THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE TO BUYING MILITARY LAPTOPS
Military laptops and tablets, used for some of the world’s most challenging work, are considered the standard when looking for maximum durability and high-performance features. However, to find the right computer it’s necessary to dig deeper, expanding your search past the designation of “military grade” alone.
This guide will walk you through the specific requirements for military laptops, whether deployed to land, sea or air, based on Department of Defense (DOD) certifications. It will also examine device characteristics required for demanding applications, secure computing and communications, and ease of use.
When selecting the best military laptop or notebook PC, several broad, overlapping, criteria should be carefully considered:
Whether military laptops are to be used for the Army, Navy Air Force or Marines, certification using MIL-STD-810G and MIL-STD-461F standards guarantee the durability and electromagnetic compatibility levels of the rugged and semi-rugged devices used by U.S. forces. The DOD established these testing methods specifically for military devices and provided them to computer manufacturers. Tests using these rigorous standards establish a computer’s ability to withstand a wide range of extreme conditions. Depending upon the conditions to which the military laptop will be subjected, look for the following durability features:
- Shock mounted hard drives
- Protective casing
- Meets appropriate MIL-STD-810G and MIL-STD-461F standards
- Appropriate IP ratings for specific environment and use
MIL-STD-810G standards apply to levels of performance requirements for military computers used on the battlefield and in nature’s extreme conditions including:
- Shock and Drops. Computers undergo 26 drops at a distance up to four feet. Military laptops should have protective casings and shock-mounted hard drives to withstand this type of punishment.
- Vibration. Vibration occurs through operations and transportation, and especially impact to Air Force equipment whether they are in the air or in the garage testing and repairing equipment. Again, shock-mounted hard drives are necessary to withstand certain levels of vibration.
- Humidity. Testing for humidity simulates conditions that take place during transit, storage and adverse environments, and is conducted over 24-hour cycles. Further testing expands the heat and humidity for short periods of time beyond what is found in natural surroundings.
- Blowing Sand and Dust. Testing is conducted on each surface of the computer for blowing particles for two six-hour cycles at different speeds and temperatures. To simulate proximity to an aircraft, wind speed is increased and larger particles are introduced while the testing time is reduced.
- Water. Military laptops are tested in cold and blowing rain for 30 minutes. For those not normally exposed to falling or dripping water, the top surface is exposed for 15 minutes. Devices are also tested for resistance to splashing, immersion, or partial immersion. IP ratings designate the level of protection. An IP65 rating indicates that the device has a rating of 6, meaning that it is dust resistant. The 5 indicates resistance to spraying and blowing water. IP testing will also indicate the effect of water temperature on the seals.
- High Temperatures. First, devices are exposed while turned off to test the durability of the materials themselves at high temperatures. They are then turned on to determine resistance to heat while running. If intended to be used near an artificial heat source, they will be exposed to a constant temperature for a period of time. To simulate real-world conditions, the temperature is cycled from 86 degrees Fahrenheit to 120 degrees. An additional procedure determines durability when stored in high temperatures.
- Low Temperatures. The device undergoes a test to determine its capability to be stored at low temperatures. Then its temperature is gradually lowered to determine functionality during a two-hour period.Finally, the viability of setting up and disassembling the device while wearing heavy cold-weather gear is assessed.
- Keyboard durability. Through testing, keyboards must withstand 25 million keystrokes.
- Electromagnetic compatibility. MIL-STD-461F certification assures that devices do not generate unwanted electromagnetic energy that interferes with the function of nearby equipment. Nor will the laptop be susceptible to electromagnetic energy from nearby equipment.
Cybersecurity is taking on a new and higher level of importance at the DOD. In fact, there is serious consideration of managing cyber warfare and threats at the highest level of command structure. While such elevation may or may not be implemented, the mere suggestion indicates the military considers Cybersecurity a top-level concern.
According to the U.S. Army Cyber Command, “Our enemies will deny the freedom of movement on our networks and use whatever they can from wherever in the world they are to gain advantage.” Thus, military leaders are calling for new approaches to managing and securing information. Such protection must begin at the device level.
In the meantime, as the DOD updates current cyber strategy, it is certain they will be paying close attention to a recent Inspector General Report. The IG calls for improvements in tracking and configuring commercial mobile devices. Rest assured that no less attention will be given to non-commercial rugged and semi-rugged devices with mobile capabilities.
While DOD policies will dictate user behavior, purchasers should look for the following security specs when purchasing any military device:
- Trusted platform module (TPM) security chip. This small piece of hardware authenticates passwords, encryption keys, and digital certificates.
- Theft protection agent in the bios. The presence of this feature will help recover data due to lost or stolen laptops.
- Cable lock slot. The ability to lock the laptop with rubberized metal cable is a barrier against theft.
- Password security. As a minimum requirement, check to be sure any military laptop can be password-secured at the device level.
- Fingerprint scanner. In the event of policies requiring biometric security measures, check for options such as fingerprint scanners.
- Attention to optical drives. When optical storage such as CD and DVD is a must, DOD and other levels of policy will dictate specific security measures. Understand these requirements ahead of time before you buy.
- FIPS 140 compliance. Levels within FIPS 140 indicate degrees of tamper evidence or resistance as well as modes of user authentication.
Even if a military PC is durable and possesses the highest security standards, none of those features matter unless the laptop is capable of high-performance computing. When running power applications that require speed and memory, or when battery power is needed to last throughout an extended work cycle, performance counts.
When determining performance requirements for military laptop needs, consider the following features:
- Dual processors. Dual processors allow efficient execution of programs and multitasking. This is critical in the field when personnel may need to run applications and use communication software concurrently. Look for dual processors that exhibit low power consumption.
- Access to multiple cell networks. Depending upon a single 3G cellular network can be inconvenient and even risky. Determine the availability of embedded or optional Gobi technology or mobile broadband to bridge the gap.
- Expandable memory. Consider laptops that come with generous RAM as a standard feature. Determine if the memory is expandable in case of future or unexpected computing needs.
- Battery operation. Expect a full-day’s worth of battery power. Look for hot-swappable options when appropriate.
Look for features that appeal to the user’s senses. To effectively employ a device, the user must be able to clearly view contents of the screen as well as hear audio when required. Also, military users will frequently use their laptops in the field for long periods of time, so compactness and ergonomics are key attributes.
The following features should be taken into account to ensure maximum usability:
- Screen display. Viewing conditions can be unpredictable in battlefield or reconnaissance settings. Look for nighttime and direct sunlight viewing conditions with high definition and adequate screen size.
- Touch Screen and touchpad. An oversized, electrostatic, (allows scrolling) touchpad, with multi-touch (tap, pinch to zoom, and paging) are important features to have in the field. The ability to use a stylus should also be included.
- Integrated speaker. Integrated speakers are a must-have in order to maintain device compactness and ease of use. In addition, the user should have the ability to control volume from the keyboard.
- Interface capabilities. Numerous features, such as serial, USB and Ethernet ports, along with ports for headphones and speakers, microphone and external audio may be needed. Determine which are needed for the particular environment. Most, if not all may be standard on the device.
- Ergonomic features. Because military personnel may be standing while using a laptop, look for features such as a shoulder strap with some elasticity and dome support for the palm of the hand.
- Safety and convenience. For a firm grasp during adverse weather conditions or per user preference, consider a device with a built-in or detachable handle.
It is important when purchasing computers that all requirements are clearly specified in order to have adequate features for successful operations. Because there are varied requirements for military laptops across the branches of service, carefully consider customization options.
For example, the Navy requires custom-configured notebook PCs configured specifically for submarine use while Marines may have broad requirements depending upon whether the devices will be deployed via land, ship, air or tactical vehicle.
The value of a military laptop is a function of the price, reliability, longevity and the usefulness of the device. The overall industry failure rate, according to PC Magazine, is 21 percent, while Panasonic service records show an annual failure rate of only 2.99 percent, a statistic that speaks very specifically to value.
Clearly, these rugged and durable computers are made to last for years. While the most recent features may be vital in many situations, frequently it is the signature attributes that are absolute requirements. In these cases, it makes sense to purchase used equipment. This strategy results in considerable value by providing models with the most important features needed in the field at a significant discount.
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