Panasonic's Toughbook family encompasses tablets, 'business ruggedized' notebooks (which look little different to standard systems — see the CF-C1 reviewed earlier this year), solid 'semi ruggedized' notebooks and 'fully ruggedized' systems designed to survive extremely harsh conditions.
The semi-ruggedized Toughbook CF-53 is aimed at frequent-travelling mobile professionals such as field service engineers. It complements the 15.4in. CF-52, which we reviewed back in 2008 (and which is still available).
At first sight, you're in no doubt that the Toughbook CF-53 is a rugged notebook — the oversized, briefcase-style chassis and carrying handle say it all. That handle makes it easy for users to carry the 2.65kg system and retrieve it from the back of a vehicle, for example.
The 'semi-ruggedised' Toughbook CF-53 is more robust than both a standard notebook and Panasonic's 'business ruggedized' systems
The chassis is constructed from magnesium alloy, while the ridged silver-and-black lid section is extremely tough and exhibits almost no flex, even when serious pressure is applied.
The base section is much thicker than we're used to seeing in a notebook, part of the reason being that there's plenty of shock protection for internal elements such as the hard drive. At 34.1cm wide by 28.1cm deep by 4.8-5.5cm thick, this is a chunky notebook.
There is a very solid clasp securing the lid and base sections, which is essential if the notebook is to survive being thrown around in the back of a vehicle, for example.
The Toughbook CF-53 has a 14in. display, available either as a standard or touchscreen LCD
The CF-53's 14in. screen has a native resolution of 1,366 by 768 pixels. Our review sample had a standard panel, but a touchscreen is available as an option. Viewing angles are good but not great on the vertical plan, and better (but not wonderful) on the horizontal. There is space above the keyboard for a webcam, although our review model lacked one.
The keyboard looks a little cramped and there's plenty of space on either side into which it could conceivably extend. Two speaker grilles sit left and right of the keyboard. In use, the contiguous keys are quite comfortable under the fingers, although we found the small Enter key was easily missed at first. Heavy-handed typists will notice a little flex in keyboard, but it's minimal.
The touchpad is in a slight recess that makes it much easier to find by touch if you have gloved hands. It's very responsive and has scroll zones along the right and bottom edges and multitouch support for zooming. Beneath the touchpad there are separate left and right mouse buttons that depress a fair distance. Again, this helps with use if your hands are gloved.
Both the keyboard and the touchpad are water resistant.
The Toughbook CF-53 runs on a 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-2520M processor, supported by 4GB of RAM (expandable to 8GB). The operating system is Windows 7 Professional — the 32-bit version rather than the 64-bit option.
Graphics are handled by Intel's CPU-integrated HD Graphics 3000 module, and there's no option for a discrete GPU. Only one hard drive capacity is available — 320GB, which should cater for most mobile users' needs.
As one of the system's most fragile and vulnerable parts, the hard drive benefits from a magnesium thickened case and is mounted on shock-absorbing polymers. Panasonic says this should help it withstand falls from a height of 76cm, which meets the same drop standard as the recently reviewed (and rather slimmer) Samsung 600B5B.
Communications support includes Gigabit Ethernet, Bluetooth (2.1+EDR) and Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n); the notebook can also be equipped with a V.92 modem if required. Mobile broadband (HSPA) is also available, there's no GPS option.
A characteristic feature of Panasonic's semi-ruggedized notebooks is the hinged covers that protect ports and connectors from dust and water. On the right side, one protects an ExpressCard slot, a PC Card slot, an SD card slot and a Wi-Fi toggle switch; another protects a pair of USB ports (one 2.0 and one 3.0). The removable battery is also on the right side.
Hinged covers protect the Toughbook CF-53's ports and connectors from dust and moisture
On the back there are three hinged covers. One protects a pair of USB 2.0 ports and the Ethernet (RJ-45) port. Another protects the VGA and HDMI ports, while the third protects a serial port and a proprietary connector for an optional docking station.
The left side has an optical drive and can accommodate an optional SmartCard slot.
Performance & battery life
The Toughbook CF-53's Windows Experience Index (WEI) was 4.7 (out of 7.9), which is one point higher than was achieved by the aforementioned Samsung 600 B5B. The WEI corresponds to the score for the lowest-performing subsystem, which (as in the Samsung system) was Graphics (desktop performance for Windows Aero).
The other subsystem scores were 5.6 for Primary hard disk (Disk data transfer rate), 6.1 for Gaming Graphics (3D business and gaming graphics performance), 7.1 for Processor (calculations per second) and 7.2 for RAM (Memory operations per second). The CF-53 is a good performer, unless you need to run graphically demanding applications.
The Toughbook CF-53's standard battery is rated as good for about ten hours' life. Our test, as usual, was based around asking the notebook to play a DVD video from a full battery charge for as long as possible. We chose the Panasonic Power Management setting, which dims the screen considerably and may not be suitable in some situations. Under these conditions we got an impressive 6 hours 19 minutes of movie watching.
The twin speakers on either side of the keyboard deliver very loud sound indeed. Maximum volume should travel across meeting rooms well, although the quality is somewhat tinny and fuzzy.
The fan kicks in frequently too, and is rather noisy. In a quiet room this is a considerable distraction.
Panasonic's 14in. Toughbook CF-53 is built for ruggedness and therefore relatively heavy. Its standout feature is great battery life. If you need a bigger screen, the 15.4in. Toughbook CF-52 is still available.