Panasonic Toughbook Tough To Break

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If laptops were motor vehicles, the Panasonic Toughbook 31 would be a Hummer.

With the Intel Core i5 option, the unit performed for the CRN Test Center like a high-end desktop, turning in Geekbench scores in the mid-4000 range. This is the best performing "fully rugged" laptop Panasonic has produced to date.

The Toughbook 31 also passed all of the drop tests we threw at it. The Toughbook 31, which began shipping yesterday, has earned a Test Center recommendation, and is well-suited for auto and HVAC repair workers, health care, emergency first-responders, construction sites, battle zones and any field environment that might prove hostile for delicate equipment.

Despite its gruff and boxy appearance, and relatively heavy 8.2 pounds (plus 2 pounds for the power supply), the Toughbook feels comfortable on the lap, and its wide handle makes it stable to carry and move around. While testers would have preferred a larger trackpad, the touch-sensitive screen helps make up for that, though the rubberized track-pad buttons felt a bit stiff. Keys are of the chicklet variety, with detents on the F and J keys. The DEL key is in line with the space bar along with CRTL and ALT. That row also contains a dedicated menu key, which duplicates a right-click.

The 13.1-inch XGA (1,024-x-768) screen is remarkably bright at 1,100 nits, making the Toughbook suitable for outdoor use. During tests in bright sunlight, the Windows desktop was quite visible, bright and usable. For a nice touch, Panasonic might consider adding an ambient light detector to automatically darken the screen moving indoors. The screen also dims to 2 nits, a plus for preserving battery life. There's also a conceal mode, which mutes the sound, cuts all LEDs and turns off or reduces screen brightness to 2 nits, allowing continued operation or added security. The function also can control the keyboard back light and system fan.

The Toughbook received by the Test Center came with the "optional downgrade to Windows XP" preinstalled, so testers took the opportunity to compare benchmarks of Microsoft's still widely deployed operating system with those of Windows 7, which comes standard. Geekbench 2.1.5 reported the Toughbook to be equipped with 3 GB of 1,067-MHz memory and an Intel Core i5 M540 CPU running at 2.53 GHz. Windows XP turned in a top score of 4,584. All operations under XP, including the unit's touch-sensitive LCD, functioned normally. Testers then installed Windows 7 from the included "recovery" CD, a process that took about 45 minutes. The Toughbook ran slightly faster under Windows 7, turning in a top Geekbench score of 4,596.

Next: Toughbook Battery Keeps On Ticking

Even without Panasonic's "advanced battery technology," which it claims can provide "up to 11 hours of battery life," the Toughbook turned in a very respectable four-and-a-quarter hours. Most laptop makers these days seem happy with two. Our battery testing process measures how long the unit will play a movie from disk with the screen at full brightness, power-saving features disabled and WiFi and Bluetooth radios turned off.

Like others before it, the Toughbook 31 is equipped with something that has become all but a novelty: a carry handle. Many a time we've walked around like a cocktail waitress with a round of drinks -- laptop balanced flat on one hand, powered up and lid open. After preventing accidents from such scenarios, the Toughbook's burly handle tucks neatly into the front, clicking into place to become part of the wrist rest. A stylus slides cleverly into the handle, and is affixed to the laptop's body by a curly cord.

Available now through Panasonic VARs, Toughbook pricing is expected to start at about $3,800 with a three-year warranty and lifetime support. WiFi, Bluetooth and 10/100/1000 Ethernet are standard, as are PC Card, ExpressCard and SD Card readers. Mobile broadband options include 4G WiMax and Gobi 2000. Other options include a second (wired) Ethernet, FireWire or modem; ATI Radeon HD 5650 graphics, fingerprint scanner, Web cam and two keyboard backlight choices. The Toughbook will work with new or existing docking stations starting with the Toughbook 27.

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