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Product Review: Panasonic Toughbook 30

I recently tested the Panasonic Toughbook 30 from Panasonic Computer Solutions Company. For readers who prefer the abbreviated version of this review, I will save you some time and answer three simple questions:

If I were a fleet purchaser, would I feel comfortable outfitting my entire department with Toughbook 30 laptops?

Yes, without reservation. In addition to the robust design, the most attractive feature for an agency is the platform stability. There is some component interchangeability and it uses the same vehicle mount platform as previous models. I literally beat the-you-know-what out of this unit and it performed flawlessly. Usually, when I test this kind of thing, at least one goes wrong. Nothing did.

Did it pass the usability and durability tests?

The Toughbook 30 exceeded these tests in every aspect. I soaked it, dropped it, and shocked it. Ordinarily, these tests revealed some sort of anomaly in the product. This product performed consistently without fail.

Do you recommend this product?

Yes, the Toughbook 30 is the real thing. It is designed for emergency field services under extreme conditions. It delivers. I performed some pretty unusual tests, as well as what would be considered “normal” and “scientific” in the community.

For readers who like to gather all as much information as possible in order to make an informed decision, please read on.

The Panasonic Toughbook 30 is a ruggedized 1.6GHz, 1066MHz FSB Intel Core Duo laptop built into a magnesium alloy case designed for first responders who regularly expose their equipment to extreme environments.

My test unit came with the optional touchscreen (1000 nit sunlight-viewable with Panasonic CircuLumin™ technology) and Panosonic’s new Gobi 3G Global Mobile Internet (WWAN-wireless broadband) features. It is a clamshell design with the edges of the lid which houses the reinforced 13.3” daylight readable LCD armored by military looking panels. My unit weighed a bulky 8.4 pounds. It came loaded with Windows XP Pro, 160 GB hard drive and particularly sensitive WiFi capabilities. I did not test the optional integrated GPS receiver.

The Toughbook has sealed ports for the battery, hard disk drive, and communication connections. The battery and hard drive have double locking devices that require the user to overtly unlock the latches before opening them. They are sealed with gaskets which press firmly into lips in the case, held firmly by recessed metal hinges. There are no external fan ports usually found in laptops, which explains its almost completely silent operation.

Dropping, exposure to moisture and vibration are the leading causes of notebook failure. Besides damaging the case or viewing screen, a significant shock can also destabilize the hard drive.

I dropped the product repeatedly from a static position to carpeted concrete at 48” (note: for the standard test, 2” of plywood over a non yielding surface is used. This test is done when the product is closed and not operating (Method 516.6, Procedure IV Transit Drop Test) as well as opened and operating. During a couple of the drops, the multimedia pocket popped open. I closed it and dropped it again.

After shutting down, I slid the hard drive out and inspected it. It is actually mounted into its own padded area inside a metal case, which fits into the unit’s magnesium case. Although some companies have methods to protect the fragile hard drive, this component is over-engineered. I did some things to the hard drive which the manual specifically tells the customer not to do. I won’t share these things here except to say that the product restarted and ignored my abuse.

I used third party benchmark software to test various aspects of the computing performance of the Toughbook 30. Benchmarking is subjective at best because the software tests aspects of performance don’t always indicate the overall speed or performance of a platform. For example, some benchmarks test graphics by its ability to render and re render pictures or rotate a graphic and measure how long this takes. Others test the unit’s ability to handle complex math. I used several tests and found that the overall ability of this platform is above average in most benchmark graded areas.

The Toughbook 30 is a bit more resistant to water ingress (IP 65, water ingress) than the MIL Spec requirement to survive sprayed water. Panasonic tests it by spraying it with water for 12 hours. I first spilled a cup of coffee on it (after all, it is a first responder tool), then rinsed it off after confirming the ports were all closed. Not completely satisfied, I dunked it while it was running.

Yes, I submerged it.

This goes beyond the design requirements of the product so don’t try this at home.

Yes, my Toughbook 30 prevailed.

I did the “I spilled my coffee into the keyboard” test and promptly hosed the whole laptop off. The Toughbook easily shrugged off this minor hiccup. I wasn't prepared when I turned the laptop upside down hours later and water ran off the keyboard. Note to self: Turn the Toughbook over after getting it wet, not when holding it over expensive furniture.

Two aspects of the Toughbook are almost immediately apparent. First, it is almost completely silent. Second, it never, even during constant operation, got warmer than lukewarm. This is likely due to the dual core SL9300 processor, which at 1.6 gHz, has a much lower temperature spec than its contemporaries.

Although the Toughbook 30 comes with a stylus which stores in the handle, most users who tested this product used their fingernails. The touchscreen was sensitive and accurate with the finger. In fact, I found that one could steady the hand by hooking the thumb or fingers on the edge of the screen mouse while simulating Code 3.

I put my patrol gloves on and took the Toughbook out for a spin. I found I could accurately select keys and control the screen comfortably.

The touchpad was a little stiff for practical use. It moused accurately and was completely reliable but the membrane covering it had such a beefy feel that it was more like running one's finger across a dashboard than a mouse touchpad. Really, who cares? Purchase the optional touchscreen and ignore the touchpad.

After charging and fully discharging the battery, I began surfing the net on battery power. I played a huge repertoire of graphics intensive material, which exercised the graphics accelerator and the battery. After 4 hours of service, the battery monitor estimated 6.7 hours of power remaining. I was skeptical and began word processing while playing short vids. Throughout this test, my Toughbook consistently exceeded the claimed 9 hours, based on a 50/50 cycle. The multidrive slot will accept an optional battery for an extended runtime.

The one thing about daylight readable screens is the fact that they are generally only bright enough when the machine is plugged into the wall. This one is easily discernable in bright sunlight and has to be toned down a bit (using the hot keys in the top row) for indoor use.

I used an informal test for the LCD impact test. This consisted of dropping a golf ball on the LCD screen at 30 inches. Mind you, this is a LCD with a digitizer, which means that it is touch sensitive. When the golf ball hit, the screen would flash white then return to the original display. I have a similar tablet laptop in my household with a shattered digitizer.

Panasonic tests their hinges to 50,000 cycles. Although my lab has equipment which can specifically test many things, this is not one of them. I did find that the case can withstand 300 lbs of pressure and the hinges are resistant to hyper extension.

In my patrol car, I was issued a laptop with a heavy duty protective membrane over the keyboard. This required the user to hammer on the keys with deliberate force to make them work, which precluded normal touch typing and computing. The Toughbook appears to have a membrane on the keys which are surrounded by a hard synthetic cutout. The keys are “springy” and the user can use it like a normal keyboard.

I interviewed Rod Brouhard, an experienced paramedic and EMS educator to get an idea of what EMS users need in a laptop. Rod has written several articles on first responder technology.

Rod Brouhard told me that his agency uses a single laptop for medical charting and CAD dispatch, although his agency uses two different CAD software packages. Medics use the input devices of this product mostly for medical charting and report writing. Additionally, their agency uses a training web site to allow their crews overlap their training while on duty.

Depending on which county the ambulance responds, report printing is done from the laptop or electronically.

While used in the ambulance, the product is mounted. Their CAD software has the capability of switching between the mapping software and real-time call software, which is capable of delivering turn by turn directions, even while switching screens.

When I asked Rod what features would be essential in a mobile computer for emergency services, he told me it has to be durable enough to be pulled out of the mount and dropped on the ground and still be operational. Patient trauma isn’t the only thing that EMS crews must deal with.

According to Brouhard, Wireless broadband is important to EMS users, especially when monitoring an incident unfolding. Using WWAN, ambulance crew members often monitor the Caltrans or CHP web sites.

Kyp Walls, The Director of Product Management at Panasonic told me that the Toughbook 30 is actually a 5th generation product, beginning with the Toughbook 25. Panasonic deliberately looked at platform stability early in the model creation, which is why the models following the Toughbook 27 share the same docking mounts. Their intent is to maintain about 14-15 years of docking consistency, a feature not lost on fleet managers.

Kyp explained that each Toughbook model of laptops is built from the ground up for specific types of users. Panasonic’s design philosophy for the Toughbook 30 was to provide the end-user with the lowest cost solution in an almost indestructible laptop.

Kyp said furhter that the acquisition cost of a laptop is really only 20 percent of the overall cost of ownership for an agency. Ordinarily, maintenance, consumables and repair time are five times more expensive than simply purchasing equipment. Panasonic’s strategy here was to make something so reliable that the cost of ownership is minimal.

Panasonic spends a lot of time talking to their customers. They form Customer Advisory Councils in order to get honest assessments about their product.

Panasonic’s president also personally speaks to 500 customers annually. The result of this attention to detail is a product reliability rate that is 7 to 10 times higher than the industry average. Panasonic added a timely customer response and turnaround for service. Some companies I talked to were not forthcoming about their repair policies. With Panasonic, it was very simple: they generally can return a laptop to an agency in a couple of days.

I wanted to test Panasonic’s service system so I surreptitiously called 1-800-LAPTOP5 (1-800-527-8675), Panasonic’s help line, explaining that I needed a third party driver and my laptop would not work without it. I then proceeded to sit at my desk with a stopwatch.

I got a live person in 25 seconds.

The support agent, who identified himself as Dorian, efficiently assessed my issue and e mailed me the correct driver link while still on the line. I called several more times and got a live person each time (Sorry, that was me guys).

The Toughbook 30 has an external antenna for WWAN which extends from a recess behind the screen. I rarely had to extend it. I tested this feature by finding several areas where cell phone service was weak or unavailable. Panasonic has partnerships with AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon Wireless for their WWAN service providers. Thanks to them, I was able to test the live video feed capabilities through broadband wireless.

Antenna sensitivity is sort of an intangible feature. Although I was able to find some remote areas where service was unavailable, it was long after I was out of cell phone range.

This was an easy product test. Many products have some similar features in some areas, but the Panasonic Toughbook 30 has the complete package. It met and exceeded the manufacturer’s claims and excelled in areas required for its assignment. I personally recommend the Panasonic Toughbook 30. Panasonic does make a rugged laptop with an ultraportable form factor and similar durability called the Toughbook U1, which I can assure you will definitely be my next work computer.

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