very nervous. Still, all the competitors advanced to the next round.

The soda spill test:
The Dell and the Toshiba each failed this test. After the Dell notebook had four ounces of cola poured onto the keyboard, it shut down and then, on an attempted reboot, reported that it could not find the hard drive and shut down again. Another attempt to reboot the system yielded nothing. After cola was poured onto the Toshiba notebook, it remained powered on but froze up and could not be rebooted to a working state. The Acer and the Panasonic each passed and those two made it to the Death Round.

Slide Show: When the Cola Hits The Keyboard -- The Tough Notebook Challenge

The stairs drop test:
Both the Acer and Panasonic notebooks were placed securely into a padded Targus backpack-style notebook carrying case. One at a time, the engineer walked each notebook down three steps, and then dropped the bag and let it tumble down seven hard steps and onto a landing. Both the Acer and the Panasonic were pulled out of the bag and booted up as if nothing happened. None showed any signs of physical damage either, with the LCD, keyboard, case and -- in Acer's case -- slightly protruding battery showing any dents, dings or wear.

So, at the end of our first-ever Tough Notebook Challenge, we crowned Acer and Panasonic winners for their notebooks' ability to withstand typical disasters encountered by the mobile PC business user.

The systems and their specs:

Toshiba Tecra A9-S9017
Vista Business
Core 2 Duo 2.2 GHZ, 2 GB RAM
Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro NVS 130M
PassMark: 536.1

Acer TravelMate 4720
XP with SP2
Core 2 Duo 2 GHZ, 1 GB RAM
PassMark: 501

Dell Latitude D630
Vista Business
Core 2 Duo 2.2 GHZ, 2 GB RAM
Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro NVS 135 M
PassMark: 535.4

Panasonic Toughbook CF-Y5
Vista Business
Core 2 Duo 1.67 GHZ, 500 MB RAM
Graphics: Intel 945GM Express
PassMark: 334.6

Each of the four notebooks is shipped to market with an MSRP of less than $2,500.