Panasonic Toughbook CF-W5

  • Editors' rating
    7.0 Very good

Pros

  • Looks like an ordinary ultraportable, but has added protection
  • Compact and lightweight
  • Good screen protection in lid

Cons

  • Not as robust as a fully ruggedised notebook
  • Optical drive lid may be vulnerable
  • No Bluetooth
  • Expensive

Ruggedised notebooks are generally larger and heavier than their regular counterparts — an inevitable consequence of designing a strong chassis that's resistant to incursion from water, dust and other materials, and protecting key internal components. Panasonic’s ultraportable Toughbook CF-W5 is what the company calls a 'semi-ruggedised' system. It won’t stand being trodden on, but the hard drive and the display should cope with 30cm drops, while the magnesium-thickened chassis offers a generally high level of protection. Meanwhile, heat is dissipated through the case using heat pipes rather than air vents, offering some protection against dust and dirt incursion.

Design

The Toughbook CF-W5 doesn’t look chunky enough to handle the rough and tumble of ‘challenging’ conditions. In fact, its metallic case is rather eye-catching, and if you didn’t know it was 'semi-ruggedised' you’d think it was an ordinary ultraportable system.

The CF-W5 is remarkably compact and lightweight. Its 26.8cm by 21cm footprint is neat and tidy, while the height profile is somewhat wedge-shaped (2.49cm thick at the front rising to 4.62cm at the back). At 1.24kg, the CF-W5 isn’t the lightest ultraportable we’ve seen, but nor is it too heavy to pass muster in this category.

The middle third of outer part of the lid is raised and has some bevels in its design — which we assume are to assist with screen protection. A strong catch holds the upper and lower sections of the notebook firmly together when closed. When you open up the Toughbook CF-W5, the bright metallic colour theme continues inside; what immediately catches the eye are the white keyboard, ribbed wrist rest and circular touchpad area.

The keyboard is responsive enough, although it does feel a little cramped to use. We put this down to the fact that the keys are slightly wider than they are tall, and so the spread of keys takes a little getting used to. The space bar is very narrow too, which can be off-putting at first.

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The touchpad's unusual circular shape lends the CF-W5 a pleasingly different look, and is perfectly usable. It's surrounded by a thick metal frame with left and right mouse buttons at the bottom. Above the touchpad are four status LEDs for hard disk activity, Caps Lock, Num Lock and Scroll Lock — indicators that on most notebooks sit in a panel between the screen and the keyboard.

What you don’t immediately notice on opening the Toughbook CF-W5’s lid is that the optical drive bay is incorporated within the wrist rest. It can’t be opened manually — you have to use a small release catch on the front edge to pop up the lid, which occupies the whole of the right side of the wrist rest. The switch incorporates a status LED and can be used to power the optical drive on and off. Panasonic has done well to incorporate an optical drive in an ultraportable system, but it has to be noted that the lid feels distinctly non-rugged, and looks as though it could easily snap off if not handled with due care.

The 12.1in. TFT display has a native resolution of 1024 by 768 pixels (a traditional 4:3 aspect ratio). The screen has an anti-glare layer that gives it a matt finish, helping to maximise visibility when working in brightly lit conditions.

Features

The Toughbook CF-W5 has an Intel Core Solo processor at its heart — the Ultra Low Voltage U1400 running at 1.2GHz. It has 2MB of Level 2 cache and a 533MHz frontside bus. As standard, there is 512MB of RAM, expandable to 1.5GB via a single memory slot. We’d have liked to have seen 1GB, making the system a more suitable vehicle for Windows Vista (our review model came with XP Professional).

The chipset is Intel’s ultraportable-optimised 945GMS, which includes the GMA 950 graphics module supporting up to 224MB of shared graphics memory. Wireless networking is handled by Intel’s PRO/Wireless 3945ABG module, and wired Ethernet by a Realtek RTL8139/810x controller. There is no built-in Bluetooth, which is a shame. True, it can be added via a USB adapter for very little cost, but having Bluetooth integrated would be so much more convenient.

You can also integrate 3G/HSDPA support as an optional extra. Alternatively, there are third-party PC Card-based HSDPA cards available, as well as Vodafone’s new USB 3G adapter.

The Toughbook CF-W5 has a 60GB, 5,400rpm hard drive that's encased in special foam, surrounded by a quartet of shock-resistant pads and encased in a shatter-proof magnesium frame. Despite all this cossetting, the drive is readily accessible on the underside of the system, should it need removing.

We have already noted the wrist-rest-mounted optical drive — a DVD-RW/CD-RW combo unit. On the right edge are modem (RJ-11) and Ethernet (RJ-45) ports, plus a pair of USB 2.0 ports. The left edge houses the mains power input, a VGA port, a single Type II PC Card slot, an SD card slot and a connector for an optional port replicator. On the front are headphone and microphone jacks, along with an on-off switch for the Wi-Fi module and the main on-off switch.

Performance & battery life

The Toughbook CF-W5 does not at first, or even second, glance seem particularly rugged — and to be fair, Panasonic makes no claims about its compliance with any military standards, as it does with other 'fully ruggedised' Toughbooks. As a result, the CF-W5 would not look or feel out of place on a regular commute, but clearly it's not as robust as its more macho stablemates.

There are a couple of disappointments in the specifications, namely the lack of Bluetooth and the 512MB complement of RAM. We're also not convinced that the lid for the optical drive bay is robust enough.

The CF-W5 is fitted with a high-capacity 5,700mAh Li-ion battery, which Panasonic claims can deliver between 5.5 and 11 hours of life. In use, we found the system perfectly capable of running mainstream office applications, although the 512MB of RAM and integrated graphics preclude anything more challenging. We'd advise a RAM upgrade to 1GB if you're considering ordering a CF-W5 with Windows Vista preloaded, or you're upgrading an existing XP-based model.

We will add formal benchmarks to this review as soon as we have completed testing.

Service & support

The standard warranty on the Toughbook CF-W5 is three years, with extensions available beyond that in one- and two-year periods. You can also purchase a five-year Protection Plus warranty that covers damage from accidental drops, harsh environmental conditions or other mishaps.

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