We discovered years ago that our best chance of keeping our record-keeping and advance orders straight was to have a laptop with us at the farmer’s market. But most laptops can’t be used in bright daylight, let lone rain. What to do?
One solution we hit upon was to take the record-keeping PC with us to the market. For this, we turned to the Panasonic ToughBook. These are ruggedized PCs that can be tossed around, rained on, and generally treated like farm equipment. Spill-resistant, dust-proof, with shock-mounted disk drives and daylight-readable screens, they’re the bee’s knees for outdoor use.
We’ve been using a ToughBook CF-27 for years, but are upgrading to a faster and more modern (but used) ToughBook 29. Used ToughBooks are plentiful, since just about every cop car in the country has one, and the military uses tons of them, too.
Our CF-27 was slow but not too bad with QuickBooks 2005, and can run Web browsers and Microsoft Word and so on adequately. It only has an 800×600 screen, which is a nuisance, but livable. I forget what I paid for the CF-27, but they’re practically giving them away on eBay — most going for less than $100.
Putting Microsoft Live Mesh on the CF-27 (in a possibly-vain attempt to make all our computers sync their data effortlessly) was the final straw. It’s now so slow that we avoid using it, which is bad. Hence the ToughBook 29. These are going for $600 or so. (New ToughBooks cost a couple of grand, which is not something I can afford to bankroll out of farmer’s market sales.)
If you want to play around with the concept, you might consider blowing $100 on a nice CF-27 and seeing if it’s perfect except for being slow and having a low-resolution screen. You might discover that you never use it, or that its seven-pound weight is a turn-off, or that ruggedized PCs just aren’t your cup of tea, at which point you’ll be glad you didn’t spend more money. When you don’t need the CF-27 anymore, sell it on eBay, which will cut your total cost of ownership to almost nothing.
You have to be careful when selecting a model, because Panasonic has allowed their product line to become bloated, with many semi-rugged models that aren’t outdoor-rated. You want a model that says it has a daylight-readable screen and is moisture-resistant.
If you buy a used ToughBook, get one that has all its part, port covers, etc. Lots of these units have various pieces missing, including both the hard drive and the shock-mounted hard-drive carrier. Get one with the correct operating system already installed (almost always Windows XP Professional). You can ignore this advice if you want — parts and driver disks and such are readily available on eBay — but you’ll be happier if this doesn’t balloon into a big project.
[Update, 3/22/2009: My CF-29 has arrived, and it’s even nicer than I expected in every way — screen brightness and clarity, speed,weather-tightness, and overall condition. Though its 1.2 GHz processor isn’t up to modern standards, I maxed it out on memory (1.5 GB), and it seems very snappy. Highly recommended]