Pulling Back the Mil-Spec Curtain

If you actually take the time to read the entire MIL-STD-810F standards document (commonly shortened to Mil-Spec), you will probably find it difficult to stay awake, much less decipher how it applies to specific products.  It’s no wonder then, that there is a lot of confusion as to how these standards should be considered when evaluating different models of rugged or durable notebooks.

Water TestMost readers of this blog will be familiar with the concise definition of Mil-Spec, which refers to the Military standards developed by the U.S. Department of Defense to ensure products meet certain requirements, commonality, reliability, total cost of ownership, compatibility with logistics systems and similar defense-related objectives.

The standards have become a common benchmark in validating the level of ruggedization in a notebook, with a variety of tests designed to determine a product’s ability to withstand challenging conditions in the field. These include drops, high altitudes, dust, liquid, vibration and extreme temperatures.  Our fully-rugged Toughbook notebooks each pass numerous Mil-Spec tests; a summary can be found here.

Given the dependence on Mil-Spec to evaluate rugged laptops, I’d like to call attention to some common misconceptions and important recommendations to help anyone considering which rugged notebooks to deploy:

  • Ensure that the right tests were passed – Potential buyers shouldn’t hear “Mil-Spec certified” and assume the device is rugged in all respects. There are numerous independent tests, so verify whether a notebook has passed the ones that best reflect the environment it will be deployed in. For example, a computer that will be mounted in an Arizona police car should put considerable priority on passing the extreme heat and vibration tests.
  • Don’t assume third-party validation – Currently, the Armed Services do not conduct actual tests or certify that rugged devices meet Mil-Spec standards.  Each supplier of rugged computing equipment is expected to assure or guarantee adherence to the standards. Always ask for third-party validation that the tests were passed.
  • Know the boundaries of every test – There are varying degrees of Mil-Spec tests, and many of them simply don’t go far enough to ensure reliable use in certain applications. The 810F water-resistance test, for instance, doesn’t compare to the level of rain that a disaster response team might encounter in a tropical storm. Panasonic tests fully-rugged Toughbook notebooks beyond Mil-Spec requirements in many categories, such as spraying fully-rugged notebooks with water for 12 hours (other standards related to ingress protection, or IP, also exist). Fully-rugged Toughbook notebooks are also held to a higher standard on drop tests, with three-foot drops onto every angle while the unit is operating. The Toughbook U1, an ultra mobile rugged handheld PC, exceeds four feet.
  • In the end, failure rates are what counts – After all, Mil-Spec is just a test. Whether a computer continues to operate smoothly after several years of abuse in extreme environments is the best determinant of how rugged they really are.  Even if a computer passes the dust-resistance Mil-Spec test, the only way to ensure it will withstand years of blowing dust (whether in Iraq or West Texas) is to check the failure rates.

Panasonic is currently the only notebook manufacturer to make its failure rates public. Fully-rugged 30 and 19 computers boast failure rates of 1.5 and 2.5 percent, respectively, and they are being put to the test by field workers every day. Even our business-rugged notebooks all have failure rates under five percent, a fraction of the industry average for business notebooks, as published by PC Magazine.

For additional advice on making an informed Mil-Spec assessment, I highly recommend this overview from leading analyst Rob Enderle, which emphasizes the importance of validating Mil-Spec claims. Roger Kay also completed an interesting and comprehensive report on rugged computing in 2008.  Finally, David Krebs of VDC has recently delivered a paper that focuses on TCO and ROI and the impact of deploying the wrong solution in what should be a rugged usage environment.

Today, there aren’t many professions left where computer downtime does not have a major impact on productivity.  In the case of first responders and military personnel, to declare computer uptime as “mission-critical” is to understate the responsibilities they’re tasked with every day. Panasonic has consistently raised its standards of reliability for these types of customers for 15 years, and we will continue helping mobile professionals across every industry navigate the increasingly complex landscape of rugged standards.

[NOTE: MIL-STD-810G, which was created in October 2008, supersedes MIL-STD-810F]