A handful of companies, including Twinhead and Dell, make ruggedized laptops, but Pansonic's Toughbook brand is still synonymous with the concept of a heavy-duty portable computer. Most laptops in this category don't actually meet the strict military specs of a truly rugged system, instead opting for designations of semirugged, or business rugged, which basically means they offer harder, thicker shells than standard laptops, along with shock-mounted hard drives and usually some degree of spill resistance.
This trade-off lets us carry tough laptops around without too much extra weight or bulk, and Panasonic's $2,099 Toughbook CF-W7 manages to fit plenty of extra protection into a 12-inch laptop that weighs just barely more than three pounds. That makes for an impressive system, especially if you take the mantle of "road warrior" literally and are extra hard on your equipment. However, the W7 still feels huge compared with today's ultratiny ultraportables, and it will appeal only to those who really need these ruggedized features.
|Price as reviewed / Starting price||$2,099|
|Processor||1.06GHz Intel Core 2 Duo U7500|
|Memory||2GB, 533MHz DDR2|
|Hard drive||80GB 5,400rpm|
|Graphics||Mobile Intel Express 965GM (integrated)|
|Operating System||Windows Vista Business|
|Dimensions (WDH)||10.6 x 8.2 x 1.6-2.25 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||12.1 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3.0 / 3.9 pounds|
Admirably lightweight, the Toughbook CF-W7 actually weighs the same as Apple's svelte MacBook Air. Unfortunately, it's much bulkier than the Air, measuring 2.25 inches at its thickest part. The lid is raised in the middle, offering additional protection to the LCD screen, but that will make it hard to fit into smaller laptop bags.
The somewhat awkward design does serve a purpose, however, and the chassis is designed to withstand up to 200 pounds of pressure. That's not a license to stand on top of the screen, though, it's intended for compression across the whole surface of the system, as you'd experience when packing it into your luggage and having other heavy suitcase stacked on top. Unlike some other models in Panasonic's business rugged line, the W7 has a spill-through keyboard, which means liquids will pass through the keyboard into a canal and exit through a small hole in the bottom of the system. It's rated for a 6-ounce spill--we eyeballed with a paper cup of water, and it worked as advertised, but Panasonic recommends turning the laptop off and letting it dry completely after a spill.
The Toughbook is rated to survive a 1-foot fall from just about any angle, and we "accidentally" knocked it off a low table with no ill effects. Twelve inches doesn't sound too impressive, but it's the standard measurement we've seen in other semirugged systems, and even a small drop such as that one could kill a regular laptop (although that's far from certain). The hard drive itself should survive a 2.5-foot fall, but Panasonic says the laptop itself may be damaged in the process.
The optical drive moves from its usual spot on the side of the system to a top-loading model located directly on the wrist rest. It's a smart idea and keeps the drive extra-safe when the laptop's lid is closed. The ports and connections, however, are in their usual spots on the edges and get no special protection from the elements, like the rubber port covers we saw on the Toughbook CF-52.
The keyboard's keys are surprisingly large for an ultraportable laptop, and the round touch pad--something we've only seen before on the Intel Classmate PC--is aesthetically interesting but hard to use in real life, and you lose the standard edge scroll function standard in rectangular touch pads.
The 12.1-inch wide-screen LCD display offers a 1,024 x 768 native resolution, and we almost did a double-take when we saw the squared-off 4:3 aspect ratio--it's the first laptop we've seen in more than a year without a wide-screen display. The low resolution means you won't have as much screen real estate as you might like, but the display was clear and bright and had an easy-to-read matte finish.
|Panasonic Toughbook CF-W7||Average for category [ultraportable]|
|Audio||headphone/microphone jacks||headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader||2 USB 2.0, mini-FireWire, SD or multiformat memory card reader|
|Expansion||Type I/II PC Card slot||Type I/II PC Card or ExpressCard|
|Networking||modem, Ethernet, 802.11 a/b/g Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband.||modem, Ethernet, 802.11 a/b/g Wi-Fi, optional Bluetooth, optional WWAN|
|Optical drive||DVD burner||None, or DVD burner|
Like the dated 4:3 screen, we also felt a bit left behind the times by getting a PC Card slot instead of the newer ExpressCard. FireWire is also missing, but we've found we can easily live without it on other laptops. Since your Toughbook will hopefully be spending plenty of time in the field, we were pleased to see mobile broadband options from AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon offered. Business buyers also get standard features such as a Trusted Platform Module chip and Computrace, a theft protection agent built into the bios, which helps track down lost or stolen laptops.
The 1.06GHz Intel Core 2 Duo Ultra Low Voltage U7500 CPU is not our favorite and is the same chip found in pokey systems such as the Sony Vaio TZ150. Intel's ULV CPUs do offer better battery life and produce less heat, but anyone who's spent some time with a standard Core 2 Duo laptop will be able to tell the difference. That being said, ULV systems are fine for Web surfing and basic office productivity, and you'll only run into occasional slowdown and stuttering. We look forward to seeing the shrunk-down standard Core 2 Duo found in the MacBook Air making its way to other ultraportable systems later in 2008, maybe even Toughbooks, eventually.