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Durabook’s S15AB (about $1,614 street) is one of the few large-screened notebooks with rugged features. While not waterproof, this 15.6-incher’s aluminum-magnesium chassis, IP5X dust protection, three-foot drop rating, and military-grade certifications make it far better suited for the rough and tumble than normal laptops. Excellent connectivity, optional WWAN mobile broadband, space for three storage drives, and a swappable battery make it an asset in the field. A noisy cooling fan and a so-so screen hold it back, but its affordable price (for a ruggedized system, anyway) helps bridge the gap. Unless you need the protection of a fully rugged notebook, this Durabook offers an attractive harmony between durability and practicality.
The 15.6-inch Durabook S15AB stands out in a rugged-notebook market that’s dominated by models with 14-inch and smaller displays. The fully rugged Getac X500 is a distant (and far more expensive) competitor, while none of Panasonic’s current Toughbooks come in a 15.6-inch flavor.
Though capable, the S15AB favors survivability over raw power. Its quad-core, eight-thread Intel processor choices are adept for general productivity tasks, if not workstation-class calculations. My review unit’s Core i5-8265U runs at 1.6GHz with turbo speed of 3.9GHz, while the optional Core i7-8565U raises the stakes to 1.8GHz and 4.6GHz. Coupled with 16GB of memory (user-upgradeable to 32GB), multitasking isn’t a problem. Graphics power comes from Intel’s UHD integrated silicon, so think light 3D work at best. The standard storage is a 256GB solid-state drive with Windows 10 Pro. A flexible storage bay houses a supplementary 2TB hard drive in my review unit, but it can alternatively hold a second and third SSD or a tray-load optical drive.
The rubberized carry handle and extra-thick everything marks the S15AB as a rugged notebook. Though there’s no official classification for the term, it’s a safe bet that following the latest fashion trends wouldn’t be in it. This Durabook is all about shrugging off bumps and bruises.
The notebook’s mostly black exterior is broken only by the light and dark grays on the lid. Nearly all surfaces, including the screen, are matte finished to minimize glare.
Opening the lid requires unlocking the physical display latch—no magnets here—and then using two hands to muscle it apart. The extra-stiff display hinges serve the purpose of not letting the lid slam shut if the laptop is mounted in a moving vehicle or used in an otherwise unstable place. The lid opens about 150 degrees from closed, or not quite flat.
Chunky by normal laptop standards, the S15AB—at 5.7 pounds and 14.8 by 10.7 by 1.2 inches—is respectably trim for one with rugged features. That said, this notebook doesn’t offer the protection of a fully rugged model like the smaller Toughbook 31. None of its protection ratings are notable. For instance, its IP5X dust rating doesn’t mean it’s dustproof, just that its preventative design measures (mainly the dust covers over its exterior ports) keep enough dust out to let it function. It carries no waterproof rating, though it does resist humidity based on its MIL-STD 810G certification.
But don’t take those complaints too seriously. Most notebooks aren’t voluntarily (or accidentally) subjected to sandstorms, water jets, or flying bullets, from which you’ll only find protection with a fully rugged machine. (Well, maybe not the bullets part.) But if those aren’t risks in your field, the S15AB can be a much less expensive alternative that still provides a far higher level of protection than the average notebook. Very notably, it retains much of the practicality of the average notebook, like a touch-sensitive rather than a glove-oriented resistive touchpad, which rugged laptops often sacrifice in the name of surviving the extremes.
Perhaps the S15AB’s most important protection claim is one I didn’t test—its three-foot drop rating. Some fully rugged notebooks (such as Durabook’s own Z141) are rated for six feet, but three is still commendable. It’s solid assurance that this notebook doesn’t need royal treatment, as is Durabook’s standard three-year warranty. Just picking the system up is enough to instill confidence; the absolute rigidity of its aluminum-magnesium chassis gives a feeling simply not found in consumer-grade notebooks.
Connectivity of all kinds is one of the S15AB’s strengths. It features an Intel 9260AC wireless card for 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5, and my unit had the optional Sierra Wireless EM7455 WWAN card that supports 4G LTE networks.
The Durabook’s wired connectivity, as mentioned, is protected behind dust covers that are fortunately labeled with what’s behind them. The large cover on the left edge is for the flexible storage bay (which there’s no reason to open unless equipped with the optical drive), while the smaller cover holds a wireless on/off switch and a SmartCard slot. The latter doesn’t quite make up for the S15AB’s lack of built-in biometrics; I’d at least like to see a fingerprint reader.
A Kensington-style cable lock slot on the back corner provides physical security. Meanwhile, the right edge’s only cover reveals a full-size SD card reader, an audio combo jack, and two USB-A 3.1 ports.
Cards insert fully into the reader so the door can be closed afterwards. Details!
The back edge of the chassis holds the rest: The left cover protects a USB-A 3.1 port, a USB-C 3.1 port, a Gigabit Ethernet jack, and an HDMI video output. A VGA video output and a serial port lurk behind the right cover.
Thunderbolt 3, which I’d like to see in a notebook this expensive, is absent, and there’s no mention of the USB-C port supporting DisplayPort video output.
The Durabook’s single cooling fan sits between the covers. Its motor noise became intimately familiar to my ears while writing this review and is one of my complaints about this laptop. The noise would probably be dismissible (or inaudible) in busy places, like a vehicle at speed, but it’s impossible to ignore in a quiet office. Fortunately, the S15AB’s rather thick chassis never developed any hotspots while I was running benchmarks.
Flipping the S15AB on its back reveals its removable battery, a highly desirable feature in a rugged notebook that may be a long way from a plug.
The bottom of the notebook also has service doors for the 2.5-inch drive, memory DIMM slots, and the SIM card. (The latter are under the larger cover.) It’s noteworthy that the 256GB SSD in my unit is an industrial-grade UDinfo HF3 drive.
The S15AB’s large screen and full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) resolution make for a comfortable viewing experience. It’s generally not bright enough for use in direct sunlight, but it’s plenty viewable in the shade, and the anti-glare surface keeps reflections to a minimum. The picture quality is unfortunately compromised by limited viewing angles; it washes out if tilted too far forward and inverts if tilted too far back. The use of an IPS-type panel would have eliminated this, but this TN panel is the only choice. The display also doesn’t support touch, which is a black mark for a rugged notebook.
Touch typing, on the other hand, is a satisfying experience on the S15AB’s full-size keyboard. Its keys provide ample travel and have an excellent layout. Backlighting is optional. (It’s absent on my review unit.)
The touchpad is curiously centered in the palm rest as opposed to being centered with the keyboard, though I didn’t have issues with my right palm accidentally registering clicks.
The pad is rightly sized relative to the screen. The large physical buttons are easy to press, though their clicking action is a tad loud.
The S15AB’s full HD webcam is a bonus in a market where the webcams on most notebooks (still) haven’t graduated past 720p.
The system’s twin speakers also proved to be a pleasant surprise, with hollow but loud and largely distortion-free sound.
We haven’t reviewed a lot of rugged notebooks since refreshing our benchmark procedures, so I slipped a few non-rugged models into our comparison charts to fill the ranks. Their basic hardware is listed below.
The rugged Dell Latitude 7220 and the Panasonic Toughbook 55 are both smaller than the S15AB but use similar hardware. The 15-watt Intel CPUs ubiquitous in this lot are from varied generations; the chips in the Durabook, the Dell, and the Panasonic are the older “Whiskey Lake” silicon, while the Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 packs the latest “Ice Lake” chip built on a 10nm process. The MSI Prestige 15 offers an intriguing mix of a six-core, 12-thread (albeit still 15-watt) processor and a dedicated Nvidia graphics card.
Our first test is UL’s PCMark 10, a holistic performance suite that simulates different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows. We use it to assess overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheeting, web browsing, and videoconferencing. PCMark 8, meanwhile, has a storage subtest that we use to assess the speed of the system’s boot drive. The tests yield proprietary numeric scores; higher numbers are better.
The Durabook’s melancholy start in PCMark 10 put it behind the others and short of the 4,000-point mark that we like to see in high-performance machines. It’s not slow, per se, but it isn’t going to set speed records. Its PCMark 8 score is also a little lower than usual for an SSD-based system, indicating its industrial drive may not be the fastest on the block.
Next up is a pair of CPU-crunching tests: Cinebench R15 stresses all available processor cores and threads while rendering a complex image, while in our Handbrake test, we transcode a 12-minute 4K video down to 1080p. The Durabook surprisingly outran the Dell in Cinebench and it wasn’t far behind the Toughbook. None of them came close to the six-core MSI, especially in Handbrake.
The final test in this section is photo editing. We use an early 2018 release of Adobe Photoshop Creative Cloud to apply 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG image, timing each operation and adding up the totals. This test is not as CPU-focused as Cinebench or Handbrake, bringing the performance of the storage subsystem, memory, and GPU into play.
The Durabook finished at the tail end with an acceptable showing. It would be usable for basic photo editing, though its washed-out screen might make that a challenging task.
We use two benchmark suites to gauge the gaming performance potential of a PC. In the first, UL’s 3DMark, we run two DirectX 11-driven subtests, the mainstream Sky Diver and Fire Strike, which is more suited to gaming rigs. Our other graphics benchmark is Unigine Corp.’s Superposition, which uses a different rendering engine to produce a complex 3D scene.
The Durabook’s tiny bars in both tests were a foregone conclusion given its Intel integrated graphics. Nonetheless, it’s still capable of lightweight 3D work outside of modern gaming and professional duties such as CAD. Some integrated graphics are better than others, as the Iris Plus GPU in the Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 is apt to demonstrate.
For our last benchmark, we measure a laptop’s unplugged runtime while playing a locally stored video with screen brightness at 50 percent and audio volume at 100 percent. We use the notebook’s energy-saving rather than balanced or other power profile, turn off Wi-Fi, and even disable keyboard backlighting to squeeze as much life as possible out of the system.
The Durabook’s unplugged life doesn’t top the charts, but nine hours for a large-screened rugged notebook qualifies as a practical number. Extra points for its removable (swappable) battery, something that most notebooks no longer have.
Large-screened notebooks with rugged features are few and far between, but the S15AB represents the minority well. It makes a productive platform in the office or the field thanks to its comfortable keyboard, support for three storage drives, swappable battery, and excellent connectivity. While it doesn’t offer the same league of protection as a fully rugged notebook, its dust protection and three-foot drop rating aren’t insignificant. Backed by a three-year warranty, this Durabook is a well-priced and practical ruggedized pick.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-8265U|
|Processor Speed||1.6 GHz|
|RAM (as Tested)||16 GB|
|Boot Drive Type||SSD|
|Boot Drive Capacity (as Tested)||256 GB|
|Secondary Drive Type||Hard Drive|
|Secondary Drive Capacity (as Tested)||2 TB|
|Screen Size||15.6 inches|
|Native Display Resolution||1,920 by 1,080|
|Variable Refresh Support||None|
|Screen Refresh Rate||60 Hz|
|Graphics Processor||Intel UHD Graphics|
|Wireless Networking||4G, 802.11ac, Bluetooth|
|Dimensions (HWD)||1.16 by 10.7 by 14.8 inches|
|Operating System||Windows 10 Pro|
|Tested Battery Life (Hours:Minutes)||9:25|