How much "wear-&-tear" can a product take before it gives up the ghost? To find out, we chucked several vital hardware tools around until they broke.

Over the years, my notebooks, digital cameras, music players, and mobile phones have hit the floor more often than a wrestler. I have accidentally lost a digital camera at sea, dry-cleaned an SD Card, and run over a cell phone, all without really trying.

Which raises the question: Just how reliable are the tech products we depend on every day? Can a notebook survive a 6-foot drop? Will your USB memory key still work after taking a spin in a washing machine? Will an iPod sing after it's been dropped in the sand? I set out to get some rough answers to these tough questions. I collected a variety of widely used mobile products – including a notebook computer, a digital camera, a cell phone, a smart phone, an MP3 player, a USB memory key, and an SD media card – and put them through informal, simulated accidents to see how much maltreatment these electronic gadgets could withstand.

I dropped a few onto the floor, spilled liquid on them, and generally banged them around. I even drove my car over a few. None of my tests were entirely scientific, but in some cases I really pushed the limits, subjecting the products to the kind of abuse that could only be expected to destroy them. In most of those cases, I got my wish. Please don't think badly of me – I did it in the name of curiosity (and maybe a little payback for all the times my tech products have failed me).

For the most part, the products I tested were stronger and more durable than they looked. But without exception, each would have fared even better had it been inside some kind of protective case or covering. And while you can't always prevent accidents, you can prepare for them.

If your work takes to you locations with extreme conditions, chances are you'll product that's built to endure hard knocks. We looked at a couple of ruggedized laptops to see how much rough handling they could weather. We found that the notebooks stood up to our abuse amazingly well.

Drowning a notebook

To test a Gateway 3018GZ notebook (sadly not available in the UK) with a 14.1-inch wide-aspect screen, I packed it in a Kensington shoulder bag, and then deliberately banged it against doors and walls. While it was still in the bag, I dropped it off a 6-foot-high bookcase onto a carpeted floor to simulate a drop from an airplane's overhead bin.

I held my breath every time the bagged notebook ricocheted off a wall or crashed to the floor. But the Gateway responded like a cagey fighter trained to withstand damaging body blows and get up off the canvas. It consistently rebooted and recognized my wireless network without fail. Surprisingly, no plastic pieces cracked, though on several occasions the battery became slightly dislodged and the optical drive popped open.

I then removed the notebook from the bag, closed it, and knocked it off my desk onto the carpeted floor. The notebook continued to take the punishment. Again, the battery dislodged and the optical drive opened, but otherwise the system continued to work.

Dropping the Gateway onto a hardwood floor caused severe physical damage. The notebook's screen cracked, and the black plastic moulding above the keyboard popped out. Plastic splinters littered the floor, and the optical drive refused to open. I inserted a paper clip into the hole next to the open/close button to release the drive, however, and it continued to work. Though scratched, scraped, and pretty banged up, the Gateway could still operate.

Coffee spilled onto the notebook's chassis was the coup de grace. I tipped coffee in my travel-size mug onto the keyboard, causing a slight sizzle, after which the Gateway's blue light winked out like the HAL 9000 computer in 2001. Like a frenzied ER physician, I quickly turned off the machine, removed the battery, drained the liquid, mopped the keys, set the unit aside, and waited – but the patient died on the table. None of my efforts resuscitated the critically wounded laptop.

Though many notebooks have "water-resistant" features such as a protected keyboard, my advice is not to drink anywhere near your hard drive. Or at the very least, use a travel mug or bottle with a closable mouthpiece, and keep it shut.

Camera on concrete

A digital camera has loads of fragile components, so it's prone to damage when it takes a fall. Case in point: The Canon PowerShot A510 digital camera proved to be the most delicate of all the gadgets that I looked at.

I dropped the Canon from my desk onto the carpet – a fall it just about survived. Dropping it onto the hardwood floor popped open the SD Card slot, opened the chassis, knocked out the batteries, and broke the flash. Luckily, all the pieces snapped back in easily, and the camera happily resumed shooting pictures.

A concrete patio proved to be the camera's undoing. I placed the Canon on the edge of a table and tipped it over onto the ground. The camera body opened slightly on the initial crash, but I was able to close it and still operate the camera. Over the course of the second and third drops, the shutter button came off, the rubber terminal cover flap and the SD Card slot both popped open, and the zoom lens became sluggish, requiring hands-on help to literally pull out the lens. Still, the Canon could take pictures (without the flash), and every internal feature I tested worked perfectly.

Drop nine finally killed the camera. The viewfinder lens broke, and the zoom lens no longer worked. The chassis cracked open on the top and then on the left side, though both pieces could be snapped back into place. The camera still turned on and the colour display flashed the blue Canon logo. I could hear the zoom lens' internal mechanism chugging, but then the screen went blank. A mysterious white "E18" appeared in the lower-left corner, and the camera shut off.

To tweak the old adage about lawyers, a digital camera without a protective case has a fool for an owner. Not only does a padded case protect the camera, but often it also has built-in pockets for batteries and memory cards.

Cell phone vs. BMW

More than a basic handset, the pocket-friendly Motorola V220 flip phone includes a colour screen, an integrated camera, a USB 2.0 port, and a speakerphone, and it lets you surf the Web. I severely tested the V220's solid construction, a challenge it passed with flying colours.

I first started beating up the V220 in my car, by placing it on the dashboard and taking sharp turns. It banged against the windshield and doors, and eventually bounced to the floorboard. The barrage of knocks barely marred the sleek silver-and-black casing, and all features continued to work.

Dropping the phone on wet grass also produced no ill effects – a quick wipe, and it was as good as new. Repeated pavement poundings popped the battery on occasion and added several surface nicks, but the V220 remained unfazed.

Finally, I closed the phone and ran over it with my 1987 BMW 325i on my paved driveway. I moved the car s-l-o-w-l-y and then rested its full weight on the V220, three times. I figured that would pretty much demolish the device. The display cracked, leaving a blue and red Rorschach blot, and the back cover burst loose, taking the battery with it.

But surprisingly, the car did not crush the phone, crack the back cover, or destroy – let alone dent – the battery. What's more, I was able to fit all the phone's loose pieces back into place perfectly. Even more amazing, the V220 was still able to receive and place phone calls, though the sound was a little tinny and sometimes crackled. Every feature tied to the shattered display – autodialing, caller ID, address book, Web surfing, text messaging, and camera – was completely inoperable. Nevertheless, the fact that I could still make calls was impressive.

MP3 player gets crunchy

I took a 6GB silver iPod Mini along in my car for a bouncy ride, dropped it on wet grass and dry pavement, knocked it off a desk onto carpeted and hardwood floors, and dropped it in dry sand.

Like a nervous runway model, the iPod Mini looks great but spooks easily. Bouncing inside the car caused a couple of skips. Drops on soft wet grass and carpet had no ill effect, though the pretty player practically begs to be wiped clean.

Dropping it from the car seat to the curb, and off a desk onto a hardwood floor, produced a few nicks and caused songs to skip and the device to shut down repeatedly. Still, all the unit's features continued to work after the abuse, and songs played.

But my Mini did not like the beach. Without the benefit of a protective case or plastic display covering on the unit, sand wedged under the scroll wheel, affecting all controls. I could see the feature settings and highlight them, but the crunching sand somehow prevented the Mini from launching them. The unit turned on, but could not turn off. I had to wait several minutes for the iPod's automatic shutdown feature – which kicks in after a few minutes without play – to take effect.

Although I was able to turn the player back on, the screen was jumpy, and settings could be highlighted but not set. After I blew off the external sand with compressed air and gently shook the unit, the Mini pulled itself together and began to work properly. Unfortunately, I found no easy way to open the case and blow out the sand that remained trapped inside. I could still hear the grains crunching under the wheel and inside the unit. What's more, weeks after the test, the unit is still slow to turn on and off, sometimes requiring that I press the wheel several times before it wakes up or shuts down. Nevertheless, to its credit, all of the iPod Mini's features work.

Mighty memory card

My biggest complaint with portable storage devices like the SanDisk SD 64MB media card is that they're so easy to misplace. The media card's durability, though, is spectacular. I swatted it off a desk onto a hardwood floor, dropped it, stepped on it, and buried it in the sand. I also "forgot" it in a jeans front pocket, where it underwent a two-rinse cycle in the wash and then tumbled in the dryer for an hour on a high "cotton" setting.

The SanDisk memory card aced every torture test. During its dryer spin, the card tumbled out of the pants pocket. I finally found it nestled in a sheet, and after taking it out, it still worked.

Then, I placed the card in the Canon camera where it was repeatedly dropped. It survived every test, data intact. I'll likely lose this card long before it ever loses any data.

Risk assessment

So what I have learned? These products are surprisingly tough, but many have an Achilles' heel – liquid in the case of the notebook, sand for the iPod, and hardwood and concrete floors with the digital camera. While you may get away with a couple of accidental spills and drops, the best way to safeguard your gear is to use a protective case. Some are more cushioned than others, though, so be prepared to shop around to find the perfect one for you. As for me, well, I have even more respect for my tech products. Gone is my need for payback for all the destroyed drives and dropped calls I've endured over the years. Now, if only I could find that memory key's protective rubber cap...