ToughBook portables take a licking and keep on processing

ToughBook portables take a licking and keep on processing

Don't try this at

Panasonic's rugged notebook PCs come with all-magnesium cases plus shock-mounted hard drives

By Jason Byrne

GCN Staff

People love sports utility vehicles and trucks, which today account for the majority of new vehicle sales. What are the SUV equivalents in the notebook computer market?

As any manager knows, the real cost of a notebook must count not just the price but also repairs or replacements. Mobile feds have no choice but to buy notebooks that will stand up to a job of deploying radar arrays or inspecting Superfund sites'harsher conditions than those in an office building.

Several companies make so-called ruggedized notebooks for the military market, but Panasonic Personal Computer Co.'s ToughBook line has carved out a different niche between the truck and the car equivalents. The ToughBook CF-27 is ruggedized, whereas the CF-71 blends durability with better performance.

The notebooks have similar approaches to preventing breakage and device failure. They have all-magnesium cases, liquid-resistant keyboards, shock-mounted hard drives and detachable carry handles, which guard against about 70 percent of common notebook mishaps.

The ruggedized CF-27 resembles a portable embodiment of Fort Knox with its matte black finish and slot covers for all connections. It has added several improvements since the GCN Lab reviewed its predecessor, the CF-25.

The CF-25 is still available on General Services Administration Information Technology Schedule contracts, but the CF-27 has a faster processor and a bigger hard drive. Its latches for the port covers ensure maximum protection from the elements.

The test unit came with a 266-MHz Pentium MMX processor, 32M of RAM, 4G hard drive, 12.1-inch LCD and single monaural speaker.'It can be upgraded to 160M of RAM and has a wireless communication option.

The CF-27 showed its durability time and again during the testing. Not only did it survive a 3-foot drop, it suffered no damage from being dropped on a corner of the chassis, which would fracture most plastic cases.

Panasonic likes to demonstrate the CF-27's ruggedness by running over it with a Humvee. Most standard notebooks couldn't even stand up to a mo-ped.

Lab works

With no Humvee in the GCN Lab's testing arsenal, the lab made do with a Plymouth Neon.

The LCD screen, the most expensive component, snuggles in a magnesium casing behind an impact-cushioning plastic screen. Not only does the casing protect against impact damage, it resists water and dust. The rest of the notebook, including the keyboard and touchpad, are also water-resistant and dust-proof. Panasonic even put foam rubber inside the port covers for a better seal.

My only complaint about the CF-27 concerns performance. With only 2M of memory in the graphics controller, the CF-27 unsurprisingly fared poorly on the GCNdexTM video tests. What surprised me was below-average performance on the processor tests.

Compared to other notebooks with 266-MHz Pentium MMX processors, the CF-27 ran noticeably slower. Disk-access scores, however, were well above average, making up in many applications for the slow processor.

The optional 24X CD-ROM drive turned in a midlevel score. The overall GCNdex score of 4.97 was about a tenth of a point lower than the Dell Latitude LT subnotebook's 5.09.

The CF-27 weighs a healthy 8.2 pounds with battery and CD-ROM drive installed, less than some standard notebooks on the market and also less than many other ruggedized notebooks. Lighter would be better, but the magnesium case carries an unavoidable weight penalty, as do the hard drive's impact-absorbing gel and stainless- steel safety cage. Overall, Panasonic has done an excellent job of balancing durability and weight.

The CF-71 lets you trade up in performance and style by giving up some but not all of the ruggedness. Its magnesium case is silver and black, without latched slot covers or rubber gaskets. The hard drive is encased partway in impact-absorbing gel and has no steel cage.

The CF-71 does carry some emotional baggage, however. Because it tries to meld performance with ruggedness, it does not excel in either area. It is neither for the ruggedized buyer nor for the occasional user who focuses on performance.

Tale of the tape

The CF-71 aims at the user or department that needs a notebook with decent performance and above-average durability. With its 300-MHz Pentium II processor, 64M of RAM and 6.4G hard drive, the CF-71 compares well against standard notebooks.

The 13.3-inch XGA active-matrix display is bright and easy to read, but not dustproof. One notable option is an Imation Corp. LS-120 SuperDisk drive.

Although the test unit did not have this option, a 120M floppy would certainly come in handy on the road.

Performance was about average compared with other 300-MHz Pentium II notebooks the lab has tested. Because of its 2M of video memory and uninspiring video controller, the CF-71, like the CF-25, did not perform well on video tests and would not be the right choice for applications such as videoconferencing.

On the other hand, the processor turned in good results, and the Ultra ATA hard drive scored well above average.

The CD-ROM scores were a little on the low side, however.

The CF-71 can be upgraded to a healthy 192M of RAM and has an optional port replicator.

In view of its magnesium case and other rugged features, the weight of 7.1 pounds is quite acceptable. The stereo speakers sound good, too.

Both the CF-71 and the CF-27 come with a 16-bit Sound Blaster Pro-compatible sound controller, headphone and microphone inputs.

They both sport a single Universal Serial Bus port, two Type II PC Card slots, and the usual serial, parallel and keyboard/mouse ports, plus a single IrDA port. Batteries are lithium-ion.

Both notebooks passed the lab's year 2000 readiness tests.

Box Score''''

ToughBook CF-27

Panasonic Personal Computer Co.,

Secaucus, N.J.;

tel. 800-662-3537

Price: $4,280

Pros and cons:

+ Excellent durability at a good price

+ Wireless communication option

' Poor video performance

ToughBook CF-71

Price: $3,150

Pros and cons:

+ Superior mix of performance and ruggedness

+ Good design and optional LS-120 drive

' Poor video performance

Because of the specialized construction, CF-27 buyers must pay a premium. But the $4,280 price tag is far lower than for many other rugged notebooks and even some standard configurations.

Above-average performance, specifications and durability make it a good buy for users who take the road less traveled.

And the CF-71 is a good choice for a user or department looking for a notebook that will perform well but not break when dropped.

If the CF-27 is like a Humvee, the CF-71 is a notebook version of a Land Rover. It's not as durable as the CF-27, but the ride is smooth when you hit the bumps.

At $3,150, the CF-71 compares well with standard notebooks while surpassing them in durability.

Panasonic is obviously on to something in bringing rugged features into the mainstream market. Considering the high price for repairing a broken notebook or salvaging data from a damaged drive, other makers should do the same.

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