Panasonic's Toughbook range covers a spectrum of toughness, from military-grade fully ruggedised laptops to drop- and spill-resistant business ruggedised systems. In the middle sit a number of semi-ruggedised laptops, including the wide-screened CF-52, available for around £1,350.
Despite its 'semi-ruggedised' classification, the Toughbook CF-52 is a seriously solid-looking laptop. When closed it looks more like a slim briefcase than a portable computer, thanks to its hard outer shell and built-in carrying handle.
The shell comprises a lid section made mostly of magnesium alloy with a black plastic section towards the top that adds visual interest and provides space for the Panasonic branding. The rest of the system is encased in hard black plastic.
The handle is built in to the front of the laptop. It's hinged to the left and right, allowing it to be laid almost flush when not in use. Unlike the handle on the Getac P470, this handle does not lock into a snug position when not in use.
The upper and lower sections of the Toughbook CF-52 are locked in place when the laptop is closed by a very sturdy clasp. There's almost no chance of the two sections being prized apart by anything other than your fingers.
Its ruggedised casing is one factor contributing to the CF-52's weight -- at 3.3kg, it's unlikely you'll want to carry it very often or very far. It's also large, measuring 356 by 52 by 287mm.
The good news is that the 15.4-inch screen has a wide aspect ratio and stretches almost to the boundaries of the space on offer. The display has a native resolution of 1,280x800 pixels and can easily support two document windows open at once. It's also up to the job of displaying complex graphics -- as might be needed in the field by architects or engineers, for example.
The keyboard looks a little lost in its wide surroundings. The Qwerty keys are full sized and responsive, however, and we had no problems with touch-typing. The space bar is a little shorter than we would like and the Enter key could be bigger, which takes a little getting used to. A full-width row of half-height function keys above the number row gives access to various functions, including screen brightness and volume control.
The two-button touch pad, which sits in the wrist-rest area, looks relatively small in its surroundings. It incorporates vertical and horizontal scroll bars along its right and bottom edges, which we found a little temperamental to use at times. The entire keyboard area, including the touch pad, is splash resistant.
The Toughbook CF-52 has a 1.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7100 processor. This includes 2MB of L2 cache and an 800MHz frontside bus. Our review sample came with 1GB of RAM, which can be upgraded to a maximum of 4GB.
You may need extra RAM if you intend to run Windows Vista Business on this laptop. Ours came with Windows XP Professional, for which 1GB is quite sufficient.
Bluetooth and 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi are both integrated, along with Gigabit Ethernet. Graphics are handled by the GMA X3100 module integrated in Intel's GM965 Express chipset.
The Toughbook CF-52 has several ruggedised features. We already noted the splash-resistant keyboard and solid shell. The 80GB hard drive is mounted in shock-absorbing foam and connected to the motherboard by flexible cable. Panasonic says it will withstand a 90cm drop. The whole laptop should survive a fall from a height of 76cm, roughly the height of an office desk. Note, though, that this test assumes the laptop is not switched on.
Many of the ports and connectors ranged around the sides of the casing are protected by covers. This is not the case for the SD card slot or the multi-format DVD drive on the left-hand side, though. The front-mounted audio sockets are not protected either, and nor is the physical switch that turns Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on and off.
On the right-hand side, a Type II PC Card and a single ExpressCard slot are layered one above the other and protected by a hinged cover. A second cover protects a pair of USB 2.0 ports and a FireWire connector. At the back there are two further USB 2.0 ports, again protected by a hinged cover. Further covers protect the external 15-pin monitor connector, Ethernet and modem ports and a 9-pin serial port.
All of these hinged covers feel robust and have a 'spring-back' action that, while not locking them in place securely, at least ensures some measure of protection when a peripheral is removed.
As far as options go, the most important one is HSDPA connectivity, which will boost the base price of £1,291 to around £1,549. Other optional components include a fingerprint reader and a smartcard reader.
We tested this laptop's battery life by running Battery Eater and it delivered a total battery life of 2 hours 32 minutes, which we found disappointing, especially given Panasonic's own estimate of up to 7.5 hours.
Battery Eater is a demanding test that provides a minimum estimate of a laptop's battery life, and the CF-52 does have a large 15.4-inch screen to power. Even so, we'd expect more from a machine designed to spend much of its life on the road. Run Wi-Fi for long and you're likely to need access to mains power at least once per working day, unless you carry a spare battery.
The Toughbook CF-52 is a very solidly built laptop, with a hardened outer casing, shock-mounted hard disk and covered ports. Although the 15.4-inch, wide-format screen is nice, this 3.3kg system isn't the most portable of its kind -- even with its carrying handle. Battery life also falls a long way short of Panasonic's claims.
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday