GCN Lab Review: Upgraded Toughbook 30 is ready for duty

Rugged laptop PC is built for military and police on tough assignments

Pros: Extremely tough, new sunlight readability and concealment mode, great battery life
Cons: Expensive even for a rugged computer, only military and police would probably use new features, tablet touch-screen comes without fold-down LCD
Performance: A
Ease of use: C
Features: A-
Value: B-
Government price: $5,049 as tested

Panasonic’s Toughbook line is among the best known in the rugged-computer field. Toughbooks almost always perform well in our lab tests, surviving heat, moisture and shocks that would kill less-fortified computers. And among Toughbooks, the Toughbook 30 is the fully rugged workhorse, a nearly indestructible block of metal-bound computing power that could probably survive many conditions that its user would not.

So when Panasonic representatives told me the company had recently upgraded the Toughbook 30 to make it even more attractive to government users who work in harsh conditions, my mind began to wander a bit. Short of having the unit come with its own armored column, what more could be done?

It turns out that the upgrades don’t focus on ruggedness but address the concerns of police and warfighters who operate in shadowy areas of the world.

The first issue has to do with light. Though many have tried, computer companies have a difficult time making computers that work in bright sunlight. In places such as the desert of Iraq, bright sunlight will almost always be an issue for users during the day. A computer mounted inside a police car in the United States can be just as hard to use, with the sun coming in from almost every angle.

The upgraded Toughbook 30 uses four methods to reduce glare and comes closer than any system we have tested to being truly readable in sunlight. Three of the methods we have seen before, but never all together.

The first thing the Toughbook 30 does is increase its brightness to 1,000 nits, compared to about 250 on standard laptops. That raw light power is important because the screen has anti-glare and anti-reflective coatings. Normally those coatings reduce the brightness of a monitor, but the Toughbook 30’s brightness compensates nicely.

Finally, Panasonic has figured out how to use circular polarization to increase the contrast on the screen, which helps it maintain the 5-to-1 contrast ratio — the difference between the brightest white and the darkest black — needed for sunlight readability. Automated teller machines often use the same technology.

Light originating inside the display is unpolarized and remains so after going through a wave plate. It then leaves the screen after traversing a vertical polarizer. Light coming from the outside moves through the same vertical polarizer and is converted to right-hand circular polarized light. After it’s reflected from the screen, it becomes left-polarized because anything you see in a mirror will be backward. The same wave plate that lets the unpolarized light out will convert the reflection to horizontal so the filter can block it. The end result is that you can barely see your reflection on the screen, which is sort of like a magic trick. This is how a vampire must feel.

When you sit the upgraded Toughbook 30 beside a standard LCD display, you can see the difference right away. You can lose a lot of brightness when you add circular polarization technology to a screen, but, as we said, the raw light power of the Toughbook 30 monitor makes up for it.

Panasonic addressed another problem that can crop up in certain situations: Laptop PCs tend to give off light. For cops trying to remain undetected in unmarked cars on a dark city street or warfighters on reconnaissance missions, the last thing they want is a glowing computer calling attention to their presence. Even something as insignificant as an LED drive light could give them away in pitch darkness. So the upgraded Toughbook 30 has a function key that activates a concealment mode.

By default, the mode does nothing. You have to go into the BIOS and configure how you want it to operate. You can set each component to continue to operate and ignore concealment commands, operate at minimal levels, or shut off completely. You can also configure concealment mode to work with the monitor, keyboard backlight, speakers, wireless radios and LEDs on the computer, such as the hard-drive activity light.

We tested it by setting everything to OFF in the BIOS. Then we started watching a movie streaming wirelessly via the Internet. When we activated concealment mode by pressing the appropriate key combination, the computer instantly shut off — or so it seemed. If you looked closely at the screen, you could still see the cursor, though the movie stopped streaming because the wireless connection had been disabled. And all the external LED lights were dark.

After we pressed the same key combination, the system came back to life as if nothing had happened. It works much faster than standby mode because the system was still running and ready for action as soon as we were. Having the radios turn off is a neat option that could come in handy if, say, a bad guy was scanning for radio traffic, and you wanted to remain electronically hidden, which is probably more of a plus for military users than police.

Panasonic has also improved the battery life of the Toughbook 30. Our test unit had a standard battery that fit inside the laptop case. We disabled all battery-saving features and ran a movie set at 80 percent brightness and sound — a worst-case scenario for battery testing. We were expecting perhaps three hours of life, but the Toughbook 30 kept going, finally dying after 5 hours, 41 minutes. Using the unit properly in the field would probably warrant even longer life, though almost six hours for a worst-case test is pretty amazing.

Of course, the Toughbook 30 has to be rugged or it wouldn’t be so attractive to feds. If the added modes decreased its ruggedness, they would be no good at all. But they didn't. We ran the Toughbook 30 through shock testing under the Mil-Std 810F specification. It survived drops of 36 inches on all sides. And it ran for three hours inside GCN's rain forest environment, where temperatures reach as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity is close to 100 percent. It emerged steamy but no worse for wear. In terms of ruggedness, the new model matched other Toughbooks we have tested, and it remained at the top of the pile in terms of survivability.

The unit we tested had a 1.6 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor SL9300 with a 6M L3 cache. The standard upgraded Toughbook 30 has 2G of memory and a list price of $3,649. However, ours had 3G of RAM and a price of $5,049. There is an option to add the 3G Global Mobile Internet to the standard 802.11 a/b/g/Draft-N setup we had, though that would increase the price.

The price is reasonable if you need the extra features because you won’t be able to find them elsewhere, as far as we know. However, the Toughbook 30 is not designed for just anyone, and the price will keep it out of the hands of the casual rugged user.

There were a few negatives. Like most rugged computers, the Toughbook 30 is heavy. Our upgraded model tipped the scales at 8 pounds, 7 ounces, not including the power cord. You wouldn’t want to carry it around unless you needed the extra protection.

Also, the Toughbook 30 has a touch screen, which is a nice addition. But the LCD screen is configured the same way as the older models. It flips up like a normal screen, but it doesn’t flip back and fold down over the keyboard, which limits its functionality for tablet PC applications. If you are going to pay extra for a touch screen, you probably want the full functionally offered by a typical LCD tablet configuration.

Using mobile USB drives with the upgraded Toughbook 30 continues to be a problem, just as we have found with every other model. The USB port is recessed almost half an inch into the case, so only very skinny drives can be inserted to make the connection. A lot of high-security drives that are rugged or have extra features, such as fingerprint readers, are too thick to work with the Toughbook. We realize that ruggedness is an issue, but the USB port needs to be flush with the outside casing.

Finally, the upgraded Toughbook 30, like others in the line, has no optical drive. There is certainly enough room in the case to add the drive, and the unit already weighs more than 8 pounds, so what why not add a few more ounces for a needed feature? To compensate, users will be forced to carry an external drive, which probably won’t be rugged. Given the problems using the USB port, the need for an internal optical drive is even more acute.

Problems with the USB, optical drive, touch screen and weight lowered the unit's ease-of-use grade, though its score on features remained high because of the new extras.

Like most rugged computers, the Toughbook 30 will only appeal to certain people. The new concealment mode and sunlight readability expand that list slightly. If your job requires a stealthy touch or a lot of time in the sun, the upgraded Toughbook 30 won’t let you down even in the most adverse conditions.

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

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