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Mobile workstations provide new and improved innovative techniques for electronic design—especially when leveraging performance gains like Intel Xeon mobile processors. However, designers need to consider more than just performance.
For years, design work was primarily performed in the office or lab on desktop systems. More designers are now seeking to take their work on the road, though, either to share and collaborate or just to work from home. Increasing use of mobile workstations has led to an unforeseen challenge for designers: Determining machine durability. Designers need to know that, as they take their work on the road, their systems will stand up to any kind of environment or situation thrown at them. So how can designers know if their mobile workstations are built to last?
In this article, we’ll look at machine durability as a critical factor for electronic designers should consider when choosing mobile workstations.
Why Durability Matters
With more mobile workstations being used in electronic design, users have a tendency to consider these machines as simply smaller versions of their desktop systems. However, mobile workstations are their own unique systems, and, consequently, they come with unique advantages, needs, demands, and concerns.
Durability is one of these concerns. No matter the designer, it’s a sure bet that taking a mobile workstation on the road will expose it to all sorts of conditions, from general wear and tear to extreme heat or cold, drops, or spills. Designers tend to overlook durability when choosing a workstation, instead seeking out a machine that will give them optimal performance and usability. And while these features are certainly vital, it’s important not to neglect the kind of conditions in which the machine is being used.
It’s easy for users to underestimate the impact that physical elements can have on their mobile workstations. For instance, extreme heat conditions can lead to cracking of a display or damage to interior components, rendering the machine useless and potentially compromising any files saved on the hard drive.
This isn’t limited to just extreme heat in a lab: Even leaving the machine in the trunk of a hot car can have a damaging effect. And it’s not just heat. Dust, corrosion, altitude, vibration, and shock can all contribute significantly to machine reliability issues, causing performance problems or, at worst, total system failure. Personally, I know I have dropped mine more than once.
These are all conditions that are routine in mobile workstation use. So how can designers know that their machines will be built to last?
Indicators of Durability
Identifying a durable workstation can be challenging, since a designer typically won’t be able to gauge if a machine is durable until actually subjecting it to the conditions of the work. That said, a couple of key factors can provide insight into a machine’s durability.
MIL-SPEC (military specification) testing is a set of industry standards for mobile workstations specifically designed to test durability, ruggedness, and reliability. The tests cover environmental variables that include temperature, shock, pressure, dust, humidity, and vibration. Some specific criteria used in MIL-SPEC testing are:
• Bare drop (to ensure protection of data): Drop from height of 120 cm (47 inches).
• Packaged drop: 90-cm (36 inches) height freefall drops in shipping carton on various corners, edges, and faces.
• Humidity: Cycles 95% humidity through the environment.
• Vibration (operational and non-operational): Jostles and jolts the laptops to make sure they can withstand shocks.
• Functional (or mechanical) shock: High acceleration and repeated shock pulses over 18 times.
• High temperature: Simulates high heat conditions by baking the laptop up to 140°F.
• Low temperature: Tests operation at –4°F.
• Temperature shock: Fluctuates from –4° up to 140°F to test operation.
• Dust: Blows dust for six hours.
• Sand: Blows silica sand for 90 minutes in two directions.
• Explosive atmosphere: Operated in a fuel vapor environment.
These are important standards for determining ruggedness, and only the best-built and best-designed mobile workstations meet the standards set by these criteria. For example, Lenovo mobile workstations, which include the ThinkPad W Series (ThinkPad W541 and W550s) and recently announced ThinkPad P Series (ThinkPad P50 and P70), are all run through rigorous MIL-SPEC testing before being released to market. The ThinkPad P Series, in particular, was tested against 12 MIL-SPEC methods and 20 procedures to ensure it can handle any environmental hazards users may encounter on their jobs.
Seeing language in a company’s promotional materials about MIL-SPEC testing goes a long way toward assuring designers that the machines they purchase will handle their tough jobs no matter the environments.
An advantage of being an electronic designer looking to purchase a mobile workstation is that most designers understand the components of electronic design, so they can point out a well-built machine when they see it. Still, designers should look at a few distinct features when discerning whether a machine will be durable enough for their purposes.
One of these is the hinge. How many times will a machine open or close before the hinge breaks? What kinds of conditions will cause it to break? Another is material. Does the material used to build the workstation look like cheap plastic? Or does it feel solid, rugged, and ready to handle drops? Are the corners rounded or sharp? Don’t mistake weight for durability, as many providers have engineered thin, light mobile workstations that can withstand tough conditions simply because of the materials used to build them. And then there’s the keyboard: How much tough typing can a machine withstand before the keys break?
These are just a few of the external features that can give users insight into a machine’s durability; other aspects of a system’s internal design also ensure durability, such as roll-cage design, shock-resistant components, and others. However, because these are internal, they likely won’t be as easy to discern as external features. Designers now have a few things to consider in judging a well-built and well-designed mobile workstation. For example, check out the video on Lenovo’s Yamato workstation:
Electronic design can be a rigorous undertaking, and the demand for mobility in the practice has led to a dramatic uptick in the use of mobile workstations to create designs in the field and on the road. Having a durable, well-designed workstation will go a long way toward extending the life of the investment.