Roughing it with Dell’s Rugged Laptops and Tablets

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  October 5, 2016

Rugged mobile devices, particularly rugged laptops and tablets, inhabit one of the odder and more interesting corners of the personal computing market. Odd because these solutions mostly contradict or completely ignore conventional mobile ultralight trends and svelte style points.

In total contrast, the thickness of rugged laptops and tablets is measured in quarter inches, not millimeters, and ultra-rugged products can tip the scales at 8+ pounds. Matching up one of Dell’s Rugged or Rugged Extreme solutions with a conventional Ultrabook or consumer tablet is like standing a bull mastiff next to a whippet, or a Peterbilt big rig beside a Ferrari 488 Spider.

Why rugged?

But the “why” of Dell’s Rugged design points is what makes them so interesting. See, rugged laptops and tablets are made to work, not for play, and not just any kind of work. They’re built to take on and thrive during the toughest, dirtiest jobs imaginable. That includes heavy construction, manufacturing and heavy industry, oil and mineral exploration, mapping and surveying, and military operations, some requiring the highest levels of security clearance.

Good enough, but what is it about Dell’s solutions that sets them apart as “rugged” in the first place? Several things, including the ability to survive:

  1. Shock and vibration, including transit (not operating) drops from 72”, 60” and 48” (78 total or + 26 drops from each height for certification) and operating drops from 36”.
  2. Tens of thousands of open/close cycles on display hinges
  3. Moisture intrusion, including water sprayed from every angle, pressurized blasts of water and mist. Resistance to salty fog is available with an optional rubberized keyboard.
  4. Extremes of cold and heat, including operating at temperatures of from -20°F to 145°F and non-operating from ‐60°F to 160°

In other words, abuse that would send Apple iPads and other run of the mill tablets to the ICU or morgue. So when Dell invited a bunch of IT industry analysts to meet with the Latitude Rugged product team, how could I refuse?

In the field and lab

The visit began with a trip to Lake Travis, north of Austin, Texas and an afternoon on a houseboat that provided a base of operations for the demo sessions. After anchoring alongside a rocky island in the middle of the lake, the engineers unpacked Dell solutions, including,

  • Latitude 12 Rugged Tablet – Designed to meet rigorous military and industry requirements. Made with shock-absorbent materials and compression-sealed from sand, dust and liquids. Includes an outdoor-readable, glove-capable touchscreen display and stylus.
  • Latitude 14 Rugged – Built to withstand shocks, drops and vibrations, as well as extreme temperatures with Dell QuadCool thermal management.
  • Latitude 12 Rugged Extreme Convertible – A 2-in-1 notebook with a versatile flip hinge. Includes a 11.6″ HD (1366×768) touch display.
  • Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme – Meets rigorous military-standard requirements. Compression-sealed from sand, dust and liquids. Includes an outdoor-readable, glove-capable resistive touchscreen.

Dell’s Rugged and Rugged Extreme solutions all include a range of sealable connectivity ports and slots, along with wired and wireless options, including mobile broadband and GPS. The notebooks support hot swap batteries and the tablets offer dual battery configurations (a critical point in many use cases), as well as support for Dell Power Companion devices. Optional fixed and mobile docking solutions are also available.

Security solutions for Dell’s Rugged and Rugged Extreme products include comprehensive encryption, advanced authentication and threat protection with Dell Data Protection. Dell’s ProSupport services are also available.

The demonstrations by Dell’s Rugged group engineers included network connectivity, support for Dell’s 4K ultra hi-def displays, and a “drop test” (11.6″) HD (1366×768) Touch Display with Microphone & Camera that consisted of a working Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme being heaved onto the island by one of the visiting analysts, then restarted. Dell staff also lashed a Latitude 12 Rugged Tablet onto a jet ski, then tracked the routes and speeds of attendees racing on a lake course set-up earlier in the day.

The following morning, we headed to Dell headquarters in Round Rock for a morning of meetings and further demos. We began with a tour of two Dell ProSupport Centers which oversee service calls for customers and monitor events, including inclement weather and public disturbances that could impact repairs or product deliveries.

This level of on-demand 24/7 support is critical for many Rugged customers who depend on these devices to work at all times and in all circumstances. The larger Center can seat nearly 100 ProSupport employees, and is dominated by three large video monitors with videos ranging from national news feeds to maps for tracking service call progress.

A second, smaller Federal Support Center in the same building tracks service activities for U.S. government customers, including military installations. The facility is separate for governance and security, and its staff includes a large proportion of military veterans. No classified information is used at the Center, but Dell does provide support for classified agencies (and, no, the details of those activities were not shared).

The Rugged Labs facility nearby is a roomy space occupied by industrial equipment, including heaters, freezers, hinge testing devices, a contraption for drop tests and machines that simulate rainfall and dust storms. AustinInno, a local tech news source, recently published an article on a visit to the Labs by Mike Libecki, a National Geographic explorer and professional climber, that includes some video of Labs testing in action.

The rugged market

Afterward, we retired to a briefing center room for presentations by Dell executives, including Drew Moore, executive director and GM of Dell’s Rugged Mobility Products. Jeff Clarke, Dell’s co-chairman and EVP of the company’s client solutions group also dropped by for a brief Q&A session that offered some interesting insights.

Given the often esoteric use cases for these devices and the relatively modest size of the overall market, why is the company so passionate about its Rugged Mobility portfolio? Four reasons come immediately to mind:

  1. Though their sales volumes and revenues are relatively modest compared to other notebooks and tablets, rugged solutions typically deliver far higher margins.
  2. They also offer ways for Dell to engage with and serve highly important private and public sector organizations, leading to other commercial opportunities. As Jeff Clarke noted, “It’s not a large market but it is a very important market.”
  3. Rugged mobility effectively rounds out Dell’s end to end solutions portfolio and strategy. In fact, since other major PC vendors offer little in the way of comparative solutions, Dell can make a valid claim for being the leader in end to end computing solutions for industry.
  4. Finally, Dell’s rugged innovations inform and enhance other company solutions. For example, the Rugged Mobility team contributed to Dell’s recently introduced IoT Gateway solution, and the group also regularly collaborates with Dell’s OEM organization on new products.

The company’s efforts have resulted in significant growth and benefits, with Dell regularly taking share away from Panasonic whose Toughbook products have long led the market.

GM Drew Moore also noted that over half of Dell Rugged clients are first time customers and that the company’s channel partners are finding considerable success, especially with local and state government agencies, including police and fire departments and other first responders. Dell employs a cross-trained salesforce for the Rugged portfolio, and Moore noted that the company’s specialized support strategies are real market differentiators.

Final analysis

I can say without exaggeration that the Dell Rugged Labs briefing was the only analyst event I’ve ever attended that included a houseboat, jet ski racing and blasting a working notebook with a water hose. But those activities also helped highlight the differences between rugged and conventional mobile computing solutions, the care Dell puts into its Rugged portfolio, and the resulting value those solutions offer to industry and government customers.

All in all, the visit to the company’s Rugged Labs and ProSupport Centers were seamless which is pretty common for analyst sessions. But did I come away with any concerns or questions? A couple. First is whether Dell will expand its portfolio to include other, non-PC form factor or mobile rugged devices which constitute a significant portion of the market. Drew Moore was non-committal on that point, saying that Dell won’t “enter any market where we can’t be credible.” That’s certainly a sensible approach, but it risks leaving money and potential new customer engagements on the table.

In addition, how large a threat are competitors, like Panasonic and Getac? Panasonic has long been the category leader but has faltered over the past few quarters. Getac has a broad rugged mobility portfolio, including a variety of handhelds and accessories. Those points aside, both are primarily device makers that lack Dell’s ability to deliver end-to-end solutions and support, and can’t match the scalability or cost-efficiencies that Dell leverages for its customers’ benefit.

What about other PC/system vendors? HP has long promoted the rugged qualities of its ElitePad 1000 G2 tablet but its design and reliance on Intel Atom silicon places it in a far different class than Dell’s solutions. Lenovo doesn’t currently offer ruggedized devices but it is pursuing an end-to-end solutions and services strategy similar to Dell’s. The company’s strength in China could also make it a strong contender in a market where large scale industrialization is a natural fit for rugged solutions.

Overall, Dell appears well-positioned to continue capturing share and delivering unique value to its rugged solution customers. The success of Dell’s Rugged and Rugged Extreme Latitude notebooks and tablets also underscores the remarkable, expansive variety of use cases and workplaces that can be enhanced by powerful computing endpoints.

Commercial markets are too often obsessed with the incremental improvements a handful of vendors make to their cookie-cutter consumer tablets and laptops. In strong contrast, Dell is taking the initiative and care to build mobile endpoints rugged and durable enough to take on virtually any job and serve every client, no matter how extreme their needs might be.

Those are attributes customers certainly appreciate, and should serve Dell’s Rugged solutions well for years to come.

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