The Toughbook range has its roots in muck and grime. The first ones were brutal, armoured things shipped out to the rigs or issued to people who get shot at for a living, and glamorous they were not.
Nowadays, although some hard-nut models remain, there’s a new style of Toughbook which has come a long way from the toolbox aesthetics of the originals. And one shouldn’t sneer – it’s far dafter to wear a 300 metre dive watch to the office than to opt for a notebook which is simply designed to withstand moderate abuse.
At heart, the Toughbook is a fairly straightforward proposition; a 900MHz Pentium-M processor (not the ultra-low voltage version either), 256MB of PC2100 (266MHz) double data rate memory, and a sensible enough 40GB of disk storage. A pretty typical sub-notebook, really, right down to the fairly basic integrated Intel 855GM graphics component built into the motherboard chipset.
What first gets the attention is the apparent discrepancy between the Toughbook name and the exceedingly light machine sitting on the bench. Reviewers are paid to be sceptical (and many enjoy it, too), so the merest hint that Panasonic might have over-reached itself was an instant attention-getter.
The fact is, the Toughbook weighs a very travel-friendly 1.27kg, which chimes well enough with its pleasingly compact 268 x 210 x 35mm (W x D x H) dimensions. It just doesn’t feel tough. Then the battery was removed, and the weight dropped to a feathery 990g. Toss and catch in one hand, but please don’t drop or it will clearly shatter.
Or will it? Not according to Panasonic, which points out that the Toughbook is capable of withstanding moderately severe vibration and shock, including a 30cm drop onto a hard surface. In fact the Toughbook isn’t light because it’s flimsy, but because it has been very carefully designed, and because it’s built from fancy magnesium alloy that weighs next to nothing.
The lid, for example, which plays a crucial role by protecting the screen when the machine is closed up for transport, is a neat piece of engineering. The not-so-thick sheet of alloy is stamped with ribbing that greatly increases its rigidity without adding to the weight. The main body turned out also to be mostly made from alloy rather than plastic, and proved to be inflexible and clearly robust, just disarmingly light.
The best part is that there were more surprises to come. The 280g battery wasn’t unduly large or heavy, but tiny numbers on the label told an interesting tale. An average A4-size notebook will have a 4,400mAh battery, so to discover a subnote powered by a 6,600mAh sets one to wondering how long it might actually run for on DC.
The answer is between 5 and 7 hours, depending on how hard you push it. This genuinely impressive figure is exactly what a travelling notebook needs to make it really worth a second look. To apportion credit where it’s due, the Toughbook’s Intel Centrino certification means that it is cunningly designed for optimum power conservation, but some Centrino kit is more equal than others.
Centrino also confirms the otherwise hidden presence of wireless networking, although in the Toughbook’s case it’s the older 802.11b standard, not the zippy new 802.11g which is five times faster. New-flavour Centrino is still relatively recent, so no doubt the next model Toughbook CF series will be kitted out with 802.11g.
The discovery of WiFi on any notebook is hardly a matter for a stop-press these days, but the Toughbook’s final secret is much more unusual. A trawl around the outside edges revealed the usual run of ports: 2 x USB 2.0, VGA, V.92 modem, 10/100Mbps fast Ethernet, even a Type II PC Card and a Secure Digital flash memory card reader that might come in handy.
There was also a mystery sliding catch, which to general amazement caused the left half of the palmrest to pop up, revealing a perfectly concealed optical drive somehow squeezed into a space other subnote manufacturers clearly overlooked.
The drive turned out to be a Panasonic UJDA747 CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo capable of 24x CD play, 8x DVD play, and 16x/10x CD-R/RW. In other words a properly capable optical drive. Having this actually inside the case and not as an external module sets the Toughbook still further apart from the run-of-the-mill.
And the downside is… well, actually there isn’t that much wrong with the Toughbook CF-W2, although it is not perfect. The 12.1-inch XGA screen is bright, and large enough for the 1024 x 768 Windows Desktop to be displayed at a readable, usable size. The integrated graphics is best kept to 2D work, but this is a subnote, not a desktop-Pentium-powered mobile games platform, so that’s fine too.
We were a bit unhappy with the proprietary memory module format, which means that if you upgrade to 512MB you will have to pay Panasonic’s elevated price, but many users will be fine with 256MB for the lifetime of the machine. Again, not a serious issue.
The only thing that might prove a problem is the keyboard, which suffers from being rather squashed top-to-bottom. This means the keys forming the main pad aren’t full height, and some users are likely to find the pad cramped. Subnote keyboards are rarely the source of wild praise, it’s true, but this one could have been better – although then there would have been problems with access to the optical drive. A classic trade-off, and one which only potential buyers can really evaluate properly.
On balance, this is a winner, what with the light but durable build, the inboard optical drive and the huge battery life.
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