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First Take: Panasonic Toughbook CF-51

You can't hose it off like its predecessors, but Panasonic's Toughbook CF-51 has been built strong enough to take more than its share of punishment.
Written by David Braue, Contributor
You can't hose it off like its predecessors, but Panasonic's Toughbook CF-51 has been built strong enough to take more than its share of punishment.
Panasonic ToughBook CF-51
Hollywood A-lister Angelina Jolie's rise to stardom fuelled a thriving rumour mill that bolstered her tough-girl image with stories of ritual bloodletting and too many nights at the tattoo shop. As she strides towards motherhood, however, Jolie's image has softened considerably.

For years, Panasonic has suffered similar stereotypes. A decided non-player in the mainstream notebook market, Panasonic has carved out a tidy niche for itself with its Toughbook CF-18 and CF-29 notebooks, which have been engineered to be resistant to dust, water, shock, heat, cold and even ice cream.

This has required serious engineering: for example, dust and water resistance required completely sealed units sans the cooling fans that are common issue in today's notebooks; heat is dissipated through an innovative chassis instead. Another adaptation, a temperature sensor that detects extreme cold conditions and warms up the battery before booting the system, got a widely-publicised test when a CF-18 accompanied Rex Pemberton to the top of Mount Everest in May 2005.

Like Jolie, however, Panasonic has its eyes on a bigger share of the market -- and its newest entrant, the CF-51, will be the flagship as the company seeks to build a kinder, gentler Toughbook.

The CF-51 does away with many of the bulky military-strength features common to the CF-18 and CF-29, such as the hard-plastic frame and completely sealed design; you definitely don't want to drive over this one. Still in the mix, however, are durability features such as the full magnesium-alloy case, shock-resistant 80GB removable hard drive, and a vibration- and shock-resistant plastic LCD screen casing that can take more than a casual whack.

This toughened design supports a cutting-edge feature list that surpasses the notoriously outdated Toughbook specifications, which have been hard for Panasonic to update because of its restricted model range. Foremost among these is a 2.0GHz Intel Core Duo CPU, which is supported by 512MB of RAM, SD multimedia slot, Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11a/b/g wireless and all the other features that have become standard issue in today's notebook market.

The removable hard drive can be replaced with a second battery that nudges usability to seven hours. Optional fingerprint and smart card readers are designed to increase the CF-51's corporate appeal, while a full-sized 15-inch TFT display, with sizeable 1600x1200-pixel UXGA resolution and 128MB video RAM for graphics, provides crisp and clear graphics performance. Panasonic has clearly targeted the more-technical field users who need big, bright screens for CAD and other visual applications.

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Panasonic's CF-51 is available overseas but won't ship in Australia until the third quarter. It's already gained favour amongst Panasonic-sponsored engineers on the Grand Prix Circuit, however: during a tour of the Toyota pits, the CF-51 units were on full display, assisting the crew with their car performance testing, race analysis, fuel dispatching management, and other key tools used by the tech-heavy Formula One boffins.

Panasonic's sponsorship of the 800-strong team (80 of whom travel the circuit to keep the cars running) may of course have predisposed the team to love the Toughbooks, but Team Toyota technical honcho Mike Gascoyne said the improved specs of the CF-51 have made it a deserved pit favourite alongside well-loved CF-18s.

"The garage is a reasonably harsh environment full of high temperatures, humidity, and carbon dust from body trimming,"' he explained. "When you've only got an hour-long session and something goes wrong, it can throw you completely off. We need the right level of performance, combined with reliability." If your company faces similar environmental challenges, the CF-51 may be just what the doctor ordered.

Although Panasonic has certainly modernised its Toughbook offering with the release of the CF-51, its price -- not yet announced but certain to be at the high end given the $7000 range of its predecessors -- may make it prohibitive for many companies (although it must be said that reduced repair and physical maintenance costs may justify much of the premium).

Although the CF-51 is arguably more stylish than its predecessors, however, its heavy armour still gives it a solid, chock-your-ute-with-it kind of feel. The standard keyboard was comfortable if a little cramped for our big fingers, and the unit's 3kg weight puts it at the heavy end of the scale in today's notebook terms.

This means you're still probably more likely to show off the CF-51 to friends by hitting it with a hammer than by opening it up and letting them gape in amazement -- but then again, Panasonic buyers don't choose Toughbooks for their sexiness.

Far from the military-specification toughness of its predecessors, the CF-51 still packs enough reinforcement to keep ticking despite the regular abuse given by most road warriors. It's not as sexy as competing offerings and will likely cost far more, but it should find appeal as Panasonic looks to expand its interest with a kinder, gentler notebook.

Panasonic Toughbook CF-51
Company: Panasonic
Price: TBA