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    Panasonic Toughbooks make good travelling companions

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2007 First published in Business in Vancouver June 26-July 2, 2007; issue 922

    High Tech Office column

    We’re looking at a series of devices to help us with work and play this summer. Last week, we started with the TomTom Go 910, a GPS gadget that moves with you from car to car, telling you where you are and how to get to where you’re going.

    One-fifth of the people in a recent AP-Ipsos poll noted that they took a laptop on their most recent vacations. I suspect more BIV readers than that tote a portable computer with them.

    But weighing in between 2.5 and 3.0 kilograms or so, most so-called portable computers can feel more like boat anchors when you’re dragging them down a long airport corridor. There are lighter notebooks, but many users avoid them. They’re expensive ways to get too little hardware.

    Panasonic has long made a series of so-called Toughbooks: ruggedized notebooks designed, according to the company, to “withstand the rigours of your industry.” They’re housed in magnesium shells and built to withstand shocks, spills, dust and vibrations better than most portable computers.

    New to the Toughbook lineup: the CF-W5 model. Officially, Panasonic refers to this one as “semi-rugged.”

    It’s not as hard core as most of its teammates, but weighing in around 1.2 kg it’s a lot easier to lug around and offers more durability than most ultra-portables.

    It features a 1.2 GHz Intel Core Solo processor, 512 megabytes of RAM, and a 60-gigabyte hard drive, features that would at first glance sound like those of a low-end laptop. But they’re perky enough to provide reasonable performance while going easy on the battery.

    As a result, this laptop promises battery life between 5.5 and an astounding 11 hours. (As always, to get the promised top end battery life, you have to be prepared to take some pretty drastic steps to conserve power.)

    The 12-inch display runs at a usable 1024 x 768 resolution and is clear and readable, with an anti-glare coating that makes it viewable outdoors and in bright light. (A CF-Y5 model sports a 14” display.)

    And unlike most ultra-portable models, there’s a built-in CD/DVD drive. Low-weight models typically save poundage by putting the optical drive in an external case. The computer weighs less, but if you want to burn a CD, install software, or watch a DVD, you have to haul the extra weight along anyway.

    This model builds in a drive while still keeping the weight down. Unfortunately, the pop-up cover for the drive was sometimes hard to open and felt flimsy, in contrast to the Toughbook promise. I would have been happier if Panasonic had used a slot-load drive like Apple’s.

    Other than that, Panasonic did a good job balancing toughness and portability in an attractive design.

    Like other Toughbook models it’s got a magnesium-alloy frame, offering more durability at lower weight than plastic. The hard drive is encased in foam for shock protection, and the keyboard is spill-resistant. It comes with a three-year standard warranty – most notebook warranties are one year – suggesting that Panasonic truly believes it’s more durable than most.

    Panasonic gets bonus marks from me for avoiding the temptation to fill the hard drive with unwanted demo software. You get Windows XP and a few utilities for the wireless adapter and CD/DVD burner. A DVD movie player. That’s about it.

    It’s priced at $2,700 ($2,900 for the 14-inch model). Not cheap, but easy to carry around, attractive and tough but not macho. I’d be happy to take it on vacation. •

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan