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Panasonic Toughbook W7 by Daniel P. Dern
Review by Daniel P. Dern
Panasonic  
Date: 05 February 2008

Links: Vendor info /

If ruggedness trumps thinness in your criteria for an ultralight (three-pound) notebook computer, then the Panasonic W5 Toughbook -- and its refresh update, the W7 -- merits consideration, reports Daniel. In his tests, the W5 WiFi'd well, ran 6 to 8 hours on a charge, and took to being toted around well.

The three main causes of notebook problems are, I've been told, being dropped while being carried, being spilled on (I did this to my first NEC MobilePro 780), and falling (or being pushed) from tables and desks, often while open -- often landing in a screen-smashing way (a friend did this to theirs, by catching the power cord with the vacuum cleaner).

Not to mention surviving torsion (being twisted) or other bending, e.g. when picked up by one corner, or being squished, evenly or un-, while packed in a carrying bag, which could easily short or break connections or components, like what seemed to have happened once or twice to my four-year old five-point-five pound IBM ThinkPad T40. (Fixed on-site, twice now, at no extra cost, thanks to the warranty I'd spent the extra bucks on.)

So making a notebook rugged enough to sustain its share of events is part of the design.

According to a fun chat I had with a Panasonic product management director, for its three-pound Panasonic's Toughbook W5 ultralight notebook (and probably other members of Panasonic's rugged notebook series), the design group's tests included outfitting a test subject with pressure sensors and sending them into the Tokyo subway at rush hour, to determine "how much pressure might a notebook be subjected to by being leaned on or having something put on top of it?" (Answer, about 225 pounds.) They designed the machine to survive a cup of liquid being spilled on the keyboard, to being dropped a foot (and the hard drive surviving a two and a half foot drop). Other ways the notebook was "toughed up" included not connecting the middle of the motherboard to the case, so when you flex the case you aren't flexing -- and breaking connections on -- the motherboard."

I didn't put any of this to the test with the W5 I tried for a month or so during most of this past September and October (2007)... but I did tote it around a bunch in a sidebag, sans any protective computer case, and my sometimes less-than-gentle handling didn't seem to be a problem. I took it to, and used it at, the library, while waiting at a doctor's office and at one of the places I take my car to, among other locations.

Panasonic's 5-series ultralights have a 12.1" screen -- classic format rather than the new widescreen format. They're thicker than many of the other 3-pound ultralights -- about what a three-pound Lenovo ThinkPad X61s series WITH its two-pound UltraBase is -- which includes the space for an integrated optical drive (which the ThinkPad X61s lacks on its own, it's in the UltraBase -- for traveling, you'd save on weight and space by getting an external USB optical drive). That makes it somewhat bulkier than other ultralights -- but not heavier, and inspires more confidence (in me, at least) that it isn't a fragile flower.

The Toughbook W5 I tried did the job: it let me get and send email, access the web, and do some writing and editing. The latter would be easier with a bigger keyboard and screen -- but that's the nature of all today's ultralights. (Other than, perhaps, Apple's new MacBook Air?) The WiFI worked flawlessly and fast; the battery gave me the promised six to eight hours of active working time. And the Panasonic WiFi utility did a fabulous job of locating and connecting to wireless networks.

My unit included built-in cellular broadband (Verizon EV-DO on my unit). I only tried this a few times, and when I did, the service didn't impress me, in term of speed and responsiveness. That may have been a function of location - one reason you may not want to commit to a specific cellular modem and service vendor. And I may have been doing things not a good match for cellular broadband. But it sure beat not having any connectivity.

Nice features include the fact that once you initiate machine shut-down, you can go ahead and close the top and put the computer in your bag, that won't side-step it into hibernation or staying awake. And although the power switch is outside, the machine has to be open for the switch to work.

Machine-specific negatives (as opposed to the limits of ultralights as a class) include that the screen isn't the brightest -- but Panasonic didn't optimize it for movie-watching. But I had no trouble working. As with all ultralights (except possibly the MacBook Air?), the keyboard is, of course, a little small -- and not quite as nice a feel as any IBM/Lenovo keyboard. And the cable the connects the power brick to the wall socket is as thick as the one on your desktop computer -- Panasonic says this is a safety issue, but I don't see any other contemporary ultralights doing this.

I'd rather work on a full-sized well-positioned ergonomic keyboard and with a larger screen... which I do, when at my desk. Would a desktop-replacement notebook suit me better than an ultralight? No doubt it would, for productivity... but not for convenience.

The Toughbook Refreshed

Since the time I was able to get and try the W5 Toughbook, it's been replaced (refreshed) by a new model, the W7 -- same form factor, new components with better specs and a few more features.

The W7 Toughbook uses an Intel Santa Rose Core 2 Duo chip, 12.1 XGA LCD display -- 1024 x 768 -- classic format, not widescreen). (Want a bigger screen? The Toughbook Y7, at slightly more than a half-pound heavier, sports a 14.1" screen.)

The W7 comes with a minimum of 1GB RAM (up from the W5's default 512MB), 80GB hard drive (up from the W5's 60GB), 802.11 a/b/g (WiFI), a DVD Multi-Drive, Windows XP Pro SP2 with Vista License, Bluetooth (unless you select certain options) and touchpad. Security/reliability features include a TPM 1.2 (Trusted Platform Module security hardware add-in), shock-mounted hard drive, an optional fingerprint reader, and BIOS-level CompuTrace.

You can also get broadband-cellular built in -- although there are good reasons to get this as an add-on accessory

The standard OS for the Toughbook Y7 is Vista Business; fortunately, Panasonic includes an XP "downgrade" option.

The base price was of the W5 -- and its successor, the W7 -- is around two thousand dollars. That's before shipping, taxes, additional warranties, or other options, e.g. maxing out the RAM (which you should, of course), adding cellular broadband; by the time you're done, you can easily spend $2,500 to 3,000.

That's not cheap, but that's for a reliable, highly portable machine with the power, features and battery life to let you work all day.

-- TechRevu contributing editor Daniel P. Dern (dern at pair dot com) is a freelance technology writer. His web site is www.dern.com, and his blogs are Trying Technology and Dern Near Everything Else.

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