For many years now, Lenovo Thinkpads have been a mainstay in my life; their no-nonsense, practical offering greatly appealed to what I wanted in a machine. Its shortcomings in weight, thickness, and aesthetic were all areas I was more than happy to trade for superb battery life, port abundance, and "in the field" features like Power Bridge Batteries.

However, Lenovo has been slowly turning Thinkpads into mainstream consumer trash. I found myself in want of a new laptop recently and found the entirety of the modern Thinkpad lineup revolting. The X280 is a disgrace to its namesake, the X1 Carbon makes way too many vain compromises for its thin profile, and everything else was either too big or too absurd for my needs (eg., the P71 fits both of those descriptors). I found myself at a loss, unsure of where to turn now that my beloved Thinkpads were spoiled by marketing and consumer trends.

Recently I have been watching (all to frequently, but that is besides the point) Stargate Atlantis, and being the type of person I am took note immediately of their excellent use of various "rugged" or "Toughbook-style" laptops. Appropriate for toting off-world! This reminded me of the "rugged" laptop category, and thus began my research: could I find a small and relatively portable rugged laptop for a reasonable price?

The answer is no.

The Rugged Landscape

I started my journey with the classic Panasonic Toughbook line, but immediately discovered they look like children's toy computers from 2006. I'm not one to quibble over aesthetics but I found the Panasonic Toughbook series just simply repulsive. Not to mention the fact they would have set me back upwards of $5000 CAD, which I was absolutely not comfortable with committing for this little experiment.

I started digging a bit more and discovered what could be my new favourite company: Getac. I immediately was drawn to their absurd "rugged laptop + a 1U server bolted to the bottom" product, and knew I was going in the right direction. Unfortunately, while the V110 looked like exactly what I was after, it's nearly impossible to find through normal channels in Canada. I did contact a local distributor for a quote but never followed up, as, while not as bad as a Toughbook, I was over-reaching my budget fairly handsomely.

And then I found it: The Dell Latitude 12 "Rugged Extreme" (7214). I dug up some photos and reviews from around the web, and every part of this laptop spoke to me. The design is on-point, the featureset is plentiful, the chipset is modern, it's highly configurable... Except it starts at ~$6200 CAD.

At this point, I was about to give up. It was a fun idea, but these prices are just too high for an individual like me to justify, at least for the time being. I'm not going to drop upwards of $6k on a laptop I might not even like, and can't find more than a couple reviews of.

Voyage to the Electronic Bay

I have perused eBay many times in the past, but never built up enough courage (or money) to follow through and purchase something. I ended up on the site through a web search while researching the Dell 7214, and said, "oh, well of course!"

Rugged laptops aren't popular in the mass market, for whatever reason. They're usually purchased by large organizations for short-term projects, and then liquidated at the end to refurbishing centres or what-have-you. This means you can find them on-line for steep discounts.

The machine I'm typing this on now has an Intel Core i7-6600U, 32GB RAM, and a 256GB M.2 (SATA) SSD. After shipping, USD → CAD conversion, taxes, and import fees: a hair over $1500. Well under what I was expecting to pay for an X1 Carbon, and with a whole hell of a lot more horsepower and ports. It's perhaps worth noting I replicated my configuration on Dell's website and it totalled a little north of $10k CAD. Ouch.

Unfortunately, eBay.

It took a full 8 business days to get from Michigan to Québec, travelling in a circle more than once on its way here, and taking a nice 3-day rest in the receiving dock of the customs brokerage. It was one of the most frustrating package tracking experiences I've had, and until I got the "out for delivery" notification I was starting to wonder if I'd ever see it.

Once it did arrive, however, I was ecstatic.

Hazards not included

Laptop with hardware scattered on top.

Just how "rugged" is this machine? According to the whitepaper [PDF], it conforms to the "MIL-STD-810G" testing specifications, which are:

Transit drop (72",60",48"; single unit; 78 drops), operating drop (36"), blowing rain, blowing dust, blowing sand, vibration, functional shock, humidity, salt fog (with rubberized keyboard), altitude, explosive atmosphere, solar radiation, thermal extremes, thermal shock, freeze/thaw, tactical standby to operational

Additionally,

  • IP65 rating for particulates and liquid
  • Fully operational between -29°C and 63°C
  • MIL-STD-461F electromagnetic interference certification (I didn't bother looking this one up)

... and a bunch more. You hopefully get the idea. I can't forsee myself ever being in a situation remotely close to any of these limits, but it's good to know I can work outside or in the rain without panicking or damaging something.

The Bad

Weight

Make no mistake, this is a heavy laptop. All of these extra materials, mechanisms, and flourishes that make it "rugged" all also add weight. It clocks in at around 3kg, which is heavier than my 14" Thinkpad T460p and its extra-large battery by about 400g or-so.

Mine does have the carry-handle addon, which makes it very easy to carry around wherever I need to go, but put it in a messenger bag and you're shoulder might start to ache. It's certainly not the heaviest laptop I've seen, but it's also certainly not lightweight.

The Display

The screen in profile

This machine doesn't have extensive screen options. No matter what, you get a 11.6" 1366x768 TN panel with an anti-glare coating and resistive touchscreen.

I don't mind the resolution too much at this size; I think 11.6" is small enough that such a measly resolution isn't out-of-place. That said, something slightly higher (like 1600x900), or even just an IPS-type panel would be a very welcome change.

The anti-glare coating works quite well; Dell describe it as an "outdoor-viewable" screen, and I would have to agree. The coating mixed with the insanely bright backlight (I currently am working indoors and have it at about 20%, and it's as bright as my System76 Galago at 100%) make for a screen that truly "works anywhere". However the polarization and resistive layer do add a bit of a "depth" effect where it looks like there's a bit of space between my fingerprints and the screen below.

The touchscreen is medicore as well. I mentioned it's resistive, which means it works based on pressure, so you can use it in the rain and/or with a stick you found in the woods and it'll work perfectly fine. It does mean, however, that it has that "old school" touchscreen behaviour where touches take a bit longer to register, aren't particularly accurate with a finger, and don't always work if you're used to capacitive screens and just caress the surface with your fingertip.

Photo of testufo.com test result

One thing I have noticed is serious ghosting issues. I've tried to capture it in the above photo with the testufo.com tests. It's not entirely noticable in general use, but now and then you can catch it while scrolling web page with large text, or quickly-moving objects. For what I do, which mostly involves static screens full of text, it's rarely a noticeable issue.

With all that said, I still give the screen a "pass". It's not unusable by any stretch of the imagination, it's just not great. We've been spoiled in the last few years by HiDPI screens and incredibly responsive capacitive touchscreens that using this one feels like a step into the recent past. But given some time to adjust, you can learn its idiosyncracies and it's just fine.

Touchpad

I will not weasel my way around the trackpad — it's bad. So bad that I avoid using if I can and move to the touchscreen. It's also resistive, like the touchscreen, which means you kind of need to press your fingers into it for it to activate. Once you do, you'll notice it's fairly small and pretty inaccurate.

Small, inaccurate, hard to activate, and just overall unpleasant. It's probably the biggest downside I've experienced so far with this machine. I'm very glad the touchscreen is reasonable enough to make up for it.

The Handle

Top-down shot of the handle

If the sheer thickness of the laptop doesn't catch your eye, it's chunky built-in handle certainly will.

The handle sticks out the front, and is slightly higher than the keyboard deck. This means if the surface you're using is slightly too high, the handle will press into your arms. It's a nice, rubberized coating so it doesn't hurt or anything like that, but it is kind of annoying.

But surely you can remove the handle, right? Right! Well… The handle acts as a giant antenna for all (four?) of the radios in this machine. That means while it looks like you can just unscrew it and take it off, in fact you have to entirely disassemble the laptop to disconenct all the antenna leads.

Not only that, but then once you remove the handle, there will be exposed electronics on the exterior of the laptop, as you can't just buy more rubber nubs for the corners to replace where the handle was mounted.

So without purchasing a second one of these to scavenge parts off of, removing the handle is not really an option; and even if I did have the replacement nubs, the amount of time and work involved might not even be worth it.

All that said, the handle is actually really convenient for carrying the machine around. The rugged exterior does mean that you can take it to a coffeeshop without a sleeve, just carrying it by the handle. But it would be nice if I could more easily disconnect it for when it's just sitting on a desk.

The Good

Performance

Often "rugged"-style machines sacrifice performance because of thermal or power limitations -- this is not the case at all here.

The CPU is an Intel® Core™ i7-6600U @ 2.6GHz and with 4KB of L3 cache. Even though it's only a U-class CPU, so far the performance has been quite impressive, and is more than enough for everything I need to do. For some sort of benchmark, I had it calculate all prime numbers up to 100,000 using all 4 of its threads:

sysbench cpu --cpu-max-prime=100000 run --threads=4
sysbench 1.0.12 (using system LuaJIT 2.1.0-beta3)

Running the test with following options:
Number of threads: 4
Initializing random number generator from current time


Prime numbers limit: 100000

Initializing worker threads...

Threads started!

CPU speed:
    events per second:   144.34

General statistics:
    total time:                          10.0233s
    total number of events:              1447

Latency (ms):
         min:                                 22.90
         avg:                                 27.67
         max:                                 50.58
         95th percentile:                     28.67
         sum:                              40044.87

Threads fairness:
    events (avg/stddev):           361.7500/1.64
    execution time (avg/stddev):   10.0112/0.01

The disk is an M.2 SATA SSD. The specific disk I have is a 256GB Sandisk X400. It's an entirely average, consumer-grade SSD from what I can measure. A quick fio benchmark shows mediocre performance:

fio --name=test
test: (groupid=0, jobs=1): err= 0: pid=20038: Sat May  5 12:18:38 2018
   read: IOPS=51.1k, BW=200MiB/s (209MB/s)(4096MiB/20511msec)
[...]

Nothing really spectacular, but still better than any spinning rust. However, a more intense random IO test really makes the drive choke.

fio --randrepeat=1 --size=2G --readwrite=randrw --rwmixread=75 --name=test
test: (g=0): rw=randrw, bs=(R) 4096B-4096B, (W) 4096B-4096B, (T) 4096B-4096B, ioengine=psync, iodepth=1
fio-3.3
Starting 1 process
Jobs: 1 (f=1): [m(1)][99.0%][r=18.0MiB/s,w=6178KiB/s][r=4618,w=1544 IOPS][eta 00m:01s]
test: (groupid=0, jobs=1): err= 0: pid=19831: Sat May  5 12:09:55 2018
   read: IOPS=4056, BW=15.8MiB/s (16.6MB/s)(1534MiB/96821msec)
   [...]
   write: IOPS=1359, BW=5436KiB/s (5566kB/s)(514MiB/96821msec)
   [...]

Yikes. Fow now it'll do fine (especially with NAND prices where they currently are), but in the future I will likely swap this out for something a little higher-end.

The RAM is 32GB DDR4 in dual-channel. The sticks I got appear to be Samsung OEM modules at 2133MT/s. This is my first non-server machine to have >16GB RAM and I'm still unsure what to even do with all of it (oh wait, I just opened Slack; never mind: it's all used).

Keyboard

Dell 7214 Keyboard with blue backlight

I was somewhat concerned about the keyboard before using it. Would it be made mushy and unpleasant in the name of "ruggedness"? No reviews I could find mentioned anything about it, so it was a bit of a gamble. Luckily, all my worrying was once again proved unfounded; this keyboard is excellent.

It definitely feels different that any other laptop keyboard I've used. You can almost hear the rubber protection underneath when typing, but somehow the keys maintain a wonderfully crisp and responsive bump, landing in the soft embrace of the aforementioned rubber. This makes for a near-silent keypress, leaving only the noise of the bounce-back of the spacebar audible.

The key size is slightly smaller than on my other, larger laptops, but I find my typing is just as accurate and quick as any other keyboard (perhaps even moreso).

Overall, I find typing on this keyboard very enjoyable, easily equal to the experience of a Thinkpad or Topre external keyboard. Dell did an excellent job keeping it pleasant while also making it "rugged".

This of course is all overshadowed by the fact it has RGB backlighting. It can cycle between green, blue, whiteish, and red with a Fn key combination ("whiteish" as it has the classic RGB LED problem where it looks more like a light purple).

The BIOS provides customization for the backlighting, including providing custom RGB values for 2 user presets, and changing the default backlight colour on boot. I didn't really bother to set my own custom colours, but did change the default to red, as it is the least jarring in the dark (the only situation in which I use backlighting).

Thermals

htop showing load

I'm not usually impressed by laptop thermal solutions because usually they're "adequate". It's a fan, it spins, and when you push the CPU it gets audible. This is not the case with this laptop, however.

I noticed on the bottom of the laptop there is a small vent with a reasonably small laptop fan behind it. I also noticed that while the computer was on, this fan was standing still. So I fired up stress-ng to put some load on the CPU (100% load on all cores, to be exact). The experiment went something like this…

I'm sitting in a large room with an ambient temperature of around 24°C. At idle, the CPU sits around 40°C with the fan entirely off. Under 100% load on all cores, the CPU temperature slowly climbs over the course of about three minutes to 82°C and holds — the passive cooling manages to keep the CPU under its 100°C limit. After four minutes, the fan finally kicks in to ~3100RPM and the temperature rapidly drops and holds around 67°C.

I ran the stress test for several minutes and at no point did the top part of the laptop deck get warm, and only for the last few minutes did the fan even spin. Dell calls their thermal solution "QuadCool™", but never explains what that means; all I know is—whatever the magic is—it works really damn well.

Battery and Power

Screenshot of GNOME Power settings

Another strong point of this machine is its battery. 56Wh is not a large capacity, but it's removable and replacements are easy to purchase, so you can carry an extra in your backpack while travelling. In my experience, doing "light" tasks like work over SSH, screen at half brightness, and a bit of web browsing, I can expect around 8 hours per battery. If you kill the brightness, keyboard backlight, and radios, you could probably manage to squeeze a couple more hours out of it.

With two batteries, that means you can get 14 hours of medium-light usage without even trying (and assuming shutting down to swap the batteries is acceptable). This rivals even my old X250, which had much worse performance.

Convertible/Tablet mode

Laptop in tablet mode.

This is my first-ever experience with a "convertible" laptop. I've actively avoided such laptops in the past because I strongly dislike their "tent-style" flip-over hinges. Why would I want the bottom to be the keyboard?? Disgusting. The Dell 7214 has a much better solution.

Laptop screen mid-flip.

The screen is actually two parts: an outer frame and an inner screen housing. The inner part swivels around on its midpoint, allowing you to click down the lid and have a tablet-like experience without any of the nasty exposed keyboard or weird hinges. Note my use of "tablet-like", as this is still a 3kg machine, so holding it comfortably with one hand is a long-shot.

I find myself using this functionality much more than I thought. It's incredibly nice to open a long article, flip the screen and read it in portrait mode on the couch.

And, as is inevitable, I have begun poking at my work laptop's screen involuntarily, forgetting it is just a normal non-touch screen.

Linux Support

I was pleasantly surprised to find that almost all parts of this laptop are compatible out-of-the-box with modern Linux. GPS, LTE modem, touchscreen, rotation accelerometer… Everything worked out-of-the-box (at least on Fedora 28) and without any intervention from myself. The only exception is the fingerprint reader, but I have not had one of those work under Linux in years.

GNOME, specifically, has been an absolute pleasure. I've used GNOME for many years on "normal" laptops, but I'm consistently surprised by just how well it handles the "convertible" features: the on-screen keyboard is just a swipe-up away, rotation lock buttons appear in the system menu, basically every touch target is plenty large for my stubby fingers… If anything has renewed my faith in GNOME, it has been my experiences since using it on this machine.

Working from Anywhere

I was glad to see that the model I bought came with a built-in LTE modem and dedicated GPS module. The SIM slot takes a MicroSIM-sized card, so unfortunately none of mine would fit properly, and thus I haven't had a chance to test it yet.

I've always loved the idea of having LTE connectivity in my laptop. Thinkpads have had the option for a long while, but I never opted to pay for the upgrade. I love the idea that no matter where I am in the world, I can get a prepaid or pay-as-you-go data SIM, pop it into my laptop, and never be without an internet connection. This is obviously great for travelling, but also just if I end up in a coffeeshop that doesn't have WiFi.

Too many slots

This is the first machine I've ever owned that has an ExpressCard slot, and as of now I have no idea what to use it for. It seems the best option is to get a card with a pair of USB3 ports on it, expanding the weak USB offering of the machine.

Additionally, this is the first machine I've owned with a smartcard reader. This takes two forms: there's a contactless reader in the palmrest, and a full smartcard slot underneath the ExpressCard bay. Similar to the ExpressCard slot, I'm unsure how to take advantage of this new functionality; a quick search shows that smartcards are difficult to buy for quantities under 100, and open source compatibility isn't always guaranteed.

I also fear if I come to love both of these features, I will be disappointed in the future when they are inevitably impossible to find in newer laptops. Best to enjoy it while it lasts, I guess.

In Brief

The Dell Latitude 7214 "Rugged Extreme" is a lot of laptop for one person to handle. It's heavy, bulky, thick, and makes a lot of compromises to achieve many of its certifications and goals. However, if you are willing to accept these compromises, you get a machine with one hell of a spec sheet.

This is not a machine I would generally recommend. To enjoy this machine, you need to have rather peculiar desires and be willing to go out of your way to satisfy them. If you're willing to compromise on the weight, thickness, display quality, and trackpad for a machine that will probably survive in environments a human cannot, the Dell Latitude 7214 certainly delivers.

Did I mention it has RGB?


Desktop background pictured is Teddie's Space Refuge by tryingtofly.