In the beginning, computers were big and frail and they were kept inside air conditioned buildings. But, as they became much smaller and slightly less frail people started taking them places and so was born a market for rugged laptops and other electronic equipment that could be taken into harsh environments by people such as EMTs, firemen, soldiers, field office workers and airport luggage handlers.
To define what exactly "rugged" means when dealing with electronics such as laptops a few standards have evolved over time:
The military gave us standards such as MIL-STD-810 (now up to revision F). MIL-STD 810F deals with how well the equipment survives harsh environmental factors such as temperature, temperature variations, vibration, moisture and dust. When submitted for compliance testing with this standard a piece of equipment is tested under temperature extremes, subjected to carefully controlled dust and sand storms, dropped from specific heights, shaken with just the right amount of violence and so on. This testing is time consuming and expensive and must be redone for every product line and sometimes for every product in a product line.
Another standard for ruggedness is the International Electrotechnical Commission's IPCODE ratings. These are written as follows: IP followed by two numbers and sometimes some letters after the two numbers. In an IP code, the first digit indicates the smallest size object that will not be able to enter. For example a 1 would mean large body parts such as hands would not be able to enter the equipment. A 6 would mean that dust should not be able to enter the device. The second digit indicates how well the equipment resists intrusion by water. For example a 6 would mean that it would resist "powerful jets of water". That is really how the spec is written.
A piece of equipment rated "IP69K" for example is so well protected from the environment that it can be steam cleaned.
When a manufacturer claims that their equipment is “rugged” it is not always clear what is meant. It is important to read any documentation provided and to discern if the product complies completely with MIL-STD-810F for example. Perhaps it complies partially? Perhaps it would comply if it was submitted for testing, but it has not been submitted and the cost savings has been passed on to you. Lucky you.
Phillip Marlowe: "...I don't mind if you don't like my manners, I don't like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings."