Oops, we dropped it again: TigerDirect.com's made-in-USA house brand ventures from its usual good-but-generic PC territory. We put the 14-inch laptop to the test -- making sure, of course, we don't accidentally stand on it...
Butterfingers? If you're like us, the word made you think of a candy bar (Get out of our heads, Nestlé! Damn you and your peanut-buttery goodness!), but of course it really refers to a clumsy person, one prone to accidentally dropping things. Like you.
Don't bother to deny it; we've all fumbled our car keys or groceries -- or, worst of all, our notebook PCs. Systemax, the Ohio-based manufacturer that sells its wares mostly through its TigerDirect.com and Global Computer Supplies Web sites, aims to rescue your inner klutz with the Assault, a 14-inch-screened, 6-pound portable built to survive the shocks and spills of careless handling.
Ruggedized laptops, of course, are nothing new. Firms like General Dynamics Itronix, Rugged Notebooks, and Panasonic have long offered heavy-duty, heavyweight, and heavily priced portables certified to meet formidable military standards for impact, vibration, dust, dirt, water, and extreme hot and cold.
The Assault isn't meant for the most sadistic such treatment; like many of Panasonic's Toughbooks, it's what experts would classify as semi-rugged instead of fully rugged. Its keyboard and touchpad, for example, are meant to resist accidental water, coffee, or soda spills, but the whole system isn't submersible.
Still, the Assault's magnesium alloy case, rubberized-bumper-equipped corners, shock-mounted hard disk, and clear shield over the LCD make it stand out among the generic, low-priced laptops that Systemax and other store brands are best known for. And with a pretty-well-equipped price of $1,300, it doesn't charge a lot extra for a lot of extra protection.
The $1,300 Assault model T72212P at TigerDirect.com includes Intel's Core 2 Duo T7200 -- a 2.0GHz dual-core CPU with 667MHz front-side bus and 4MB of shared Level 2 cache -- along with 2GB of DDR-2/667 memory, a 120GB hard disk, DVD±RW burner, and Windows XP Professional. Our test unit was the same except for Vista Home Premium, which according to Tiger's build-your-own page would add $30.
The build-your-own Assault starts at $1,000 with skimpy specs such as a 1.86GHz, 2MB-cache Core 2 Duo T2350, 512MB of RAM, and a 60GB hard drive. You can push it closer to $2,000 with extras such as a 2.33GHz Core 2 Duo T7600 and 250GB hard disk.
While the T7200 has been on the market a little while but remains a thoroughly respectable mobile processor, the Assault snubs Intel's current "Santa Rosa" portable platform for the geriatric 945GM chipset and molasses-based GMA 950 integrated video -- along with an old-school 1,024 by 768-resolution display instead of following today's widescreen fashion.
It's a good thing that ruggedized-laptop customers don't play games, because the Systemax crashed in one antique XGA-resolution title (Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory) and struggled to 12 frames per second in another (AquaMark3).
At the same 1,024 by 768 resolution, the system plodded to a so-very-low score of 247 in Futuremark's 3DMark06, and took nearly four minutes to render Maxon's Cinebench R10's sample scene (using both CPU cores).
But the Assault's 2GB of memory, 120GB WD Scorpio 5,400-rpm hard drive, and other components did their share when it came to less graphics-intensive benchmarks. The Systemax earned a not-half-bad PCMark05 score of 3,571 (CPU 4,803; memory 3,917; hard disk 4,092; graphics 1,031), and a a rating of 97 -- virtually tied with the 2.66GHz HP Compaq dc7800 desktop we tested in October -- in BAPCo's SysMark 2007 Preview.
Considering its appeal to someone who might, for instance, work at a construction site all day, we were mildly disappointed by the Assault's battery life: Our medium-strenuous work sessions averaged just under two and a half hours. A larger (9- instead of 6-cell battery) is a $150 option. Other options include 60-day trial versions of various Microsoft Office 2007 editions; our test unit had no software bundle apart from the OS and Adobe Reader 8.
The Assault weighs a fraction under six pounds, with its AC adapter adding a fraction under one pound, and measures 10.1 by 12.3 by 1.5 inches. A flash-card slot for Memory Stick, Secure Digital, and MultiMediaCard storage is on the front edge, along with microphone and headphone jacks and the QSI DVD±RW drive.
The right side offers three USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire port, and an old-fashioned RS-232 serial port -- handy, Systemax notes, for some of the data collection and other devices you might find at an industrial work site. At the left are Ethernet and modem jacks, a VGA port, and SmartCard and PCMCIA slots.
A Few Keyboard Quirks
As mentioned, the Systemax's screen offers classic XGA (1,024 by 768) resolution, with no bad pixels to be seen in our test unit. Perhaps due to the shield fitted over the LCD, it doesn't offer the most vivid colors or brightest brights we've ever seen, but that doesn't mean it's dim and murky -- the display looked perfectly good as long as we stuck to the top one or two of its backlight settings.
You can give a sharp rap to either the front or back side of the screen, or push a finger against it hard enough to cause concentric rainbows on other LCDs, with no ill effect. Nor does the display flex much even when you try twisting opposite corners.
The only negative is that, unlike some notebooks built for computing alfresco, the Assault's screen isn't legible in outdoor sunlight -- it's a little better than most laptops (meaning barely, grayly readable) in indirect light, but you can forget about reading it at high noon.
The keyboard has a good typing feel, but it takes a little practice for touch typists to hit the Delete key -- with Home and End keys ending the top row, Delete is the third key from the top of the rightmost column (below Insert and above PgUp and PgDn).
Speaking of generic parts, the keyboard Systemax chose for the Assault has an icon for enabling or disabling Bluetooth wireless on one of the function keys, although the notebook doesn't have Bluetooth. It does have 802.11g WiFi, which you can turn on and off via a button above the keyboard next to the power button. The touchpad is small but smooth, but the rubber oval below it that forms the mouse buttons feels, well, rubbery.
Nyah Ha Ha Ha Hah!
Hardware vendors have often thought of the Labs, Weather, & Sports Desk as a torture chamber, but for this one we got downright evil -- although, in our defense, we didn't do anything not mentioned in the YouTube video on the manufacturer's own.com site, a fuzzy combination of a Cal's Used Cars sales pitch and Jackass stunt gag.
First, the fraction under six pounds stood up to a fraction under 200 pounds: We switched off and closed the notebook, then placed it on the floor for a weighty editor to step and then stand on. The Assault booted up and ran with no trouble.
Next, we dropped the closed laptop from 12 or 15 inches onto our carpeted office floor. The first time, the optical drive popped out about halfway, because we, um, hadn't pushed the adjacent switch labeled LOCK to lock it into position. The drive stayed in place through a few more falls before the PC fired up just fine.
Rage building, we hefted the closed system to near desk height -- 28 inches -- and dropped it twice, tilted at a 45-degree angle to the right one time and to the left the other. The Systemax shrugged off the first plunge.
On the second, we heard a faint crack of plastic and eagerly opened the notebook to look for shattered pieces and jagged shrapnel. All we could find was a bit of plastic on the floor about a quarter-inch square, which turned out to be one of the two protruding screen latches that flank the display. Turning the notebook on, it booted and ran applications as fresh as a daisy.
We should note here that we didn't put the Assault to the supreme test -- knocking it from a desk to the floor while open and running -- which Systemax makes no promise of surviving and which shades from semi-rugged into rugged notebook territory. We did pick up the switched-on laptop and drop it five or six inches several times, simulating the common conference-room occurrence where you grab your notebook one-handed, only to discover you don't have a firm grip on it. The Assault kept on ticking.
The computer was, however, up and running for our last act -- filling a cup at the water cooler and spilling almost all of it almost all over the keyboard and touchpad. The latter failed to perform properly while soaking wet, so we fetched paper towels and wiped and blotted the Systemax more or less dry (with some liquid still visible beneath the keys).
You guessed it: The touchpad, keyboard, and rest of the notebook then worked perfectly, although lifting the laptop revealed a large puddle of (noticeably warmed) water from a drainage hole in the bottom center.
In a sense, the Systemax won us over despite ourselves -- it's a little heavier, a little slower, and we confess a little plainer or more generic-looking than we'd normally like, but its sturdy construction vaults it from the vanilla category onto a shopping short list for users who've longed for ruggedized notebooks but been put off by the price.
This article was first published on Hardware Central.