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Sci/Tech: Crash Test Laptops
Saturday, 14 April 2007 Written by Alexander G. Rubio
Huge hulking desktops may increasingly be a thing of the past. But they did have a couple of advantages. One was that to knock them over you almost had to slam your shoulder into them at ramming speed. Laptops are light weight, practical, and can go with you anywhere. Problem is, they can also go quite to pieces at the merest oops.

So and so many MHz, MB, and GB, are things the average prospective buyer can check before making a purchase. But chances are that the staff at the store would be less than pleased if you came in and began your own impromptu test of PC impact survivability.

So which popular brands of laptop PCs can take the punishment, and which ones are instant candidates for brain surgery?

The Unbearable Shinyness of the Screen

The lab technicians at Sveriges Tekniska Forskningsinstitut (the Swedish Technical Research Institute), who put nine popular laptops through the paces for the independent test and research company Testfakta, didn't just test for durability, but also battery life and screen quality. The nine PC, which are all in the 10,000 Swedish Kronor (US $1,450) family PC range, were: The Apple MacBook, DELL Inspiron 6400, Lenovo IBM Thinkpad R60, Toshiba Satellite Pro A120-163, Lenovo N100, LG P1-KP55V, Acer Aspire 5112WLMi, Fujitsu Siemens AMILO Pa 1538, and the HP dv6219ea.

The screen tests were focused on measuring unwanted reflectivity and gloss factor using BYK-Gardner instrumentation. The winners in this category turned out to be the pleasing to the eye screens of the Toshiba and Lenovo IBM Thinkpad, which came in a whisker and a pimple ahead of the MacBook.

The next test was for battery life, an important factor in a product that is after all primarily made for on the go usage. The screen brightness was turned to maximum, and the machines were set to run 3DMark06 (and equivalent program for the Mac) in a loop. The time was then recorded from start up until the machines shut down for lack of power.

The Apple MacBook soldiered on for 3 hours before calling it a day, while the Fujitsu Siemens cried uncle after just 66 minutes. If you're planning on watching "Gone with the Wind" on your bus ride to Missoula, Montana, the latter might not be your ideal choice of laptop.

Crash! Boom! Bang!

Click for the full test results (Swedish text)
And then there's the perhaps most interesting part of the test, the impact and vibration trials. To as far as possible ensure consistency and reproducible results, the tests were conducted according to IEC standards for transport and handling, with three separate trials for each test.

The vibration test, with the machine running, exposed the PCs to 30Gs (1 G equals the force of standard sea level gravity, or 10m/s2), which is roughly equivalent to the treatment it would experience in the hands of a bad tempered postman. Most of the test machines shut down, but were able to restart without noticeable problems. The Acer Aspire showed bad sectors on the harddrive, but was able to keep going after recovery operations. The MacBook just kept running as if nothing had happened. Some of the machines are equipped with sensors that shut the machine off in case of strong vibrations, said the head of the test team, Jens Tunare.

To get some idea of the sort of forces a normal laptop is subjected to if they are dropped on the floor, they measured a couple of scenarios. If a computer were to be dropped bottom side down from a height of 80 centimetres, the maximum force was 285 G over 3,5 ms. A drop of 55 cm short side first came in at 866 G over 1,2 ms. Being held at a 45 degree angle and then dropped clocked 133 Gs over 3,5 ms. In the test itself the machines were subjected to shocks of 75, 160, and 250 Gs in a powered down state.

The only machine to pass all the vibration and shock tests with no ill effects was the Apple MacBook. Dell, Lenovo IBM, and the Toshiba survived, but shut down during strong vibrations. The screen on the Lenovo N100 was damaged at 250 G, as was also the case on the Acer Aspire. At the same level of force the harddrive on the Fujitsu Siemens was DOA, while the LG P1-KP55V lost both the display and harddrive at 250 G. As for the HP dv6219ea, it didn't even boot to BIOS after the 160 G shock.

"How the machine hits the ground is very important," says engineer Jörgen Eriksson, who oversaw the shock and vibration tests. "The same force will also have quite different results depending on how the laptops are constructed."

So the overall winner of the test is the Apple MacBook, which takes quite a bit of punishment, and gets you past the Atlanta fire, all the way to "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn!"