One of the big problems with notebooks, especially the smallest, lightest models, is that people will insist on carrying them around everywhere. Then they get dropped and broken. Panasonic’s answer to this problem is simple enough: build a tougher notebook.
It has in fact done this before, although the original Toughbook really was tough, in a tattooed biceps sort of way, while the CF-R1 is an altogether lighter and leaner affair, more of a fencer than a bare-knuckle boxer like its predecessor.
This is simply because it is aimed at a different market. While the first Toughbooks were fully ruggedised (no, we didn’t make that word up) and designed to withstand serious mistreatment in the great outdoors, the CF-R1 is very much for offices and airliners.
This is blindingly obvious from the outset. The CF-R1 is highly compact and positively pretty, whereas the original looked like one of those photographer’s cases with corner protectors much beloved of screen villains. You half expected to open it up and find a Mac 10 inside nestling in neatly cut foam padding. The CF-R1 looks more like it might pop open to reveal blusher and brushes.
That is part of its appeal though, since it is in fact deserving of its name, if not quite so literally as its ancestors. The case is largely built out of a particularly lightweight magnesium alloy and feels very solid. The lid is actually plastic, but cleverly strengthened by a raised area across the middle which prevented it from sagging, even under quite a bit of pressure. This bodes well, since it means that the lid will protect the screen from impacts when the machine is closed.
Even the hinges are beefed up, formed from strips of metal which run down the sides of the lid and bolt securely onto the corners of the main body. Despite all this, the Toughbook weighs a mere 990g, and you can carry it easily in one hand.
Should you manage to drop it (see above), it might well survive. Panasonic states that it will withstand a fall onto a hard surface from a height of 30cm (12 inches), which isn’t like chucking it off the Eiffel tower, but it could make all the difference. Reassuringly, the first year of the generous three-year warranty covers the machine against accidental damage.
As is invariably the case, reducing a proper computer down to something only slightly larger than a big paperback involves a few compromises. The usual things to go are drives and ports, and the Toughbook is no exception.
Neither optical nor floppy drives are supplied as standard, so you will be obliged to pay extra if you need them to the tune of £280 for a USB DVD/CD-RW combo and £99 for a USB floppy drive.
Using the Toughbook with peripherals is feasible, but will be fiddly because there is no optional port replicator, which seems to us to be a bit of an oversight. All you get are two USB connectors and a proprietary VGA output which needs an adapter (optional, naturally). Of course, you’re fine if all your peripherals are USB and you have a powered hub, but things could get tricky otherwise.
We also noticed another little potential snag when we were looking at memory expansion. The machine comes with 128MB as standard, which is a little light these days, but to upgrade to the 256MB maximum, you will have to find another £135. The reason? Panasonic has used a proprietary memory module format, and that’s what it charges for a 128MB part.
When you want to talk to the world you have the usual choice of internal 56K modem and 10/100 Base-TX LAN adapter, but you don’t get integrated 802.11b wireless networking. This is arguably something of an omission for a machine which is so squarely aimed at the business traveller.
There’s a Type II PC Card slot, so WiFi capability can be added easily enough if you need it, but again, it’s an extra, and an inelegant one at that compared to an integrated solution. There is a Secure Digital (SD) flash memory card holder, which could come in handy on occasion.
Some sub-A4 notebook designs get around the problem of cramming a keyboard into the available space by opting for a finger-stud pointing device and reducing the palm-rest down to a strip below the spacebar. Panasonic has gone for an unusual round touchpad and enough palmrest to put it on, but this means compressing the keyboard vertically to fit in into the remaining space. The result is, unfortunately, a rather cramped keypad with keys wider than they are deep. We didn’t really bond with it while we were testing the machine, and unless you have small hands, we suspect you might not either.
The screen was fine, however. It produced a bright, workable image combining 1024 x 768 resolution with a 10.4-inch diagonal, which meant small text and screen objects, but not so small that it became a problem.
Quite reasonably, Panasonic hasn’t tried to supercharge the Toughbook’s graphics, or anything else come to that. The point of tiny portables like this is to do the job, not break performance records. So, you get a 4MB Silicon Motion Lynx3DM GPU, which is enough to keep Windows on the move at an acceptable pace.
The same can be said of the 800MHz Pentium III-M processor, but enough is enough if all you are doing is word processing, some spreadsheet tinkering, e-mail and web browsing. We’d have liked 256MB of SDRAM as standard rather than 128MB, but the 20GB Toshiba hard disk is plenty big enough for a machine like this.
What matters a whole lot more than performance with a travelling portable is battery life. Essentially, it lives or dies by it, in both senses. So we were impressed when we got past the four hour mark with the Toughbook (we’re talking light, continuous use).
This is very much a feather in the Toughbook’s cap, and was another reason why we found it quite hard to arrive at a definitive judgment about it. There’s no doubt that this is an exemplary piece of engineering, but much depends on what you think of the keyboard, and what ports you need. With these caveats in mind, and a careful eye on the cost of any extras you have to add, you will ultimately have to decide for yourself. Try before you buy.
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