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Real Men (and Women) Use THIS ‘Pad’

July 17, 2010 Leave a comment

The Panasonic Toughbook-31 is the anti-iPad.

Ads and promotional videos for the latter always show users in chic, urbane settings, looking at movies and touching up their FaceBook accounts. Whoopdee do.

The latest Toughbook, which I’ve been testing for a couple of weeks, is what you’d use in an bumpy airplane bound for Afghanistan, or in an mine-resistent vehicle there. Maybe balanced on a rock in the rugged woods documenting wildlife populations. Or maybe you flop it down on the back of a cruiser during an arrest in bad weather.

What it is: A mil-spec ruggedized notebook PC, the newest in a line of ruggedized computers that are popular with the military and others who need, well, tough computers. The Toughbook 31 is more than rugged; it is also highly capable computer in its own right. It sports the latest Intel i5 chipset and room for 8 gigabytes of RAM.

No netbook, the CF-31 weighs more than 8 pounds, and it’s just shy of 3 inches thick. It has a built-in handle with a thick, solid grip. The machine is made of metal alloy with graphite-reinforced, snap-shut covers for its ports.

Yes, it can withstand no-nonsense drops. While it was booted up but closed, I dropped it twice from about 5 feet high onto a carpet-over-concrete floor with no ill-effects. The spec is a six foot drop onto plywood-over-concrete. Panasonic offers an optional solid state drive for users really worried about impact, but the shock mounting and enclosure system protect the disk drive astonishingly well.

The Toughbook CF-31’s 13-inch display is a touchscreen. A long, sturdy stylus attached by a coil cord tucks into the handle, ready to pull out. The electroluminescent screen itself is sharp and impressive, highly readable in direct sunlight.

Also impressive is the battery life. I got approximately 4.5 hours of continuous use, with the display on the entire time. Note, my session included minimal disk access because I was writing using Google Docs so the saving took place online. But the Toughbook’s WiFi circuitry was activated the entire time.

Heat doesn’t bother the Toughbook CF-31. I set my test unit on the ceramic tile surface of my outdoor table that had been baking in the sun all day, and the computer itself was in bright sun. As you can see from the picture, temperatures that day in suburban Washington, D.C. rose higher then 100 degrees.

The Toughbook’s full-sized keyboard is a chiclet-style and you get the feeling that the key stops are shorter than the potential “throw” of the keys. Meaning: You can pound the heck out of it with no damage. The machine as a whole meets the IP 65 standard for resistance to water spray (but not saltwater) and dust.

Around the edge of the machine you’ll find a fingerprint reader; bays for battery, and hard drive; and HDMI, Ethernet, USB, charger, external monitor, and serial ports. There is also a bay with slots for SD card, optical drive, and PCI cards. All of these openings are behind little sealed doors that snap firmly shut against the elements. I felt the machine was stingy on USB ports, with only two.

Although the Toughbook CF-31 has the computing power and display to do perfectly well as a single all-round computer, for use in the office I would recommend an external keyboard. The Toughbook’s own keyboard is positioned against the display hinge rather than far forward. That, plus the fact that it’s 2.5 inches off the ground, can make for uncomfortable extended typing. There are two wide hand resting areas on the top of the case, but they are flat and hard. Other than that and only two USB ports, I could find little to complain about. Yes, the machine is heavy. But that’s the price of industrial strength — Army tough, if you will.

According to Tim Collins, the director of defense and intelligence sales for Panasonic’s federal unit, the case retains Panasonic’s form factor of 11 years, so that vehicle mounted Toughbooks can be easily switched out for this newest one, which has been available for a couple of months.

At $3,799 list price, it is not cheap. For a couple of hundred dollars less you can buy one with the Intel i3 processor. Panasonic is also still shipping with Windows XP in the government market for those whose applications aren’t up to Windows 7.

My Panasonic Toughbook CF-31 test unit baked in the sun on a 100-degree day with no ill effects.