Review: Panasonic Toughbook CF-31

Panasonic's Toughbook series includes laptop models pitched from 'business rugged' to outright military-spec 'fully rugged' - it's the latter we brought in for review, in the form of the Toughbook CF-31.

NameLaptop: Panasonic Toughbook CF-31
At a glance:Dust proof, water resistant,Shock and impact-resistant case,Optional 3G internet, GPS and countless other features
Summary:Limited performance, but feature-packed and Mil-Spec tough.

Panasonic's Toughbook series includes laptop models pitched from 'business rugged' to outright military-spec 'fully rugged' – it's the latter we brought in for review, in the form of the Toughbook CF-31.

With just a single glance, you can tell the CF-31 is a no-nonsense piece of military hardware. Its bulky 302 x 74 x 282mm magnesium-alloy chassis weighs in at a formidable 3.72kg, and looks far more like a ruggedized gun case than a laptop. With an extremely comfortable and rugged pull-out carry handle, the CF-31 is not a laptop you'd ever need a separate carry case for. You just pick it up and go, rain or shine, dust or snow.

The case is IP65 rated, meaning it's entirely dust-tight and resistant to direct jets of water from any angle. You can't immerse it in liquid, but I carried it around uncovered in driving rain without any negative effects. It's also MIL-STD-810G and MIL-STD-461F certified, and is shock-resistant as tested by a 1.2 metre drop.

All the ports are protected beneath individual plastic covers with rubber seals, as is the optional CD/DVD drive bay (which, for the record, can be fitted instead with an auxiliary battery to give a whopping 20 hours of continuous use).

The stock battery provides up to 11.5 hours, which I was able to confirm over several days of use. This is phenomenal battery life, thanks in part to the CF-31's low-powered Intel i5-520M CPU. I had the 'Standard Spec' version in to test, which also includes 2GB RAM and a 160GB 5400RPM hard drive. A 'High Spec' verison is also available with improved specs, and the latest American builds of the CF-31 feature Intel's latest-generation Sandy Bridge processors.

Performance is low compared to anything in remotely the same price range, or within several thousand dollars of the mark. 3D-intensive applications won't even run, thanks to the minimal capabilities of the Intel Integrated Graphics. However, the CF-31 is designed for military, industrial and commercial applications where battery life and ruggedness are more important than raw performance. Again, a higher-spec version with a more powerful CPU and discrete graphics is available for tasks where the base spec just won't cut it.

In either version you'll get Windows 7 professional, SD card reader, PC card and ExpressCard expansion slots, HDMI and VGA outputs, four USB 2.0 ports, a serial port for legacy and engineering devices, gigabit Ethernet, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Our review model also featured 3G support, which gave me internet on the go once I popped in a data-enabled SIM card. This made the Toughbook quite possibly the most useful device I've ever carried around.

The CF-31 I tested also included a GPS receiver, though I didn't have any suitable mapping software to test it with. However, the GPS option could well prove useful to site engineers, surveyors and other mobile professionals.

Despite its rugged nature – often the signifier of a necessarily clunky user interface – the Toughbook is easy to control. The keyboard is full-sized and a dream to type on, with dedicated Home, End, Page Up and Page Down keys (great for text editing), plus novel placement of the Insert and Delete keys beside the directional arrows. I found the latter brilliant in spreadsheets, when coding and while editing large blocks of text. Some may find the Insert key too easy to tap by accident, but that's my only keyboard complaint.

The touchpad is undersized at just 67mm (2.6 inches) diagonally. It's also deeply recessed, meaning your finger repeatedly hits the edge as you're trying to scroll across the screen. However, I can barely mark the Toughbook down in that area: the touchpad is second-class to an accurate and responsive touchscreen, which makes navigating Windows quick and easy. A stylus is tucked away within the CF-31's carry handle, optionally anchored to the case by a coiled plastic cable. However, the resistive touchscreen technology means your fingers – even gloved – work just as well. The screen coating attracts fingerprints like any touchscreen, but amazingly they wipe off with anything: even the finger that made the prints can erase them with a swipe. If you're going from building site to boardroom in a hurry, it's a plus I can't stress enough.

The screen is just 13.3-inches... despite its thickness and weight, the laptop isn't actually that large. Resolution is a rare 4:3 ratio 1024 x 768 pixels, in keeping with the Toughbook's square-ish shape. The screen is exceptionally bright, making it easily visible under direct sunlight.

The Toughbook is not, unfortunately, perfect. My primary objections were centred around the USB ports on the right-hand side of the laptop. Each sits below its own rubber-sealed, pop down cover – allowing you to access just the ports you need, without exposing others unduly to the elements. There are two downsides here.

One, that the pop down covers on that side all rely on the cheap 'plastic hinge' technology – where the hinge is just a thin, flexible plastic joint which is far too easily broken while open. Once snapped off, there's no way to repair such a hinge short of replacing the entire section of case it's anchored to. The Toughbook's other hinges all use a metal pin, as you'd find anchoring a door to a wall: that technology is time-proven, rugged as can be and easy to replace if damaged.

The second disadvantage I found was unique to the USB ports: the ports are recessed quite far into the case, with a rubber surround for water resistance. That means some flash drives and other devices (e.g. 3G wireless adapters, TV tuners, et cetera) just won't fit. Anything a couple of millimetres wider than a bare USB plug is going to present a problem. There are two USB ports on the rear of the Toughbook behind a large, single-piece cover – but these are less convenient to access, and defeat the purpose of the individually sealed ports on the side.

I'd love to give the CF-31 a perfect score, and the PC World Platinum award that entails. However, it's just a step or two away from perfect. The cheap hinges on some ports, the undersized touchpad, the high price-to-performance ratio: on their own these are all small complaints, but they add up. Not to much, but to enough to snatch the Platinum award from the Toughbook's ruggedized jaws.

Only just. I mean, come on… our own Siobhan Keogh jumped on the CF-31 on national television, and it's still running just fine.

If you need a laptop that can withstand the roughest of the rough, go for the Toughbook. If there's something more hardcore on the market, it has yet to pass through our test centre.

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Tags laptopPanasonicnotebookToughbookruggedcf-31

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Harley Ogier

Harley Ogier

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