Panasonic Toughbook CF-W4 review
Tiny and attractive, it's a wonder it's so strong. The ergonomics aren't perfect, but impressive battery life and ultraportability make it an excellent travelling companion
Typical ruggedised notebooks look like something designed for frontline combat action - big, ugly plastic blocks that will withstand anything up to a direct hit by mortar fire. So it was a pleasant surprise when we found this tiny beauty in the Panasonic chassis, and a further shock that it weighs just 1.25kg. But the ultraportable size and weight had us wondering just how rugged this notebook actually is.
Panasonic claims the lid will withstand up to a 100kg weight, despite the considerable flex and bend. This is part of Panasonic's design, though, with the screen mounted on 'flexible hinges' that give a little when pushed, and with a 'buffer zone' between screen and lid. The motherboard inside has what Panasonic calls floating construction, meaning it's only attached at the end next to the strong sides of the chassis. This accommodates any flex in the chassis better than if it were secured at all four corners. However, Panasonic has also added padding around the hard disk to give it a claimed 50 per cent more shock absorption over previous Toughbooks. Panasonic only guarantees this model will survive falls of up to 30cm - less than some others in the range.
Panasonic has designed this notebook primarily with the careless traveller in mind, and to that end has incorporated an unusual optical drive. Instead of a flimsy tray popping out of the side, the whole right-hand portion of the wristrest pops up to reveal the drive underneath. Not only is it a more compact arrangement for working on the go, but it also prevents cable tangles when on a more spacious work surface. You're likely to need the DVD-writing capabilities sooner rather than later, as there's just a 40GB hard disk installed.
Naturally, the tiny chassis lacks the room for many expansion ports: two USB 2 ports sit on the right-hand side, with the rubber-shielded LAN and modem ports behind. The left gives you a Type II PC Card slot and SD/MMC slot at the front, a port replicator slot (compatible with the CF-VEBU05U docking station) and there's a D-SUB output at the rear.
The TFT itself suffers from poor viewing angles on both planes, so the Toughbook won't suit presentations unless you plan on taking a projector with you. While the actual brightness is fine (if a little modest at 240cd/m2), it isn't possible to get an even contrast across the whole screen. The resolution of 1,024 x 768 is a good choice for a 12.1in screen, though, and the definition is sharp.
In the interests of battery life, the optical drive can be manually powered off or set to power down after a three-minute lull. There's also an Ultra Low Voltage Pentium M onboard, running at a maximum of 1.2GHz. It's so frugal with its power draw that you can expect the notebook to last between three-and-a-quarter hours and five hours, 40 minutes when left running - a phenomenal result. And as there's little heat created, there isn't much to expel either. The Toughbook is completely passively cooled, with no fan vents that would allow harmful dust and dirt in, although it does get quite hot across the bottom of the chassis.
The more obvious downside to the ULV processor is its speed in Windows. With all the graphics options turned on in Windows XP, we found the CF-W4 a touch sluggish in general use, but switching to the Best Performance setting gave a much more responsive feel. The application benchmark score of 0.57 came as no surprise, as our benchmarks are extremely punishing. In everyday use, we were happy enough to have several applications open at once without feeling too bogged down.