- Extremely portable but properly robust
- excellent battery life.
- No legacy ports and no port replicator option
- no floppy or optical drive included as standard
- proprietary memory modules.
We should say at the outset that the Toughbook CF-R1 bears virtually no resemblance to the original Panasonic Toughbook. That was a ruggedised brute built to withstand real abuse in the field, including wetting and severe shock, and it looked the part. The armoured exterior also made the first Toughbook a hefty beast: drop it on your foot and you, not the notebook, would be needing repairs. This was fine. The Toughbook was an industrial tool engineered to withstand hostile environments, not for messing about in the office. People who actually needed one were unlikely to worry if it was big and rather ugly.The Toughbook CF-R1 is a completely different proposition. In fact, anyone familiar with the original is going to raise an eyebrow when they see where Panasonic has taken the Toughbook idea.
For a start, the CF-R1 is no outdoorsman's product: it's got 'executive' written all over its extremely tasteful matte silver exterior. It's also tiny: think of one of those large-format paperbacks that publishers charge a tenner for, add a couple of centimetres in depth and you're about there. As a consequence, you can carry it around in one hand, just like a book. This, and the feathery 990g it weighs, will instantly win the CF-R1 a place in the heart of the business traveller. 'But is it tough', you ask. Well, yes, it is. Not in the battle tank sense that its ancestor was, but by practical standards it still cuts the mustard. The majority of the body is made from cunningly formulated magnesium alloy that weighs next to nothing but is far stronger than plastic. The hinge between lid and body is formed by a piece of metal that extends right up the side of the screen, making the whole lid rigid and inflexible as well as very robustly attached to the rest of the system. Interestingly, the outer surface of the lid is plastic rather than alloy, but the moulding is ridged for extra strength -- when we pressed it to see if it could be forced into contact with the screen (which is how they get broken), it wouldn't do it. Aesthetically, we'd have preferred alloy throughout, even at the cost of a few extra grams on the weight, but the plastic does the job perfectly well. According to Panasonic, the CF-R1 can withstand a drop of 30cm onto a hard surface, so it appears that the toughness is more than skin-deep. The company also puts its money where its mouth is: the first year of the standard three-year return to base warranty covers you against accidental damage. This is encouraging, to say the least.
As we've said, the Toughbook is a small notebook, and like other small notebooks, it has had to make sacrifices in the name of portability. The most obvious are the absent floppy and optical drives, both of which are sold separately as extras (£99 for the USB floppy and £280 for a DVD/CD-RW combo drive). Ports are also thin on the ground, with just two USB connectors and a proprietary VGA output for linking to external peripherals. It's worth noting that there is no port replicator option available for the CF-R1, so it's USB or nothing. Other absences include infrared and FireWire, and any form of wireless networking. Given the traveller-friendly nature of this notebook, we were a bit surprised not to find integrated 802.11b, but perhaps that will come with a Centrino-based version in the future. You do get a Type II PC Card slot, so do-it-yourself Wi-Fi is an option, and there's also a Secure Digital (SD) memory slot, but it seems that you are mainly intended to get information in and out of the Toughbook via its integrated V.90 modem or 10/100 Base-TX LAN adapter. The other area where size can have an effect is the keyboard, and the CF-R1 didn't clear this hurdle cleanly. The pad as a whole is over-compressed vertically, squeezed up to make way for the unusual round touch pad. The alphanumeric keys are all wider than they are tall, which made it difficult to type fast and accurately. We also found the spacebar too short for comfort, while the need to press the special Function (Fn) key to activate Home, End, PgUp and PgDn was annoying. The screen worked better, reconciling a 10.4in. diagonal and 1,024 by 768 resolution into a tolerably readable and brightly illuminated whole. The 4MB Silicon Motion Lynx3DM graphics controller behind it is hardly the stuff of dreams, but it's sufficient to keep mainstream Windows applications on the move in XGA resolution -- and for this system, that's enough.
Performance is not really the key issue with an ultraportable like this. Obviously the core specification must cope without visible strain, but you don't buy a mini-notebook for raw power. On this basis, the CF-R1 succeeds reasonably well. Its combination of 800MHz Mobile Pentium III-M processor and 128MB of PC133 SDRAM is adequate to the task of running business applications under Windows XP. We'd have preferred to see 256MB of memory as standard however, as this is really what you need to get the best out of XP. While we were looking for the memory socket (there is one, free, under a plate in the base), we discovered that Panasonic has used a proprietary memory module format. This means you will have to pay the £135 it charges for a 128MB module if you choose to upgrade. For our money, battery life carries more weight than performance when it comes to ultraportables, and the CF-R1 outdid itself in this respect. BatteryMark 4.01 took 4 hours and 40 minutes to run the surprisingly small and light 4,400 mAh Li-ion battery down flat, so you really are looking at around four hours' continuous use. The system might run for longer, but even with the battery low alarms off, it beeped so viciously for the last 20 minutes or so before it died that you couldn't possibly have carried on working. The Toughbook is an appealing system, and appears to be as durable as Panasonic would have us believe. With the confidence-inspiring warranty and its excellent battery life taken into account, it's impossible to be too hard on it in the final analysis. Even so, more memory and a port replicator would be very welcome, as would a careful re-working of the keyboard design.