"Daddy, are you sure I'm supposed to do this?"
My 7-year-old daughter was right to be concerned. She was about to pour a full 8-ounce glass of water directly onto the keyboard of a $2,000 laptop.
"It's okay, honey. Go ahead."
She slowly dumped the water onto the keyboard and watched as it ran straight through the body of the GammaTech Durabook Pro D15RP, dripping out the bottom and into the sink below.
Forty-five minutes later, after some patting with paper towels and blow-drying, I plugged the Durabook back in and powered it up. Not a hitch. I'm typing this story on it.
The Durabook's part of a new class of "semi-rugged" or "business rugged" laptops — not as indestructible as the more expensive "rugged" notebooks used by the military, outdoor engineers and construction workers, yet much more durable than your regular machine.
In addition to dumping water into the Durabook's keyboard, I also dropped the (closed) machine several times onto a carpeted floor, making sure it landed on various edges. I even drop-kicked it, passing it to my kids, who then kicked it around the room.
Even though it was in "sleep" mode for some of these stress tests, the hard drive still spun properly and the screen went without a blemish. Try doing all of that to a MacBook Pro.
That's not to say the Durabook is as good as Apple's top-of-the-line notebook, which is also in the $2,000 price range.
In fact, the Durabook's really an ordinary laptop in an extraordinary body. It's got more or less the same specs as notebooks costing a third as much — a 15-inch screen, DVD burner, Intel Core 2 Duo 8300 processor, 2 gigs of RAM, 160-gig hard drive, Windows Vista Business, built-in Wi-Fi, 3 USB ports, one FireWire port, Ethernet and modem cable jacks, touchpad, Webcam.
That's nearly the same configuration as a 17-inch notebook I bought nearly three years ago for $1,000.
And as with most notebooks currently under $1,000, there's no dedicated graphics card, which made playing even low-end PC games difficult. My kids' copy of "Lego Batman" choked after about 20 minutes of play, although the older "Lego Star Wars" played well.
The inner gamer in me feels that for close to $2,000, a laptop — even a semi-ruggedized one — ought to have at least a low-end discrete graphics processor.
But then again, GammaTech's main customer is the U.S. government, which probably doesn't want field agents and civil engineers playing "Fallout 3" while on the job.
There are also a few extras that most under-$1,000 notebooks don't have — built-in Bluetooth, a 9-cell long-lived battery, a cryptographic smartcard reader, for example. Some of them worked, some of them didn't and some I was unable to test.
The battery was only halfway drained after a full-brightness screening of the 93-minute DVD of "Blazing Saddles," though the speakers never got quite loud enough.
I was excited to try the cellular broadband modem, a feature being built into a lot of new laptops that lets you slip in a SIM card to get 3G cellular Internet access on the road.
But while the card was easy to install, I couldn't get the feature to work, and the user manual was of little help. The somewhat amateurish-looking GammaTech Web site didn't have any drivers for this model, and I still don't know whether my review unit even had the requisite software.
I had somewhat better luck using a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone as a wireless modem. After some fiddling, the laptop and my BlackBerry recognized each other. Password issues on the AT&T Wireless side prevented the Internet access from going through, but at least it's possible.
Since one of GammaTech's top customers is the U.S. government, the cryptographic smart card reader is a welcome addition. When activated, a user can sign on only by using a unique card with a microchip built in, similar in appearance to European credit cards which have had such chips for years.
Unfortunately, not being a government employee privy to classified information, I wasn't able to test that feature.
I did try to use FinallySecure, a Swiss-made application that encrypts the entire hard drive. Installation went smoothly, but the app wouldn't run. A look at the accompanying PDF manual revealed why — the software works only with Windows XP, and this was a Vista laptop.
GammaTech is the U.S. subsidiary of Twinhead, a Taiwanese manufacturer, and the confused grammar of the user manual (available on the laptop as a PDF file) belies the foreign origin. There's an American flag sticker next to the keyboard with the vague notation "FINAL ASSEMBLY IN USA."
Likewise, the GammaTech Web site claims the Fremont, Calif., company is located in Silicon Valley, and even provides a Mapquest grab showing its corporate headquarters right down I-880 from the GM/Toyota auto plant.
But anyone who's lived in the San Francisco area knows Fremont's more East Bay than Silicon Valley, even if Asus and a few other Taiwanese tech companies have their Stateside offices there.
So what sort of extraordinary body do you get for your extra $1,000?
For starters, GammaTech claims the Durabook meets the Pentagon's MIL-STD-810F standard for rugged notebooks, rather than the less onerous MIL-STD-810.
That means it's built to survive a 3-foot drop onto any surface of the unit, and to tolerate rain, extreme heat and cold and high vibrations. I didn't go jogging with it in the snow, but the glass-of-water and drop-kick tests were plenty convincing.
The Durabook's case is made of magnesium alloy, which feels like a comforting combination of plastic and metal. No sarcasm intended; it really is solid without feeling brittle.
The entire outer edge is ringed by a thick rubberized coating, which also surrounds the screen when the unit's opened up. Rubber port covers shield the modem and network jacks, and a latch secures the optical drive to keep it from popping open when the unit's getting knocked around.
The Durabook's main competition is the Panasonic Toughbook 52, also a 15-inch semi-rugged notebook. A similarly configured Toughbook 52 would cost about $2,200, according to Panasonic's Web site, which means you'd save about 10 percent with the Durabook.
Is it — or any "business rugged" laptop — worth the extra expense for a non-government employee?
I think it is, especially for frequent business travelers. At 6 1/2 pounds, the Durabook is no lightweight, but it's solid as a rock. There'd be no need to worry if you knocked it off one of those tiny tables in an airport cafe, or if a stewardess accidentally poured a jug of coffee onto it while you were working on a spreadsheet.
Likewise, as the father of two small, rambunctious children, I'm usually apprehensive when they start playing with my regular laptop. I didn't have any such worries as they pounded on the Durabook's keys. After a couple of weeks of full-family use the unit looks as good as new, save for a smidgen of strawberry jam on one edge.
Would I buy one myself? No, because I don't travel much — but I'd recommend it to any frequent flyer as a dependable, very solid machine.
Intel Core 2 Duo T8300 2.4 GHz
2 GB memory
Windows Experience score of 3.0 (rated from 1 to 5)
160 GB SATA drive
Bluetooth and Wi-Fi AGN
Ethernet, POTS modem, serial port, 3 USB, one FireWire
Smartcard security reader, PCI Express card slot, SD/MMC/MemoryStick
Slot, but apparently no software, for 3G SIM card
9-cell battery with estimated 3-hour life playing DVDs with full brightness — and "warm-swappable," meaning you can change it out in sleep mode
Decent if not terribly loud speakers
Magnesium alloy case
VGA port for external monitor