Panasonic Toughbook CF-18 MK4 review
A remarkably tough machine that will endure almost anything thrown at it. You pay for the privilege, but it will be worth it for those requiring substantial durability
Anyone who's ever dropped a notebook will be familiar with the heart-stopping dread that accompanies expensive technology falling towards the floor. But in industrial or commercial settings, a broken laptop means more than just repair bills and inconvenience; downtime and data loss can be an even more expensive business.
Panasonic claims impressive levels of fortitude for the latest in its Toughbook series, with the CF-18 complying with the MIL-STD-810F standard for drop, vibration, water and dust resistance. Not only has it been subjected to use in fast-moving vehicles on rough roads, but also drop-tested from 4ft while turned on. It's protected against small dust particles and can withstand water spray from all directions, so it should endure even a determined rain shower. Over the course of our testing, the CF-18 survived multiple drops from table height, with the screen both open and shut. We mistreated the CF-18 far more than we'd dare with any normal laptop, and it held up superbly. Even the screen's pivoting hinge resisted our attempts to break it, and there's a metal clamping mechanism to lock the screen onto the chassis when it's closed or in tablet mode.
The chassis itself is made of magnesium alloy, and all the ports littered around the side are sealed by rubber grommets to prevent water and dirt working their way in. The two PC Card slots, SD card memory reader and the battery and hard disk enclosures are covered by heavy-duty metal flaps with rubber gaskets, ensuring further moisture and grit resistance.
Like all the other components of the CF-18, the 60GB Hitachi disk is carefully protected. It sits inside a metal cage designed to protect the drive in the event of sudden impact, although there's no accelerometer installed to automatically park the heads if the system detects sudden movements. One potential drawback of the CF-18 is the lack of an optical drive, so software installation and backups will be much trickier in the field. The SD card slot is the only removable storage included.
In spite of being relatively chunky (52mm high when closed), the CF-18 is highly portable, particularly when you can just use the integrated carry-strap and forego the use of a carry case. It isn't particularly wide or deep either - just 273 x 229mm and, as it weighs only 2.2kg, it's feasible to carry it around all day. The only dent in the CF-18's road-going credibility is the lack of an integrated GPRS option, but it's good to see 802.11a/b/g WLAN and Bluetooth as standard.
Performance won't be an issue for most jobs, with an ultra-low voltage Pentium M 753 running at 1.2GHz and 512MB of RAM; there's a spare SODIMM socket within the chassis, so there's scope to upgrade if you're running more demanding apps. Overall, the CF-18 scored an acceptable 0.59 in our benchmarks, which is fine for its intended use.
Given that the CF-18 is destined to spend most of its life on the road, our battery results encouragingly suggest you'll see almost a full day's use from it. Under intensive use, we saw three hours, 48 minutes of battery life, rising to seven hours in our light-use tests.
In tablet mode, the weight is balanced evenly, and we were pleased to note it doesn't get particularly hot under pressure. The stylus is protected from loss by a rugged plastic cord, and we also appreciate the membrane-covered shortcut buttons alongside, including brightness adjustment, screen orientation and onscreen keyboard.
But Panasonic has sacrificed some ergonomics in making the Toughbook so portable. The keyboard is small and won't suit you if you're writing long reports, with the cursor keys also suffering from an odd arrangement along the bottom and right edges. The trackpad is even worse, requiring a firm touch, and making subtle mouse movements difficult.