Panasonic has created a new paradigm in rugged notebooks with the CF-U1, which is a nice balance between portability and functionality. However businesses should be aware of its limited performance, and note that protection comes at a premium price.
Perhaps the best way to begin examining Panasonic's CF-U1 ToughBook is with a little bit of technology taxonomy. Is it a massive phone? It is a tiny laptop? A UMPC on steriods? No, it's probably more like the kind of netbook you would give to riot police.
Externally, the CF-U1 look something like a giant UMPC. However from the internals, comparing the CF-U1 to a netbook seems more appropriate. At 1.06kg, it's around the same weight as a netbook, and runs off an Intel Atom. On the face side there is a full QWERTY keypad.
Along three of the four edges behind clip-closed water resistant covers you will find a port for charging, a single USB port, 3.5 mm audio in/out jacks and an SD card reader slot. This covers all the basics, but port options are still pretty sparse.
At the base of the CF-U1 is an interface for vehicle mounting, and this device was obviously designed with that purpose in mind. On either side of the interface are screw sockets for securing the device in place.
A notable feature of the CF-U1 is the touch screen display. At 5.6 inches it's on the small side, but its resolution of 1024x600 (WSVGA) is sharp for its size. It's also LED backlit, meaning it's brighter and uses less energy than a standard LCD display.
We had no trouble seeing the device even in quite bright light, and the display is sunk below the level of the front surface for additional protection. However, navigating the Windows XP interface on a 5.6-inch display using just your fingers can be a frustrating experience.
For this reason Panasonic have include a tethered stylus with the device. Unfortunately, if you're hauling the device around the stylus or tether can easily get caught, which can get annoying. The stylus also includes no way to right click, which requires a click on desktop applet. This can get tedious.
The keyboard on the front of the device is a full QWERTY, but with a twist, the keys aren't arranged in a standard fashion. Half way across the QWERTY is a number pad, and a set of arrow keys for navigation. Typing on this CF-U1's keyboard is comfortable, but this is a two thumb job.
Along either side of the device is a series of handy shortcuts to make using this device on the road easier. There are zoom keys and a scroll key on the left hand side of the device. On the right hand side are four customisable keys designed to provide shortcuts to commonly used applications.
It's worth noting on the back of the device there is both a 2-megapixel camera and a fingerprint reader — both excellent and handy features. We took several pictures using the camera on the CF-U1, and image quality is reasonable.
At the top of the device there is a 1D/2D barcode reader, and there is the option of a RFID reader.
The CF-U1 carries IP54 certification, meaning it has a high level of dust protection (level 5 of 6), and a moderate level of water protection (level 4 of 8). This device is by no means waterproof, but we have seen it washed over with a light slash of water, and it should do fine in light rain.
The internal computing components of this device are close to identical compared to an Eee PC 1000, which gives you an idea of its performance. Onboard there is a 1.3 GHz Intel Atom Z520 and 1GB of DDR2 RAM.
With these specifications, internet browsing, document editing and non-graphic intensive web applications should be fine. Those looking to test the performance of custom enterprise applications on this device could use a relatively cheap Eee PC 1000, as performance should be very similar due to almost identical internals.
The CF-U1 features the full suite of a/b/g and draft-N wireless, but there is no wired RJ-45 Ethernet available as standard. Ethernet is available with an expansion module, as is a serial connector. Other connectivity options are excellent. The CF-U1 includes a GPS along with the option of 3G mobile connectivity.
The CF-U1 includes dual 2900mAh Li-Ion batteries, giving a combined capacity of 5800 mAh. In order to test battery life, we set screen brightness to 50 per cent and then ran a full screen video continuously until the device went black. This test gave the largest result we have ever seen on a mobile device, just over four and a half hours, although a small screen and the lack of an optical drive means this test isn't quite directly comparable to the same test conducted on other, standard form-factor business laptops.
This is a very taxing test, and only reflects the minimum amount of battery life this device could provide with performance heavy applications. Batteries are easy to remove and replace, just unlock the rear face plate and pop them out. The device can run with one battery.
The CF-U1 includes a Windows Vista Business licence, but comes pre-installed with XP SP3. With the specifications of this device, you wouldn't want to run Vista Business. While the CF-U1 fits the minimum requirements for the OS, it just barely does so. Business shouldn't hesitate to continue running XP, Microsoft has said it will continue to support it until April 2014.
Like all hardened devices, you pay a big premium for the privilege of splash and dust resistance.
Those looking for a device with more performance, or a full keyboard, may want to consider Panasonic's larger ToughBooks, which include the CF-19 and the CF-30. The warranty on the Panasonic ToughBook range is three years.
Panasonic currently has a large chunk of the market share in Australian rugged devices. They have a number of big customers, including Sydney Water, Telstra, National Foods, Coca-Cola Amatil, Bluescope Steel, Mitsubishi Motors and Ambulance Victoria.
However there are also several competitors in this space that also offer rugged notebooks, including NEC and Avantec. The NEC offering is a 12.1 inch tablet, but the NEC website indicates a product with less up to date specs. Offerings from Avantec seem comparable.