Review: Durabook SA14 Outperforms Most Laptops We've Tested

Government agencies might not always be the most responsive, but a new system intended for public-sector workers might at least help to grease the skids. With the release of the Durabook SA14 ruggedized dual-core notebook, GammaTech Computer finds its dual-core system not only on the CRN Test Center's Top 10 List, but there decisively, with just a pair of quad-core systems ahead of it.

Unveiled late last year, the system we tested was equipped with an Intel Core i7-3520M four-thread Ivy Bridge 2.9GHz processor and 8 GB of DDR3 RAM. It's also available with Core i5 CPUs with list pricing that starts at $1,499.‚Äč The tested system came preloaded with the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Professional. Prior to testing, we configured Windows properties for maximum performance.

In addition to its high-end processor, the tested SA14 also was equipped with an optional 6-cell lithium ion battery supplementing the standard 9-cell battery. With both batteries fully charged, we yanked the power cord, cranked the brightness and fired up a digital movie from the hard drive. With our battery logger running, we set the video player to loop the video so it would play continuously until the system ran out of gas. Aside from screen brightness, all settings associated with the Balanced power plan were used.

We'll get to the performance results a bit later. Meanwhile, we focused on the look and feel of the new Durabook, and its ports and protective elements. For drop resistance, the SA14 adheres to the MIL-STD-810G method 516.6 procedure IV. That's the government's way of indicating that it can withstand 26 drops from a height of 3 feet into a plywood-over-concrete floor. We're not sure where such a floor might be commonly found, but this unit won't break if dropped on one a bunch of times. For shock resistance, it passed method 514.6 for general vibration protection during manufacture transportation, operation and anything extra during its expected lifetime. It's also given an IP53 rating for resistance to dust incursion and spraying water coming at it from any side.

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Unlike the two-stage lid lock on GammaTech's U12C tablet/laptop hybrid, the SA14 uses a simple rocker clasp that can be opened easily with one hand, as long as another hand is free to hold down the base. Its tight hinge offers above-average resistance, and allows the screen to rest immobile at any angle. It opens to almost 180 degrees. Once inside, the 14-inch, 1,366-x-768 touch screen is clear, crisp and responsive. Its 500-nit LED is bright enough for easy viewing in direct sunlight but far too bright for indoors. When we weren't running the battery test, we reduced the luminance by about a third for comfortable viewing.

The Durabook's wrist-rest is wide and comfortable. Interrupted on the right by a fingerprint scanner, it gives way to a gently sculpted backlit keyboard. The touchpad -- 3 inches wide by 1.5 inches high -- is about an inch smaller than we'd prefer. The very front edge curves outward and encompasses a sturdy, rubber-coated metal handle that retracts when not in use. Straddling the handle, a pair of front-firing speakers put out minimal volume but sound clear and non-tinny. The left-hand protrusion carries LEDs for power, battery charge status, and Wi-Fi and hard-drive activity. They can be seen with the lid open or closed.

Above and to the right of the backlit keyboard is the power button, and to its left a row of buttons for dedicated functions. At the far left is a triangular button that can be programmed to instantly blacken the screen ("stealth mode") or enter the optional night-vision mode, which dims the screen almost all the way. Next to that is a menu-looking icon that brings up software toggles for airplane mode, Wi-Fi, WWAN, Bluetooth, GPS, programming the "P" button and setting the vision mode. Unfortunately, audio volume and mute functions are still handled by function keys, which is a two-handed operation unless you happen to be Michael Jordan.

GammaTech's SA41 turned in a top Geekbench score of 10,201, putting it squarely in third place on CRN's all-time performance list for laptops. And while the unit didn't get close to GammaTech's claim of "up to 11 hours" of battery life, it did run for six hours and 36 minutes on a full charge of both batteries. But it's no Ultrabook. The bulky SA14 measures about 13.5 inches wide by 9.5 inches deep by about 2 inches thick when closed. It weighs more than 8 pounds when carrying both batteries and a DVD drive.

The starting list price is $1,699 for the Core i7-based unit that also delivers Wi-Fi a/b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0 and ports aplenty. Tucked safely behind protective doors are a pair each of USB 3.0 and 2.0 ports, gigabit Ethernet, VGA and HDMI output ports, an optical drive slot, RS-232, SD and Smart card readers and a PC Card slot. Communication options include GPS and WWAN. Two DIMM slots can accept a maximum of 16 GB of DDR3 1600MHz RAM.

For resellers seeking a durable platform to deliver applications for construction sites, mechanic's shops, hospitals or the battlefield of the public sector, GammaTech's Durabook SA14 should be on the short list. And with its competitive starting prices, configuration options and two-year warranty, it's a recommended product by the CRN Test Center.