Panasonic Toughbook CF-52 review: Panasonic Toughbook CF-52

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MSRP: $1,899.00

The Good Built-in handle; doesn't skimp on connections; includes wireless broadband and 802.11n; extremely sturdy.

The Bad Bulky and heavy; vulnerable optical drive; not configurable.

The Bottom Line If you need a laptop that can withstand a lot of abuse without spending a fortune on an all-out fully rugged model, the Panasonic Toughbook CF-52 offers ample peace of mind plus the latest Centrino Duo components.

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7.1 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 6
  • Battery 7
  • Support 5

Ruggedized laptops have a lot in common with the Hummer business model. They started out as strictly utilitarian machines built for heavy industrial use, but over time, the general public became enamored with the tough-as-nails design, and more consumer-friendly versions of these products made their way into the marketplace. Panasonic's CF-52 is a prime example of that crossover. While it has the bulky militarized look of a truly rugged laptop, it is, in fact, what one would call a semirugged system--offering somewhat increased protection at a more reasonable price and weight.

But don't take that as a knock against the CF-52. Truly rugged systems are incredibly heavy and expensive, and suitable only for the most extreme situations. Most users who want extra protection for outdoor or light industrial use need a semirugged system such as this one, which offers the latest Intel Santa Rosa chipset, plus a spill-resistant keyboard and a heavily shielded body. You'll always pay a premium for the extra engineering that goes into a semirugged laptop, but this system feels like it would stop a bullet (a test we have yet to add to our benchmarks).

Price as reviewed / Starting price $2,499 / $1,699
Processor 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300
Memory 1GB, 667MHz DDR2
Hard drive 120GB 5,400rpm
Chipset Intel 965
Graphics ATI Mobility Radeon X2300
Operating System Windows XP Pro
Dimensions (WDH) 14.0 x 11.2 x 1.9 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 15.4 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter [pounds] 7.6/9.4 pounds
Category Mainstream

Thanks to its squared-off silver-and-black design and built-in carrying handle, the Toughbook CF-52 looks more like an aluminum attaché case than a laptop. Instead of holding nuclear launch codes or stacks of $100 bills, inside you'll find a fairly standard 15-inch Core 2 Duo laptop buffered by plenty of metal and plastic.

Parts of the Toughbook CF-52 adhere to the MIL-STD-810F standard (or "mil spec"), thanks to a rugged magnesium alloy chassis, a shock-mounted hard drive and screen, and a spill-proof keyboard tray (rated for a 4-ounce spill). The system is designed to withstand drops of up to 2.5 feet on all six sides--which may not sound like much, but try dropping your regular laptop even 12 inches and you'll appreciate the extra protection. Truly rugged laptops that meet the full mil spec are also tested for heat, altitude, dust, and vibration.

The keyboard is somewhat cramped for a 15-inch laptop, with an especially small space bar. However, this leaves plenty of room from the edge of the chassis on all sides, keeping the keyboard well-protected. Aside from a fingerprint reader and basic touch pad, the only other thing on the keyboard tray is a rubberized power button. A large handle protrudes from the front edge, which may get in the way while typing, but also makes it much easier to carry this heavy, unwieldy system from room to room--and it adds a certain industrial design flair.

The 15.4-inch wide-screen LCD display offers an excellent 1,920x1,200 native resolution, which is higher than the average 15-inch laptop display (many of those are 1,200x800). This provides for plenty of screen real estate, but text and icons may be too small to be readable in the kinds of situations that would call for a Toughbook.

  Panasonic Toughbook CF-52 Average for mainstream category
Video VGA-out VGA-out, S-Video
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 4 USB 2.0, mini-FireWire, SD card reader 4 USB 2.0, mini-FireWire, multiformat memory card reader
Expansion PC Card slot, Express Card slot PC Card slot
Networking Modem, Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, mobile broadband Modem, Ethernet, 802.11 a/b/g Wi-Fi, optional Bluetooth
Optical drive DVD burner DVD burner

You're not going to miss out on much in the way of ports and connections on the Toughbook CF-52. It skips the usually ubiquitous S-Video port, but has both a PC Card and Express Card slot. We were pleased to see the inclusion of 802.11n Wi-Fi technology and wireless broadband (from Verizon)--which would likely be very important for the kinds of places one would expect to use a semirugged laptop (which probably isn't a local Wi-Fi friendly coffee shop).

Almost all the ports and connections are protected behind snap-on covers, except for the audio jacks and the power connection. The optical drive is also exposed and looks like one good smack could knock it out of commission, but the same would be true of any nonrugged laptop.

Under its hardened exterior, the Toughbook CF-52 is actually a fairly conventional laptop, and not surprisingly, its performance is on a par with other recent systems with similar components. Another semirugged laptop, the Durabook D13RY, has a slightly slower T7200 CPU, but adds a second GB of RAM, for performance that was slightly faster in Photoshop CS2 but slightly slower at iTunes encoding. As we're fond of pointing out, with rare exceptions, laptops with similar components perform similarly, and you should have no trouble with basic multitasking--Web surfing, using office documents, and multimedia playback--from the Toughbook.

The CF-52 ran for 3 hours and 30 minutes on our DVD battery drain test, using the included battery. That's impressive for a mainstream system, even more so for one that has to drive such a high-resolution screen. Our DVD battery drain test is especially grueling, so you can expect longer life from casual Web surfing and office use.

Panasonic includes a three-year parts-and-labor warranty with the system. Support is accessible through a 24-7, toll-free phone line, also available internationally. The company maintains a support Web site that has basic drivers and FAQs but could hardly be called user-friendly, with drivers presented in a generic context-free list and FAQ documents presented as Word documents, instead of being displayed inline.

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