Panasonic ToughBook CF-31 -- starting at around $3,300
This bulky beast is actually a bit lighter than you'd expect on first glance, with a starting weight of 7.9 pounds -- though that's still more than twice the heft of your average 13-inch laptop. It's built like a tank, and you might actually find one of these inside an M1 Abrams thanks to its military-certified ruggedness. Short of being left at the bottom of a river for several days, it'd be tough for mother nature to take out the CF-31. It's designed to survive dust storms, torrential downpours, and temperatures ranging from negative 60-degrees Fahrenheit all the way up to 160.
Sadly, we don't have a meat locker at the Engadget compound, and the rest of the crew probably would have been understandably irate if we triggered the sprinklers just to test how waterproof a laptop is. We did, however, give its shock resistance a serious trial. The rather pricey ToughBook should be able to survive repeated drops from up to six feet without batting an eye, so, we grabbed the handle, lugged it up a ladder, and let it drop with a mighty thud. Then we did it again, and again, and again... ultimately, it survived ten or so falls without so much as a scratch or a loose hinge.
Casio G'zOne Commando -- $200 with 2-year contract from Verizon
Ga-zone? Ji-zone? Gee-zone? Giz-One? You know what? Let's just stick with Commando. There's more military grade goodness here, though it doesn't meet the same exacting specifications as some of the other devices we tested, Casio's latest is quite resilient, and surprisingly pocketable, for a phone that is both rugged and smart. Underneath its pleasantly rubbery exterior is a passable, though hardly blazing, 800MHz processor that pushes a heavily skinned version of Android 2.2 to a 3.6-inch capacitive touchscreen.
Again, extreme temperatures and dust shouldn't pose a problem for this gadget, but we decided to focus on its resistance to water, drops, throws, and champagne (don't ask). We actually dropped the Commando from higher than its rated four-foot threshold (more than a dozen times) and skipped it across a table like a stone on a lake, and it looked no worse for wear. Then, it was time for the fish tank. We dunked this decidedly masculine handset over and over, left it submerged for a period of time, and it didn't even blink. And, outside of a slight stickiness, it came through our champagne spray test unscathed. Sure, next to a Galaxy S II it looks a little bulky and sluggish, but outdoorsy types or folks with jobs that might put more fragile gadgets at risk could easily over look those drawbacks.
Kodak PlaySport Zx5 -- $180
The PlaySport is, on paper at least, the least rugged device we tested. We figured this 1080p-shooting digicam would put up a valiant effort, but were prepared for it to give up the ghost as we escalated the abuse -- we were wrong to doubt it. The extreme sport-friendly Kodak suffered all the same trials and tribulations as the Casio Commando and, at the end of the day, still looked and worked as well as when it came out of the box. We dropped it, threw it, dunked it, and sprayed it with sparkling fermented grape juice -- and it recorded HD clips of our unrelenting attacks without a hiccup. Truth be told, it probably could have survived more -- the Zx5 can stay submerged under ten feet of water for up to two hours. The camcorder is slightly more expensive than other models that produce similar quality video -- video which, we might add, is fine for sharing on YouTube, but we wouldn't recommend shooting your next short film on one.
ioSafe Rugged Portable -- $149 - $3,000
Looking over the list of specs and certifications you might believe that ioSafe's latest rugged drive is actually indestructible. The aluminum-ensconced 120GB SSD model we tested ($499) can stay submerged in ten feet of salt water for up to three days, be dipped in toxic chemicals, survive 20-foot falls, and withstand 2,500lbs of crushing force -- clearly, we had to find a way to break its will. We started, simply enough, with about half-a-dozen drops from around six feet, then a couple of throws across the room, and the Intel 320 series drive just kept on ticking. The plan was to slowly escalate our abuse but, instead, we jumped straight to hitting it with a sledgehammer. We channeled years of pent up aggression into every swing, bashing it for all the hugs we didn't get as children and all the girls who wouldn't talk to us in high school. Alas, we felt a load lift off our chests, and the casing had suffered some serious denting but, when we plugged it into our ThinkPad, Windows 7 immediately recognized the device and installed the drivers.
We hit it a few more times for good measure and a grip decided to put his MMA training to good use -- punching the drive through a cinder block. Then, frustrated, and bored of simply dropping stuff in the fish tank, we hurled the Rugged Portable through the aquarium, but did little more than make a big mess. Finally, with a mildly deranged look in his eye, Brian reached for the drill -- that spelled the end for our poor SSD. Honestly, we were surprised by how easily the standard, household 18-volt drill and bit designed for poking holes in plaster walls pierced the metal case. Amazingly, even after all that, the device still powers on and Windows recognizes the drive, but its storage remains stubbornly out of reach. ioSafe assures us that, despite our normally warranty-voiding behavior, the company would still shell out up to $5,000 to recover any data lost due to our "carelessness."
G-Form Extreme Sleeve for Laptops -- $80
These laptop sleeves are made out of a material called Poron XRD, which has previously been used to make flexible, but surprisingly protective, pads for mountain bikers and skateboarders. The foamy substance behaves somewhat like oobleck, the kitchen-creatable non-Newtonian fluid -- normally soft and pliable but, under pressure, hardens to create a shock-absorbing shell. At some point the creators realized, "hey, if we wrap gadgets in this stuff, they won't break when you drop them." The company has even made a name for itself with some rather dramatic YouTube clips involving bowling balls and balconies -- obviously we had to recreate these tests. We slipped a 15-inch MacBook Pro inside one of these gaudy, yellow cases and got back up on our ladder for a series of drops. We let the laptop go, encased in its bumble bee suit, and let it fall about six feet to the table top. In total it suffered about ten falls, and emerged fully functional with only a few minor dings and scratches. Then, it was on to the bowling ball test.
In their videos, the G-Form folks drop a 12-pound pin killer from three feet onto an Extreme Sleeve encased iPad. We only had a ten-pound ball, so we added an extra foot to the drop height -- let's just say things didn't go so well. Though, we suppose technically our MacBook survived the first impact, the massive dent in the lid and shattered screen rendered it, for all practical purposes, unusable. With the second hit, she died completely. Pressing the power button did elicit a few clicks and a brief hum but, like a car in need of a jump, it refused to turn over. As part of the movie making magic, we did drop the bowling ball on it a few more times, but it was long gone by the time we got around to hitting it with a hammer. What did our final round of abuse prove? Just how little protection the sleeve offered. Each hit resulted in a perfectly clear imprint of the hammer head in the lid of our already mangled laptop. For the occasional, accidental drop or bump the squishy exterior maybe sufficient, but we wouldn't recommend treating it like an impenetrable force field for your gear.
At the end of the day, we learned there are some seriously tough gadgets out there. Things that you would have to go to MythBuster's-like lengths to destroy (note for next time: invest in force sensors). They might cost more, or sacrifice portability and power for durability, but we know a number of people who would trade a few ounces and a couple of hundred MHz for a device that wont crumble at the sight of a rocky crag or sandy beach. We also learned that we have some serious issues -- ones that, maybe, we should address with a therapist instead of with a sledgehammer and a hard drive.
Update: If you want to see the aftermath, check out the latest episode of the Engadget Show.