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

Built for the extreme conditions, the CF-33 brings a new level of flexibility to the rugged PC market.

Joshua Goldman Managing Editor / Advice
Managing Editor Josh Goldman is a laptop expert and has been writing about and reviewing them since built-in Wi-Fi was an optional feature. He also covers almost anything connected to a PC, including keyboards, mice, USB-C docks and PC gaming accessories. In addition, he writes about cameras, including action cams and drones. And while he doesn't consider himself a gamer, he spends entirely too much time playing them.
Expertise Laptops, desktops and computer and PC gaming accessories including keyboards, mice and controllers, cameras, action cameras and drones Credentials
  • More than two decades experience writing about PCs and accessories, and 15 years writing about cameras of all kinds.
Joshua Goldman
4 min read

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

Panasonic Toughbook CF-33

Panasonic Toughbook CF-33

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.

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
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 Amazon.com) 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.

Panasonic Toughbook CF-33

Ports on both the tablet and keyboard are sealed to keep out dust and water. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

The CF-33 tablet has USB 3.0, HDMI, Ethernet, microSD and audio ports as well as a holder for its stylus that tilts out from the body for easier access. The premium keyboard dock adds two more USB 3.0 ports, a USB 2.0 port, and even serial and VGA ports. In true Toughbook style, the ports are all covered by water-resistant doors. It also has a very small trackpad with some fairly inconsistent performance. Fortunately, you could easily just use the tablet's touchscreen instead, otherwise this would be a more significant issue. 

An IR webcam is built in for secure log-ins using Windows Hello facial recognition, but you can also run TPM 2.0 security. Optional integrated 4G LTE mobile broadband is available in addition to its Bluetooth 4.1 and 802.11ac Wi-Fi. 

Under a pop-up panel on the tablet are pair of hot-swappable batteries. Really, the last thing you want to deal with when you're working out and about, away from a power source is a dying battery. With this tablet, as long as you have extra batteries and a charging dock, you can just keep swapping and working. There are extended-life battery packs available that promise up to 20 hours of runtime, but we got just about 9 hours in our streaming battery test. That was for the tablet alone, though. Adding the keyboard dropped it down to 7 hours and 30 minutes.  

Panasonic Toughbook CF-33

The CF-33's dual batteries are easily accessible and hot swappable. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

As for performance, we didn't really have a system to directly compare it to, so take that into consideration when checking the test results at the end of this review. Though it's available with up to a seventh-gen Intel Core i7-7600U vPro processor and 16GB of memory, my tablet with a 2.6GHz Intel Core i5-7300 and 8GB of memory had no problem keep multiple applications running, but its integrated graphics will keep you from doing anything too graphically intensive. 

Keeps on ticking

Panasonic has made rugged Toughbook laptops since 1996, so the durability of the Toughbook CF-33 isn't a surprise so much as expected. What wasn't expected is that they were able to turn their clamshell into a really strong tablet creating a more flexible platform for pros who need a durable, weatherproof tablet, a laptop or both. 

Multimedia multitasking test 3.0

Acer Aspire VX 15 326Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming (2017) 335Panasonic Toughbook CF-33 457
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Geekbench 3 (Multi-core)

Panasonic Toughbook CF-33 14,208Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming (2017) 10,247Acer Aspire VX 15 9,714
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Streaming video playback battery drain test

Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming (2017) 578Panasonic Toughbook CF-33 451Acer Aspire VX 15 371
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)

System configurations

Panasonic Toughbook CF-33 Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-7300HQ; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB dedicated Intel HD Graphics 620; 256GB SSD
Acer Aspire VX 15 Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-7300HQ; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050; 256GB SSD
Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming (2017) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-7300HQ; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050Ti; 256GB SSD