- Extremely robust ruggedised casing
- High level of shock protection for hard drive
- Touch screen
- Screen can be read in direct sunlight
- Some of the port connectors are not as robust as we would like – one broke off during testing
- Battery life from a single battery could be longer
The last Panasonic Toughbook we reviewed was the semi-rugged CF-W5. This time around we have a 'fully ruggedised' notebook, the CF-30. It's a beast of a machine — large, heavy and extremely well protected, designed to withstand dust, water, heat, cold, vibration and shocks. It is also very expensive.
The Toughbook CF-30 is a great deal larger and heavier than the semi-rugged CF-W5. It weighs 3.8kg and measures 30.2cm wide by 28.5cm deep by a massive 6.75-6.95cm thick. These are pretty huge dimensions for a notebook with a screen that measures just 13.3in. from corner to corner.
The Toughbook CF-30's size is directly related to the level of protection it offers from all manner of hazards. The casing is made from very robust magnesium alloy, for example, and there's absolutely no give in the lid section. This robust construction allows the CF-30 to comply with the US military standard (MIL-STD 810F) for vibration and shock resistance.
The hard drive is encased in damping foam in order to help it withstand falls from heights up to 90cm, while a hard drive heater allows it to operate in extreme cold. The casing is coated in anti-sun reflective silver paint in order to protect the internals from extremes of heat. The joints are all sealed, and all ports and connectors are protected by covers that provide dust and water resistance to the IP54 standard.
On the outside, the Toughbook CF-30 looks less like a notebook computer than some sort of case for hazardous material. Its integrated carrying handle helps to create the illusion. Open the clamshell, and things start to look a bit more familiar.
The 13.3in. screen has a somewhat old-fashioned XGA (1024 by 768 pixel) resolution rather than the wide aspect ratio that's now common on both business and consumer notebooks. The display is bright and designed to be read outdoors in direct sunlight. It's also touch sensitive, with passive touch-screen electronics that allow you to use a fingertip as well as the provided stylus, which stows neatly in the carrying handle. The idea is to allow the CF-30 to be used in a range of unusual environments where using the keyboard and touchpad is not feasible. Imagine dust, dirt and mud, for example, or situations where the user is wearing thick gloves.
A membrane beneath the keyboard keeps it waterproof. Touch typing is perfectly possible, if slightly different to the normal notebook experience, mainly because there's more key return than usual but also because there's a feeling of hollow space beneath the keyboard. In front of the keyboard is a relatively small touchpad. Its two buttons are rubbery to the touch for maximum grip and, like the keyboard, are dust and water resistant.
The Toughbook CF-30 runs Windows XP Professional, but not the Tablet PC Edition — the touch-screen enhancements are provided by Panasonic. Its processor is Intel’s Core Duo L2400 running at 1.66GHz with 2MB of Level 2 cache. A moderate 512MB of RAM is provided, which is expandable to a maximum of 4GB. Intel's 945GM Express chipset provides the system's integrated graphics, while the same company's PRO/Wireless 3945ABG module caters for Wi-Fi connectivity. Twin Wi-Fi antennae are located at the top end of the display, which Panasonic says should maximise the wireless range. Wired Gigabit Ethernet comes courtesy of the Marvell Yukon controller, and Bluetooth (2.0+EDR) is also present.
The Toughbook range supports integrated 3G/HSPDA connectivity, GPS navigation and fingerprint scanning, although none of these options were present on our review sample.
For storage, the Toughbook CF-30 has a 80GB Hitachi hard drive. There was no optical drive in our review sample, but there's a Multimedia Pocket on the left-hand side that can accommodate an optical drive (or a second hard drive or an additional battery). The main battery, also swappable, is in a second bay on the left edge.
The ports and connectors on the Toughbook CF-30 are protected by solid plastic or rubberised hinged covers. The rubberised covers are designed to protect single connectors and simply close with a gentle push. The plastic covers are larger and held in place by a solid clasp. The only uncovered parts exposed when the lid is closed sit on the front edge: the on-off switch, which is a robust slider, and a smaller switch that activates the Wi-Fi radio.
On the right edge one covered section houses the hard drive in its shock-resistant housing. A second hinged cover protects an SD card slot, a 4-pin FireWire (IEEE 1394) port, and RJ-45 (Ethernet) and RJ-11 (modem) ports. Towards the rear, protected by their own individual covers, are a single USB 2.0 port and the power input.
On the back, a single cover protects a 9-pin serial connector. A long and tough cover with a sliding 'window' protects a bank of additional ports. The sliding 'window' reveals the 80-pin docking port, while access to the remaining connectors — two further USB ports, a VGA connector plus headphone and microphone inputs — requires the entire hinged section to be opened.
Each of the covers is marked to indicate what lies behind it. In some cases these are white icons on a black background, in others they are embossed on the back of the cover. The former system works well, but the latter is difficult to see in darker conditions.
Among the software included by Panasonic is a utility that allows you to use the stylus, a fingertip or the touchpad to write and draw on-screen. There's no handhwriting recognition, and the utility does little more than allow you to capture direct input. Panasonic might have done better to choose Windows XP Tablet PC Edition to make the best use of the CF-30's touch-screen.
It is difficult to test a ruggedised notebook in standard office conditions. Yes, we knocked it from our desk while it was running and it seemed to cope perfectly well. And push as we might on the lid section we couldn’t get it to bend or bow. We also took the notebook outside and can verify that the screen remains readable in daylight.
The only mishap the CF-30 suffered was that the rubber cover for the power adapter sheared off in one of our drop tests.
Panasonic suggests a battery life of between four and eight hours with the lower figure being achieved with the display at maximum brightness. Clearly some users operating in the field without vehicle charging available will need to invest in a second battery.
The Toughbook CF-30 is most certainly rugged, and we can’t fault its general design. The built-in handle handle does its job well, and the casing is reassuringly robust. It's clearly not suitable for general office duties, but if you work mainly outdoors in challenging environments, it could be a solid (if sizeable) investment.