A tough thing in a small package

 

The Panasonic Toughbook U1 may be small, but it has a full Windows XP operating system and exceeds the military's 810f specifications for ruggedness.

When the Panasonic Toughbook U1 arrived in the lab, we thought it was just another miniaturized tablet computer. We didn't realize we were holding one of the toughest computers in the world, especially for its weight class.

The U1 is tiny at just 7.2 inches by 5.9 inches, with a 2.2-inch thickness. It comes with a leather strap that lets users easily slip the unit onto one hand so they can type with the other on the QWERTY keyboard or touch screen. It also fits snugly but easily into the oversized pocket on a standard battle dress uniform (BDU). And it has a full version of Microsoft Windows XP, so it should be able to run any standard application.

However, it is not a computer for everyone. If you spend your days sitting at a desk in a climate-controlled office, you could get a lot more computer for the money by buying something else. The U1 only scored 242 on the PassMark PerformanceTest benchmarks, which means the 1.33 GHz Intel Atom Z520 processor with a 533 MHz frontside bus is about on par with most tablet PCs but perhaps a little slower than average.

In some areas, however, it is lightning fast, which could help compensate for its overall lack of speed. In hard-drive performance, for example, it was one of the fastest computers ever benchmarked, in part because the 16G solid-state hard drive is faster than one with moving parts. And although you have to unscrew a plate to get at it, you can easily remove the hard drive if you need to comply with your agency's security regulations when storing the U1. Then again, it's probably just as easy to put the entire unit into a safe or secure area, given its small size.

So who would benefit the most from a U1? Anybody who needs an extremely rugged, extremely portable computer with a full operating system would get a ton of bang for the buck out of this $2,499 computer. Motorcycle cops who need a system mounted on their bikes, Federal Emergency Management Agency inspectors traveling to areas hit by natural disasters, forest rangers and many military personnel come to mind as good fits for the U1.

One attractive feature is its ruggedness. In fact, at Panasonic's insistence, the U1 was tested above the normal parameters of the 810f military standard. The methodology calls for a powered-off unit to be dropped from a height of up to 36 inches onto each of its sides onto plywood sitting over concrete. But the U1 did better. Testers dropped it from a height of 48 inches directly onto concrete with the unit fully powered up. Panasonic representatives said soldiers in combat conditions don't have the option of powering down their units and moving them to a wooden surface before dropping them, so the U1 was designed for real-world conditions. After 26 drops in the lab, the U1 looked and performed as good as new.



We also tested the U1 in the GCN Lab's rainforest environment, where the humidity is close to 100 percent and the temperature hovers around 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The U1 emerged after three hours in that torture chamber still fully powered up and running a program we had set up. The 5.6-inch, 1,024-by-600 resolution screen was covered in water droplets, but the sealed system was fully usable as soon as we wiped it off so we could see what we were doing. The screen is layered with a sunlight-readable coating that also looks good under standard office lights.

We were able to conduct battery testing at the same time as the rainforest test because the U1 has a battery configuration that gives it exceptionally long life. There are two batteries that come standard with the U1. Both of them fit inside the unit even though it only uses one at a time. When you drain the first battery, the unit automatically switches over to the second. It took five hours and 47 minutes to drain both batteries in our worst-case-scenario testing, in which we constantly run a movie on the screen with the sound up and all power-saving options disabled. Normal use could probably stretch this to eight or nine hours, but it's nice to know that you have close to six hours of constant power if needed. The solid-state drive probably improves its usage time significantly because it draws less juice from the battery than a drive that needs to power moving parts.

An interesting benefit of the two-battery setup is that, with a couple of optional components, you can have constant power at your disposal. Our test unit came with an optional desktop cradle that added extra ports to the U1 and provided two extra slots for charging batteries. With the cradle and extra batteries, you could keep a set constantly charged. When one of the two batteries in the main unit drains, you could remove it and insert a fresh one from the cradle. Because the U1 is running on the second battery at that point, there is no interruption.

A bunch of other nice accessories are available or planned for the U1, including a four-battery charger and a holster-like carrying case for when you get tired of carrying the U1 in your BDU.

Quite a few extras are packed into the tiny U1 frame, including a bar code reader for 1-D or 2-D codes, a fingerprint scanner for security, a Global Positioning System receiver, 3G mobile broadband, 802.11a/g/draft-n wireless, a USB 2.0 port, a microphone, a digital camera and Bluetooth connectivity.

The full QWERTY keyboard can be backlit for use in total darkness, though enabling that feature would drain your battery a bit faster. The keyboard seems designed for the kind of thumb typing you would do with a BlackBerry or other mobile device, except the keys are a bit bigger than you might expect and the number keys are in the middle of the layout. You could type on it accurately even if you were wearing driving gloves.

If you aren't used to typing on such small keyboards, it will probably take some getting used to, but it seems easier than most devices we have tested. You can also use the touch screen if you prefer, with either the stylus or your finger. A pretty neat zoom key lies along the right side of the screen, which helps make up for the small LCD. If you are looking at a large picture, for example, you can zoom in to see more details and then zoom back out to type your comments.

For such a small and highly functional unit, we were pleasantly surprised that the U1 not only met but exceeded the military specifications in several areas, including the all-important shock testing. If you need a fully functional computer that's light enough that you might actually forget it's in your pocket but rugged enough to survive nearly any condition, you won't go wrong with the Toughbook U1 in your squad ' or your squad car.

Panasonic Computer Solutions Co., 888-223-1012, www.panasonic.com/toughbook

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