Army notebook is built for civilians

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Panasonic Toughbook 5I

Notebook computers are often designed for specific needs. There are rugged laptops for the military and high-end graphics portables for engineers and power users. Now Panasonic has a notebook aimed squarely at civilian government workers.

The Toughbook 51 is built to last and is easy on agency budgets, but it doesn't cut any corners and makes a viable desktop replacement. In many ways, it is the successor to the Toughbook 50, a semirugged unit sold to the Army for use in command and control areas. The 51 is not combat ready, nor was the 50, but the protective magnesium case around its LCD has been extended to surround the entire notebook, which makes it more rugged than your average portable. Being only semirugged, it won't take a bullet, but the Toughbook can handle fairly rough treatment without breaking.

Rugged drive

It also comes with a removable hard drive, a security requirement at many agencies, and can be outfitted with an optional smart-card reader. And here is an interesting fact: While the notebook itself is semirugged, the removable drive is fully rugged. We dropped the shock-mounted drive several times from a height of three feet onto plywood over concrete, per military testing specifications. There was no damage or data loss. We wouldn't recommend making a practice of it, but you could probably play catch in the backyard with the drive and not break it.

For civilian employees who create or view Microsoft PowerPoint presentations, the Toughbook 51 proved up to the task. It has a large, bright 15-inch LCD, a 1.7-GHz Intel Pentium M processor and (we were pleased to find) a powerful ATI Mobility Radeon 9600 graphics chip with 64M of RAM, which means the display refreshes quickly. Users can crank up the animation in their presentations and the notebook won't even hiccup. Overall, the Toughbook 51 scored 4,800 on the Alterion Benchmark tests, outperforming many other notebooks with similar specifications.

As shoppers have come to expect from systems with Intel's Centrino technology, the Toughbook 51 comes with a built-in Intel Pro/Wireless radio that supports 802.11b or 802.11g communications. If your agency hasn't officially signed off on wireless networking yet, the system also has an Ethernet jack and an internal 56K modem, not to mention a pair of USB ports and a FireWire connector.

The notebook itself is fairly plain looking. It weighs 6.6 pounds and measures 12.8 inches by 10.9 inches, putting it far outside the ultraportable category but well within the standard portable range.

What the Toughbook 51 does not have is a huge price tag. Aimed squarely at fiscally responsible civilian agencies, the model we tested can be had for $2,465 on the GSA schedule, or just $2,022 for a slightly scaled down model with a 1.6-GHz processor.

Civilian workers who thought Toughbooks were only for soldiers or first responders now have a full-featured model of their own that is durable and inexpensive.

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