Some companies claim their laptops are robust enough for demanding field work. Panasonic’s Toughbook series laughs in the face of these pretenders. A trademarked brand name owned by Panasonic, Toughbooks are semi- and fully rugged laptop computers that are commonly used by public safety (police, fire and emergency medical services), utilities, field service, healthcare, construction, plus military personnel. That doesn’t mean to say the machines are out the reach of us consumers – you just need to understand that you’re paying a price premium for a portable computer designed for use on the move and in extreme conditions.
Panasonic’s Toughbook range has been around for a number of years, with various models offering different degrees of robustness. No matter which model you opt for, the system is designed to withstand vibration, drops, spills, extreme temperature, and other rough handling. While originally targeted at military, law enforcement and heavy industrial users, Panasonic has expanded marketing towards a wider audience in recent years – including regular office workers. A little bit of trivia for you: the Toughbook line has an average annual repair rate of around 3.2%; Panasonic’s fully-rugged Toughbook PCs have an average annualised failure of about 1.5%.
Panasonic markets itself as one of the only remaining core manufacturers of laptop computers, meaning that the company manufactures most of the major parts used in the CF-19 (from £3030) and assembles the laptop itself. This is opposed to the practice of outsourcing the parts and assembly to a third-party manufacturer.
The silver-and-black CF-19 (271×216x49mm, 2.3kg), which has been around for a few years but has recently undergone an upgrade, has a full magnesium alloy case which is a reported 20 times stronger than the ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) plastic commonly used in laptop construction. The industrial-design magnesium-alloy top panel with black hard rubber bumpers looks like it yearns for a dusty, dirty factory or warehouse floor. It also has an LED backlit screen designed specifically for visibility during daylight use, along with a shock-mounted hard drive and moisture and dust-resistant keyboard and touchpad. The CF-19 can withstand falls of up to 90cm when open and fully operational thanks to an all-round magnesium casing and hard drive protection, which comes in the shape of a 32mm thick specialised foam jacket and aluminium frame mounting.
Because Toughbooks are water and dust tight, an internal fan just wouldn’t work. Panasonic engineers created an innovative heat dissipation system based on heat pipe technology. This evenly distributes heat from the inside of the computer to the outside of the casing, avoiding the appearance of hot spots. As with any laptop, the Toughbook’s keyboard is likely to take a lot of punishment. So Panasonic made the keys even more durable, testing each key with a 200g force over 5 million times, to make sure they’re built to last. And because Panasonic fully intended its Toughbooks to be used outdoors, it made the keys black so they won’t fade or yellow.
Water and dust proofing is essential to a healthy laptop, so Panasonic created a fan-less design to avoid dust and other particles being sucked into the body of the computer. In addition, the individually sealed keyboard, touchpad and display are water and dust resistant to prevent any damage to the interior circuits. All key areas of the casing are sealed with a flexible elastomer sealant, ensuring all the seals are tight and durable to meet IP54 water and dust resistance standards. The hinges can handle the most punishing use thanks to their 2mm thick fixings and ultra-strong screws. They are also completely sealed from dust, and have been opened and closed 50,000 times to thoroughly test their durability.
The CF-19 Toughbook combines the features of a classic laptop and tablet PC. To transform the laptop into tablet mode, you simply twist the 10.4-inch XGA (1024×768) TFT colour display vertically back-to-front and fold it over the keyboard. The resulting touchscreen allows for convenient data entry using a finger or stylus, ideal when working on the road. The CF-19 also benefits from Duo Touch, enabling pen driven applications to sit side by side to the rugged touch environment, offering a single build and product for field work.
Even though it embraces Intel processors, the latest CF-19 isn’t the most powerful machine available – far from it. It supports an Intel Core 2 Duo SU9300 processor (1.20GHz, 3MB L2 cache, 800MHz FSB), Mobile Intel GS45 Express chipset, 2GB of DDR2 SDRAM (4GB maximum), 160GB (5400rpm) SATA hard disk drive, and runs Windows Vista Business. Wireless connectivity includes 802.11a/b/g/n and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR, and there’s also FireWire, two USB 2.0 ports, along with a serial port, VGA, PC Card slot, Express Card slot, and an SD Card slot.
One of the significant changes within the new generation CF-19 is the adoption of an LED backlight. The main advantages over LCD panels are better strength and reliability, along with greater battery life (around 9 hours from a single charge) and better anti-glare coatings. Panasonic said using this technology has doubled the screen brightness and means the CF-19 now offers 1000cd/m2 brightness and touchscreen functionality. Using an integrated Gobi (Qualcomm) Module, the CF-19 supports a wide range of connectivity from GSM dial-up, GPRS, Edge, and 3G to 7.2Mbps HSUPA access.
Initial impressions of the CF-19 are that it’s an ugly beast that doesn’t cut it in terms of raw specifications, especially given the high price. But it’s not until you fully appreciate the technical complexities of manufacturing a fully rugged laptop that you can look past the design. There are less expensive laptops in the market, but when they drop, they break – Panasonic’s CF-19 can withstand a fall from 90cm without damage. There’s a ton of other protection features and it is even resistant against water, dust, dirt, heat, humidity and cold temperatures. Its daylight-readable touchscreen is another standout feature, along with its bevy of tucked-away slots and ports and a massive battery life. The CF-19 doesn’t come cheap and there are far more powerful machines for less money, but if your outdoor mobile computing needs are extreme, you’ll struggle to beat the Toughbook CF-19.
Reviewed by Steven Orton