Actually, it appears I broke Panasonic’s Toughbook 55

After battle-testing the Panasonic Toughbook 55 with a cup of hot coffee, the thing initially seemed fine but later stopped working. Examining the situation suggests both that my coffee test was foolish and unfair but also that Panasonic might want to reconsider one small but important detail of the Toughbook’s design.

I killed Panasonic’s Toughbook laptop with a cup of coffee ZDNet's Tiernan Ray tells Karen Roby that Panasonic’s Toughbook 55 laptop is a fine machine that's built to withstand rugged environments, but he wouldn’t recommend pouring hot coffee on it, something he now regrets. Read more: https://zd.net/2P2wWJB

Last week I reported how Panasonic's Toughbook 55 stood up to some deliberate punishment I inflicted on it, including a slide down some stone steps and a cup of hot coffee being spilled on the keyboard, and it kept right on going. 

It appears I was wrong. The Toughbook succumbed to my abuse a couple of days later and stopped working. 

As best I can tell at this time, it was only partially Panasonic's fault. I was probably unfair in my hot coffee test, as far as a real-world test goes. At the same time, it appears there is a small but important detail in the design of the Toughbook that Panasonic might want to reconsider. 

Here's what happened: After singing the praises of the Toughbook on Friday, I set the laptop aside for 48 hours on battery power. When I went and plugged it into AC power on Monday, it wouldn't turn on. I tried various versions of swapping out batteries, leaving out batteries completely, but nothing would make the machine turn on. The LED light that reflects the power button being pushed wouldn't even light up. 

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Ludovik of B4Computers repair service holding the non-functioning Toughbook 55. My coffee test was probably not a totally fair test of the machine, he concluded, but he also questioned Panasonic's decision to place two small holes in the layer of metal between the keyboard and the circuit board. 

I turned to a computer repair service that serves the five boroughs of New York, called B4Computers, which performs both drop-off service (you bring them your computer) and on-site repair. Specifically, a young man name Ludovik took the laptop from me to give it a look. Ludovik is one of those delightful craftspeople one feels fortunate to stumble upon in life. He's skilled and he's brilliant, but more importantly, he's extremely curious about computers. He's interested in all the details of how they are designed and function. It's like taking a violin to a classic luthier or someone of that level of expertise and talent. Not only can he fix things, but he can also probably help you understand what you have a lot better than you ever did.

I didn't want Ludovik to fix the machine. I wanted him to help me find out what was wrong. As he has no relation to me or Panasonic, Ludovik would be an independent third party to review the evidence. Before he presented me with his findings, he had no idea I was a writer nor that I was reviewing the Toughbook for ZDNet

Also: Try as I might, I couldn't break the Panasonic Toughbook 55

Ludovik removed the keyboard and found a puddle of still-liquid coffee sitting just under it. If the problem had been merely a short in the keyboard, he pointed out, then removing the keyboard and its ribbon cable would have been enough to allow the machine to turn on. At least, its status LED should light up to reflect the thing being connected to AC power, but such was not the case. 

The most worrying observation was that the puddle of coffee covered the area around two small holes in the metal surface that lies under the keyboard. Those holes, which serve no apparent purpose, allow ingress from the keyboard area to the motherboard below. Although Ludovik didn't remove the separating layer, it's most likely the case, he said, that the coffee had seeped in through the two holes and was corroding the motherboard. 

My friend Tommy DOG, a New York musician and artist, was the person who originally came up with the idea of coffee as a test when I was preparing my review, assuring me coffee would be more interesting and more fun as a test of the Toughbook than just plain water.

Tommy was right, but in retrospect, coffee may also have been unfair, given that the IP53 certification of the Toughbook could be presumed to apply to spills of water, not material like coffee. "Coffee is particularly bad," said Ludovik, meaning that unlike water, it will leave a residue that will continue to eat away at sensitive parts.

Ludovik was also critical of my simulation. He pointed out that based on the video I included with last week's article, the coffee test was unrealistic. "That's not really how it's likely to happen unless maybe someone knocked over a coffee with a book bag and then walked away for a while." More likely, he said, someone would spill a little bit and then immediately try and wipe it off the machine. Ludovik offers a good tip anytime something like this happens: Open the laptop, turn it upside down and place it on the edge of a table, with its display hanging down and it's keyboard lying flat on a cloth so that the liquid will seep out of the keyboard and into the cloth. 

Despite my questionable coffee test, Ludovik emphasizes that the two holes in the tray below the keyboard seem a poor decision on Panasonic's part, especially as they serve no apparent purpose. "It's something I'm not that happy about," he said simply.

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Two small holes in the layer of metal underneath the keyboard may have allowed coffee to seep into the motherboard below.  

B4Computers

He also noted that the compartment in the side of the machine where the stylus lives have an opening that leads into the keyboard area. That means that any liquid that goes into the stylus area could conceivably seep into the keyboard area. That hole might be to dislodge a stuck stylus, offers Ludovik. That's fine, but it would be easy enough for Panasonic to place some adhesive tape over the hole, which would prevent leaks but still allow for access in the rare occasion such was necessary. Just leaving the gap was another design point about which Ludovik was not happy. 

As for the two holes, Ludovik pointed out that owners could consider covering them up with Kapton tape, a kind of wonder material that was developed by DuPont in the 1960s. Ludovik keeps a roll of the brass-colored tape at the ready and produced it with a big grin when offering up the suggestion.

Not only can Kapton tape seal against liquids, Kapton tape retains its shape completely once it's adhered, unlike, say Scotch tape, and can last for a decade or more if it's not deliberately taken up. The caveat is that applying Kapton tape could conceivably void the warranty. 

At any rate, the main takeaways are that it seems my coffee test was a foolish and unfair test of the Toughbook. It also seems that two small holes in the tray underneath the keyboard should be reviewed by Panasonic, as they feel like a chink in the armor. 

The machine still won't turn on. For the moment, it's dead. As for how much it would cost to repair the Toughbook, it's impossible for Ludovik to know without having examined the motherboard. The labor cost would be $200, he said, but parts aren't yet available because the thing is new, and so they would have to be purchased directly from Panasonic. Those parts might cost $600 to $1,000, he guessed. In a few years, said Ludovik, probably such parts would decline in cost to a range of $200 to $400. All of that is rather academic since an owner would presumably avail themselves of Panasonic's own repair efforts within the warranty period.

I'll be sending the Toughbook back to Panasonic for them to conduct their own examination. It could be that there is some other issue with the machine having nothing to do with my tests, but it's hard to imagine what that could be.  

I'll be sure to report on whatever I hear from Panasonic. In the meantime, I feel bad for damaging a perfectly nice laptop. As I said in last week's article, deliberately damaging things is not something I relish. Despite the coffee incident, it seems to me there's a lot that's good about the Toughbook to recommend it. Certainly, years and years of sales of the Toughbook family of machines have shown that some of the most demanding professions, people such as first responders, can rely on the Toughbook in some very strenuous situations. 

Just don't use it as a coffee caddy.