'I took my S15C camping'

I tested Durabook S15C, a semi-rugged notebook with a 15.6-inch display. Like many GammaTech products, it is marketed within the price point of a consumer product, which is one reason the company’s products are so popular.

While it looks like the kind of notebook you can buy at a big-box store, including its relatively low weight for a semi-rugged machine, it was designed for tough environments, data security and maximized communication.

I took my S15C camping in moderately high altitude and it got to see some snow in the middle of summer. I found that it was capable of lakeside and poolside use; an officer should be confident about using it in the rain.

Don’t try this at home

The S15C is designed to be MIL STD 810 G method 516.6, Procedure IV-rated in drop resistance. These are “in transit” 29-inch drops with the unit off and closed. The requirement for survival is it must be able to reboot after the drop.

I have a completely different take on this type of test. First, I confirm that it will survive the protocol-specified 76-cm drop on 2-inch plywood. When I confirm it can handle this, I leave the computer out on the dining room table and every time a guest comes by and says something that resembles “nice computer,” I toss it to them, open or closed, running or not. After all, my job is to push the envelope a little.

Of the 20 or so times I have done this over a month, only two people caught the computer. It generally landed flat, but there is no guarantee that this will be the outcome. I like completing the scientific portion of the testing so that I can really beat on the product. I have done this before with another Durabook and my two-word response is the same with this product: without incident. (The rubber bumpers on the outside of the unit prevent it from dropping and spinning on my carpet.)

Features & options

Agencies can configure it with an Intel i7 processor at 620 M, an Intel I i5 processor at 560 M, an Intel i3 processor at 380 M or an Intel Pentium processor P6 200. The board can handle two dual-channel DDR III SODIMM modules for a total of 8 GB. The HDD is a 2.5-inch SATA II 300 anti-shock mounted unit that encases the data rather well. The optical media device is either a Dual DVD or a Super Multi DVD. The shock mounted HDD (mine came with a 500 GB SATA) uses flexible cabling and isolation to protect data.

I was a little unreasonable in throwing the unit around and I am quite satisfied that it will exceed expectations.

Screen: The Durabook S15C has anti-shock mounting for the HDD and the LCD screen. Most LCD screens on big-box laptops are delicate. Some businesses make their money off students who drop the product on the way to class and discover that repair is actually more expensive than purchasing a replacement unit, and most consumers don’t even check to see whether the product can be repaired.

The S15C has a sunlight readable option, but the standard set up and antiglare touchscreen did fine in bright sunlight. A side-by-side comparison between this machine and several other units, including my MacBook Pro, proved this one to be outstanding in bright daylight and artificial light. It was consistently a little blue and “Photoshoppers” like me would have to calibrate it a little.

The S15C has a touchscreen LCD with an antiglare finish. I did the same thing that many would do prior to reading the manual. I touched the screen to see what the unique finish felt like; I didn’t know that it was touch sensitive.

I found it was much easier to access the textbox on a template by touching. If the form is in an editable PDF, the officer can even use the touchscreen to circle items or check boxes.

Mousing on the screen is intuitive and reads complex gestures—something desirable in a product that potentially could be mounted in a patrol car. For example, it could be trained to recognize a certain type of finger swipe or click to summon help in a subtle way.

Durabook screens use tactile touch, not capacitive touch. To understand the difference, try using an iPhone wearing gloves. It doesn’t work, does it? That’s capacitive sensing. One can mouse with a Durabook S15C wearing gloves. Hint: Don’t try to wipe the screen off while the computer is running. I opened two different applications that way.

There is an optional pen pointer, but I like fingernails myself, they are handy.

Resistance: The S15C is not water resistant, but the keyboard is ruggedized. It can handle spills and splashes and environments of high humidity. I liberally applied spills and splashes and then rinsed them off. The 88-key keyboard is springy and—most importantly—full sized. There is enough area for one to rest the palms, even though it has a flush-mounted touchpad. While it is plenty sensitive, complete with ergonomic clickers and textured scrolling strip, I liked the touchscreen better.

Benchmark: I benchmark computers when I test them. This is a method of running the processor through computations and graphics and comparing the processing against other computers or known standards.

The truth is, the S15C has so many options, one really has to decide which S15C one is testing. After all, the Intel i5 model I tested was slightly average to above average in speed, compared with similar specs. The unit I tested had a 2.53-GHz processor.

Benchmarking can only give a relative answer about a laptop’s performance. For example, some tests cause it to render and re-render graphics by resizing and rotating an image. The things that are not measured (of interest to public safety) are how much the fan runs when under stress, how warm the machine gets and how battery usage climbs when the machine is stressed.

How did the S15C do? First, the fan ran a lot, even when I left it idling while charging. I noticed this about Durabooks before, but consider it inconsequential, simply because they generally stay cool and the fan is relatively quiet.

The S15C comes with a 4.4Ah Li battery, which can be removed without cracking the case. The S15C has a utility to calibrate and monitor the battery for maximization. The six-cell battery gives an average 3.5 hours of service. The optional nine-cell power pack gives about 5 hours of service. I got around 3.5 hours with the six-cell pack, which recharged in about 3 hours.

Aesthetics: The case and chassis of the S15C is magnesium, which is stronger and lighter than the plastics used for lesser products. This keeps the device at 6.5 pounds and 1.5 inches thick. The form factor is sleek and the product doesn’t have the mandatory utilitarian look that screams, “This is for work!” which was evident when my family constantly asked if they could use it to complete their homework—over my MacBook Pro.

Options: Communication is key with this type of product and the S15C can do WWAN or GPS if an agency wishes. It has a 1.3 mp webcam and Bluetooth v2.1. +EDR (enhanced data rate) communication. WWAN is useful for public safety users, especially with the latest Web portal based critical incident products out there.

The S15C has all of the usual options for input, including a SIM card slot and a Super DVD option. I appreciated the space between USB ports and a transit lock for the DVD drive.

Intangibles: Its stereo speakers are not anemic and the meaningful LED indicators really make the package. I also liked the sleep function, which responded instantly. The S15C has plenty of keystroke functions that separate it from an ordinary laptop.

Unfortunately, there is one intangible that was overlooked. This is a semi-rugged package without a backlit keyboard. While this is not a deal breaker, it makes a difference in law enforcement. I don’t like Windows 7 either, but it can be purchased with a different configuration.

The Durabook S15C is superior under any standard. It just so happens to also be semi rugged. Once again, GammaTech produced a winner.


Lindsey Bertomen is a retired police officer who teaches at Hartnell College in Salinas, Calif. He welcomes comments at lbertomen@letonline.com.