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If you can’t stand the heat (or any other punishment), don’t bother venturing inside Panasonic’s torture chamber.


ENGINEER ROBERT ESTRADA leads the way. He skirts a cubicle warren, passes a Panasonic copier, enters a hallway, then throws open a set of double doors. The industrial carpeting gives way to flecked gray linoleum. Black scuffs dot the sober gray walls.

“It’s the Get Smart part of the tour,” quips Kyp Walls, director of product management for Panasonic Computer Solutions Company in Secaucus, New Jersey.

At the end of the corridor, though, there’s a chamber much more high-tech than agent Maxwell Smart’s phone-booth elevator. After going through yet one more door, Estrada reaches it and steps in to show off one of his raisons d’être: a roughly seven-square-foot vault that can turn the air inside it into an Antarctic winter, more than 60 degrees below zero, and then heat it up to more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit, about the temperature of dinner when it’s hot out of the oven.

It’s a Highly Accelerated Life Test, a.k.a. HALT, chamber -- or, in layman’s terms, a torture chamber -- for computers.

The HALT vault has metal-shelled walls about five inches thick and a window about a foot square on three sides. A few portholes allow engineers to stick their (protected) hands inside to tap keyboards and otherwise assess any havoc. But havoc, of course, is exactly what Estrada wants to avoid. As a team leader for product engineering, Estrada is on a mission to make sure that every new Toughbook model comes out of that vault behaving as if there were not such a thing as violent temperature swings.

Another engineer turns a valve and, against the hiss and oscillating rumble of a condenser, Estrada says, “It’s going to get loud.” Only it already is, so “loud” is the only word audible over the noise. He points at a monitor sitting on a stand just outside the HALT vault and says, “See, the temperature’s dropping.”

He’s right, and no wonder: A jet stream of supercooled nitrogen gusts into the chamber, rattling the copper wires that connect the computers outside to the sensors within, which are usually attached to at least one Toughbook. The numbers on the screen slide down until it’s literally freezing inside.

“And over here,” says Estrada, pointing to another metal box that looks like a supersize-me microwave oven, “is a smaller version.”

There is also a robotic contraption with metal-dowel fingers that strike a keyboard over and over, as well as a machine that holds a Toughbook fast while repetitively working its hinges.

“Now,” Walls says, “do you want to see the cone of silence?”

OUTSIDE, JUST OFF THE six-lane street called Meadowlands Parkway and now also known as Panasonic Way in New Jersey, traffic passes by as usual. There is no hint of the high-intensity obstacle course behind these walls. But if anybody were to walk inside and see the Toughbook banners on the walls, the blue Team Toughbook pennants flying from the tops of cubicle walls, they might get a clue. After all, because of savvy advertising, even children identify drop-proof and spill-proof and abuse-proof computers with Toughbooks. (Trust me, I actually heard an 11-year-old say, while playing that old alphabet game, “My name is Tammy, and my husband’s name is Taylor. We live in Tasmania, and we sell Toughbooks.”)

We’re not in New York City or even in Brooklyn. We’re across the Hudson river, in industrial Secaucus, about five miles from the giant Panasonic Astrovision electronic billboard in Times Square. At nearly three stories high and four stories wide, the massive screen is a high-wattage reminder that although the company’s main Toughbook factory and testing facility is nearly 7,000 miles away in Kobe, Japan, it’s nearly impossible to escape the brand. Or the stories.

Everyone who carries a laptop computer has a mishap story. Maybe it was dropped from arm height to the concrete floor of an airport and the titanium case was dented, one port rendered unusable. Or maybe there was an iced-coffee-with-cream spill onto the keyboard and three anxious drying-out days later, to extreme relief of owner, the laptop still works. When I mention these scenarios at Panasonic, everyone nods. Everyone in the room travels for business. Everyone has dropped, knocked, or otherwise tested the limits of their computers.

Walls shares his story: A woman spilled a full cup of water onto his keyboard. Ruefully, the woman said, “I just bought that laptop, didn’t I?” But Walls simply tipped up his semirugged Toughbook 74 to dump the liquid, and voilà! No harm, no foul. That was followed by sighs of relief from the woman and a grin from the man who sells Toughbook laptops for a living.

There are all sorts of technical reasons why the engineers are able to test Toughbooks without causing major damage like the kind my own laptops have sustained. Hard drives with protected connectors and multilayered shock absorption; a magnesium-alloy case fitted with thermal pipes to be a high-performance heat sink; a thermostat that triggers a tiny heater, making it possible to start the hard drive at below-zero temps; individually sealed components; and covered ports are among them. With each generation, Panasonic asks its customers how Toughbook models could be improved. And the call-support center is just down the hall from engineering so that when customers call with issues, engineers can help solve them -- and also take preventative measures with next year’s new laptops.

MEANWHILE, ON THE opposite side of the world, other Panasonic engineers are sleeping after a long day of more grueling tests. In all, every fully rugged Toughbook model has to pass 11 tests to be certified Mil-Spec, or built to military specifications. Walls recites them: vibration, drop shock, heat, cold, thermal shock, humidity, water resistance, dust resistance, altitude, keyboard testing, and hinge testing.

In Kobe, Japan, they water-test a Toughbook, watching as a curved wand -- reminiscent of a lawn sprinkler -- orbits the open computer, gushing. It’s the equivalent of leaving the poor thing out in a driving rainstorm -- an important test to do since utility customers actually often have to use their Toughbooks during a downpour.

The engineers blow a computer with fine dust (silica flour, to be exact) to make sure it won’t get damaged in a sandstorm. “[We test with] the sort of particle size that flies around in a certain desert where a lot of these computers are deployed right now,” Walls says cryptically.

They also submit a group of laptops to a series of drop tests, the kind that would make any normal person wince. They drop one from a height of three feet onto plywood over concrete -- on every edge, corner, and face. They drop another, this time while it’s running. And then, they drop a laptop from higher than three feet while it’s running. Next, they drop one directly onto the concrete. And, just to see what happens, they also drop a Toughbook from a height of up to 18 feet. Panasonic has even sent agents with special force-measuring equipment onto the Tokyo subway -- where the cars are so crowded, attendants are actually paid to shove people inside -- to see what kind of pressure a laptop held against the chest might have to withstand. (Answer: 225 pounds, plus simultaneous jostling.)

No wonder some 1,000 Toughbooks are damaged each year during testing. Drop them from 18 feet just to see where the g-forces exert themselves? And they say engineers are cautious types.

Come to think of it, it’s actually caution that motivates all this abuse. If the engineers didn’t drop, spray, fold, heat, freeze, and shock the machines ahead of time, the laptops would be more likely to fail after the fact. And Toughbooks have a 2.5 percent annual failure rate to maintain, compared with an industry-wide failure rate for laptops of 24 percent.

THE CONE OF SILENCE isn’t a cone but another chamber with thick walls and an equally thick door. Its interior walls are covered with hundreds of blue foam fingers. It’s true that they’re roughly conical.

And inside, it is silent -- not just soundproof, though it is that, but electromagnetic-wave- proof. This chamber is used to test one of the Toughbook features Walls and his colleagues like to tout: embedded wireless, as in built-in connectivity to your wireless carrier’s 3G network and to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices. To figure out just how well this embedded capability works, the engineers have to get it away from any potential interference. “If we have an issue, we can completely isolate it,” Estrada says.

Among all the foam, there’s an antenna and a floor-mounted turntable. Rising up from the turntable is a rotating arm, where a Toughbook will be mounted. Can the computer get a signal from the antenna from anywhere in the room and in any position? That’s the question.

Isolating the laptops here, and in a gymnasium-size silence cone in Kobe, has allowed Panasonic engineers to fine-tune reception to the point that when out in the real, loud interference-filled world, Toughbooks can pick up a signal in places where other devices can’t.

Quiet seems to emanate from the cone of silence. Lean inside it and the outside world starts to fade away. “It’s like a sensory-deprivation chamber,” Walls quips.

“If you locked yourself in, we wouldn’t hear you scream,” adds Bob Osmond, one of Panasonic’s media reps.

“You’d be like a tree falling in the forest,” Walls says.

I lean further, looking at the turntable and the antenna, hearing the silence.

“Want to go inside?” Estrada asks.

“You can go inside,” Walls agrees.

No thanks. Nor would I want to sit inside a 160-degree-Fahrenheit HALT chamber, or drop myself on every edge from three feet or higher, or lie prone while water or silica flour sprays at me, trying to find an entry point. Maxwell Smart might love discomfort, even danger, but I don’t. Good thing I’m not a Toughbook.

Or another laptop, for that matter. As we’re walking back to the engineering department, Walls tells me potential customers sometimes bring their current laptops into the Secaucus building. They want to play a little one-on-one. The old “my laptop just might be as good as your laptop” trick.

So what happens? The Toughbooks keep on spinning. Somewhere along the heat-cold-thermal-shock, keyboard-pounding, hinge-working line, the others stop.

Missed it by that much.