Are you the type of user that heaps abuse on your laptop, blowing through one machine after the other at too rapid a pace? With the ToughBook 74, Panasonic has incorporated some of the design principles used for its military-grade laptops into a more consumer-friendly "business rugged" model that's designed to withstand more everyday abuses. Larger and more rugged than the consumer-oriented ToughBook W4, the ToughBook 74 includes durability and mobility features such as magnesium-alloy casing, a shock-mounted hard drive, a spill-resistant keyboard, WWAN connectivity, and a screen that's readable outdoors. Not all of these characteristics are unique to the ToughBook, though: less-expensive business models from Dell and Lenovo also include shock-mounted hard drives, WWAN, and spill-resistant keyboards, for example. And given the ToughBook 74's $2,999 starting price, we recommend it only for business users who are likely to do most of their computing beyond the office, airplane, or hotel room and whose laptop will need to withstand extreme abuse (think construction, insurance, or law enforcement). Otherwise, we recommend a less bulky, less expensive laptop, such as the Dell Latitude D520.
Measuring 12 inches wide, 11.6 inches deep, and at points more than 2 inches thick, the metallic-silver-and-black Panasonic resembles a sport utility vehicle (though not a Hummer). Those measurements are a bit narrower and deeper than those of both the Dell Latitude D520 and the Lenovo 3000 N100. Weighing an even 6 pounds, the ToughBook 74 is a few ounces lighter than the Latitude D520 and the N100; however, those laptops have larger, 15.4-inch wide screens. While we thought the ToughBook 74 itself was portable enough for semi-frequent travel, its massive 1.8-pound AC adapter is likely to slow you down.
The Panasonic ToughBook 74 features a 13.3-inch standard-aspect display with touch-screen functionality; Panasonic includes a stylus for easier navigation, but given the ToughBook 74's traditional laptop (and not tablet) form factor, using the touch screen feels awkward--you have to lift your arm and reach over the keyboard to touch the screen, and you can't write on it as you would a tablet. The screen has a typical native resolution of 1,024x768. As an added bonus, the screen doesn't wash out in bright daylight; we took it out into late-afternoon sun and, though dim, it was still readable.
The ToughBook 74's keyboard is wide and comfortable to use, though the arrow keys are a touch small. The keys themselves feel firmer than most laptops' but not to the point of being uncomfortable. The track pad is decent-size, though we wish the mouse buttons were larger and offered deeper travel. The only other design feature of note, the built-in handle along the laptop's front edge, extends to let you carry the laptop sans laptop bag. Tucked beneath the handle is a hardware switch for the laptop's built-in wireless radio.
Panasonic designed the ToughBook 74 to withstand at least one drop from a height of 12 inches; our less-than-scientific test involved dropping the running computer multiple times onto a desk from a height of two feet. The ToughBook 74 stayed alive through it all, and it even booted after we accidentally dropped the system on cement while walking to the office (sorry, Panasonic!). The system was also unaffected when we knocked over an 8-ounce cup of hot coffee onto the keyboard. Over the course of the day we spilled an additional 6 ounces of liquid on the keyboard, and the ToughBook 74 kept running with no perceivable damage.
The ToughBook 74 includes only two USB 2.0 ports; otherwise its selection of ports and slots is average for a laptop of its size. There are VGA and serial ports; headphone and microphone jacks; Type II PC Card, SD card, and ExpressCard/54 slots; and an optional smart card reader. Our review unit also included a DVD burner in its swappable bay. In keeping with its ruggedized case, all of the laptop's ports and slots are covered with thick plastic flaps; the covers feel sturdy and unlikely to fall off with extended use. Standard networking features include Gigabit Ethernet, 56Kbps modem, and 802.11a/b/g; Bluetooth is available as an option, as is an EV-DO WWAN radio that lets you tap into a cellular data network (provided you have a subscription). The WWAN radio sits underneath a small bump on the outside of the lid; a thin and flimsy antenna extends up from the bump when you're ready to log on.
The Panasonic ToughBook 74 runs on the Windows XP Professional operating system; its software bundle is limited to disc viewing and burning applications and basic system management utilities.
Our $2,999 test configuration of the Panasonic ToughBook 74 included a 1.8GHz Core Duo processor; 512MB of average 533MHz RAM an 80GB, 5,400rpm hard drive; and an integrated Intel graphics card that borrows up to 128MB of system memory. Those middle-of-the-road components produced some pretty average scores on CNET Labs' mobile benchmarks; the ToughBook 74 performed roughly the same as a similarly configured Dell Inspiron E1405 and (curiously) ahead of the identically configured HP Compaq V3000. In terms of battery life, though, the ToughBook 74's high capacity is well above average: it ran 7 hours, 18 minutes in our battery-drain tests. That time was matched by the Inspiron E1405 and easily bested the V3000's 4-hour, 14-minute battery life.
Though most consumer laptops are covered for only one year, the ToughBook 74 is covered by a lengthy, three-year standard warranty. In addition, Panasonic provides paid shipping for repairs, along with lifetime, toll-free, 24/7 tech support--a package that's virtually unheard-of these days. The company's support Web site includes troubleshooting guides, FAQs, and driver downloads, as well as the option to contact a support rep via e-mail.