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Panasonic Toughbook CF-33 review: The one time being big and bulky is what you want

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The Good The Panasonic Toughbook CF-33 puts a very bright and responsive pen-enabled touch display that can survive -- and operate -- in all types of adverse conditions where a normal tablet wouldn't survive. Several accessory and mounting options both new and old allow it to fit in with your organizations needs.

The Bad It's heavy, with the tablet alone weighing more than 3 pounds. The premium keyboard's touchpad is small and performs poorly. It's not widely available.

The Bottom Line The Panasonic Toughbook CF-33 is a flexible platform for pros who need a durable weatherproof tablet, a laptop or both.

Panasonic's Toughbook CF-33 is in a different category of durability than your average business two-in-one PC. 

The 12-inch tablet and detachable keyboard are MIL-STD-461F, MIL-STD-810G and IP65 certified. That means it's electromagnetically compatible with other nearby electronic equipment; it can survive 4-foot drops (1.2 m), shocks, vibration, humidity, altitude, rain-, dust- and sand-resistance, temperature extremes and thermal shock; and has a high level of protection from water spray and blown sand and dust. 

In other words, it's overkill if you're just worried about coffee spills. While it's very definitely made for professional use, we're not talking conference rooms and PowerPoint presentations. It's targeted at police, emergency services, government agencies, defense, field service workers, maintenance and service technicians. It's also priced accordingly: The CF-33 starts around $3,000, but my review system with its premium keyboard is $3,600, £3,375 and AU$5,900

Panasonic Toughbook CF-33
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Sarah Tew/CNET

Living up to its name

However, just because something's made to be protected from drops doesn't mean you're supposed to go out of your way to do so. But we did. A lot. We were completely careless. We treated it roughly and dropped it many, many times. We dropped just the tablet and we dropped it attached to its premium keyboard. We also sat it out in the rain and put it under a running faucet. (You can actually use the screen with it wet or when wearing gloves.)

Outside of a couple scratches on the chassis, the tablet and keyboard continued to work like nothing happened. These are obviously limited tests compared to what they're expected to survive day-in, day-out in actual use. We also didn't subject it to high humidity, extreme altitude, temperature changes or heavy vibration. But it's clear from my use there is nothing remotely flimsy about CF-33's construction. None of the ports popped open when it was dropped, the screen didn't shatter, and the digitizer worked even when wet. That's what you get from a company with 20 years of experience building rugged PCs. 

Panasonic Toughbook CF-33

Price as reviewed $3,599
Display size/resolution 12-inch 2,160x1,440 touch display
PC CPU 2.6GHz Intel Core i5-7300
PC Memory 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz
Graphics 128MB dedicated Intel HD Graphics 620
Storage 256GB SSD
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.1
Operating system Windows 10 Pro (64-bit)

The 6.1-pound (2.8kg) CF-33 is available as a tablet-plus-keyboard combo, or just as a standalone tablet, which itself weighs 3.5 pounds (1.5kg). Its 12-inch, 2,160x1,440-pixel touchscreen works with gloves on or even in the rain with your fingers or the included digitizer stylus. And with a brightness of 1,200 nits, it gets bright enough to battle the harshest glare.

A screen for forms, not films

Panasonic says the CF-33 is the world's first rugged hybrid laptop with a 3:2 aspect ratio display. Most laptops and two-in-ones have 16:9 displays, the same as an HDTV, but a few, including Microsoft's Surface line, have 3:2 displays. According to Panasonic, many current Toughbook users work with legacy software that isn't formatted for a wide screen, so the 3:2 aspect ratio results in more vertical space for those older programs. It's also closer to the dimensions of an 8.5x11 piece of paper, resulting in less vertical scrolling with documents.

Windows 10 Pro is the default OS, but because of that potential need to run legacy software, a Windows 7 ($330 at downgrade option is also available. Similarly, if you're currently using the older Toughbook 31 and its dock, a dock adapter is available to make the CF-33 backward-compatible.

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