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Panasonic's Toughbook 55 is classed as a 'semi-rugged' laptop, which means it can cope with demanding environments, if not the very harshest -- for that you'll need a 'fully rugged' model. The Toughbook 55 features a highly customisable design that allows users to specify and swap in (or out) the components they need, which is very welcome. As ever with Toughbooks, this is not an inexpensive laptop -- but you're paying for its ability to go where other laptops fear to tread.
Toughbooks are necessarily bulkier than the norm, and their branded, magnesium silver lid is a giveaway from a distance. The retracting carry handle -- a must-have for field-based workers -- is another distinctive feature. If it's not needed, the handle can be removed by undoing a couple of screws on the underside.
The protection that gives it semi-rugged status (IP53 and MIL-STD 810H) means the Toughbook 55 is larger and heavier than you'd expect for a 14-inch laptop. The 345mm by 272mm desktop footprint is unremarkable, but it's 32.8mm thick and weighs around 2.08kg (the latter will vary depending on the precise configuration).
A key selling point for the Toughbook 55 is that it's user-expandable, via three easily accessible bays. The 'front expansion area' on the right front edge of the chassis can accommodate a second battery, a fingerprint reader, a contactless smartcard reader or a standard smartcard reader. The 'rear expansion area' at the back can house a number of different ports and connectors grouped together. My review unit had a module containing VGA, serial and USB 3.1. The other two available modules offer VGA, serial and gigabit Ethernet, and VGA, serial and USB 2.0.
The third expansion area, called the Universal Bay, sits on the left edge of the chassis and can accommodate a second SSD, a smartcard reader, a DVD drive, a Blu-ray drive or a module containing a discrete AMD Radeon Pro WX GPU.
The ports and slots are all protected by hinged covers. On the right edge a single cover protects the power input, a second protects Ethernet, USB-C and USB 3.1 ports, and a third takes care of a MicroSD card slot and a 3.5mm jack. At the back, a second hinged cover protects an HDMI port and another USB 3.1 port. All of the hinged covers are a tight fit -- it's quite tricky to open them -- and should provide a reliable seal.
Panasonic offers just one base CPU, RAM and storage configuration: an Intel Core i5-8356U processor with integrated UHD Graphics 620, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. As noted above, discrete AMD graphics can be added if required; RAM can be boosted up to 64GB, but there's no option to upgrade the CPU.
The keyboard uses Panasonic's distinctively shaped key tiles with their opposing corners either rounded or squared off. This applies to the half-size Fn key row as well as the main QWERTY keys, and even to the wide keys such as space bar and Enter. Keys require a very light action and I had no problem touch typing at my normal speed. Typing is noisy, though, with a lot of click on both the downstroke and bounce-back.
The touchpad is disappointingly small as it's squeezed into a rather small space between the keyboard and the large mouse buttons. As a result, navigating the screen is harder than it should be.
The Toughbook 55 has a spill-resistant keyboard and, as noted earlier, meets MIL-STD 810H and is dust/water resistant to IP53 level. Panasonic also says it will withstand drops from up to 91cm -- that's higher than the average desk, but lower than the roof of a car, for example.
It's always tempting to try to break a rugged laptop, and my US colleague Tiernan Ray achieved this feat with little more than a cup of coffee. His account is concerning, although to be fair to Panasonic, the IP53 rating means protection against water falling as spray at up to 60° from the vertical -- like rain, for example. Still, Tiernan's experience is a salutary lesson in what rugged ratings mean in the real world.
A 14-inch active matrix LCD screen is standard across all three models. My 'HD' review unit was the least expensive of the three at £1,772 (ex. VAT) and came with a 1,366-by-768 pixel panel. The display looks a bit washed out and viewing angles aren't great, but this laptop is not expected to be delivering high-quality video in the office. The matte finish helps with outdoor viewability, and there's plenty of brightness. If need be, you can specify 'full HD' 1,920-by-1,080 resolution, with or without touch functionality.
If you choose the touch-screen version, a stylus is available that lives in a housing on the right edge and can be secured with a lanyard. This was covered over in my non-touch review unit, which also lacked another optional extra -- a 2-megapixel camera with IR for Windows Hello and a physical privacy cover.
Other user-configurable extras include GPS and 4G mobile broadband. If you opt for a second battery in the front expansion area, then it is hot-swappable, so a depleted battery can be replaced without interrupting your work.
Battery life for the 6,500mAh main battery is quoted at up to 20 hours. My standard real-world test -- involving writing into a web application, streaming some music and using a web browser -- depleted the battery by just 12 percent in around 3.5 hours. Field-based work, which might involve the use of GPS or mobile broadband, would put more pressure on the battery, but this is still an excellent result. With the second battery in place, the battery life claim is 40 hours.
Panasonic's Toughbook range is not directly comparable with the kinds of laptops designed for office workers or mobile professionals. In the field, it's the rugged characteristics that are most important, and here Panasonic generally excels. However, our cautionary tale of coffee spillage on the Toughbook 55's keyboard is worth noting.
Still, this semi-rugged laptop has a lot going for it. My main design niggle is the cramped touchpad. That aside, long battery life, a range of user-configurable components that should enable multiple use cases, and Panasonic's rugged-device pedigree all count in its favour.