Saturday, January 13, 2007

Hugo Ortega reviews Panasonic Toughbook Tablet PC

*Update 16.01.2007.* The Soft Keyboard can in fact be enlarged; Silly Me didn't even try I guess! LOL. Another update which becomes relevant to the Tablet PC Space is that within the Panasonic menu the screen can be setup to rotate upon physical rotation of the screen; therefore the rotation button becomes an additional rotation hotkey, while the screen itself will initiate the rotation on its own. That’s nice for Pen users.

Normally I report on the latest and greatest from the Tablet PC space, however today I want to share with you a rather different experience, a Tough Experience I had. On many occasions there is the smell of brand new enamel paint dripping off of alloy encrusted PCB; usually these same smoldering units carry the sex appeal that Generation X or Y are looking for, and the price tag to match. The last 10 days however I have been graced by something very different.

10 Days ago Panasonic delivered me the CF-18 Tablet PC as part of their Toughbook range. If you’ve never owned or played with a Toughbook it may interest to you that it’s actually a rather nice machine in both look and feel. At first glance there are all the features you would expect from a manufacturer targeting Military and Utilities as its main audience; there are exposed screw heads, rubber mounts, latches, panels and more brushed alloy than a Hummer (well almost).

My first stumbling block was reached very quickly. Being Australia’s Tablet Guy I wasn’t so much interested in its ruggedisation as I was its Tablet PC features. As I placed my hand on the top of the screen and went to snap the screen into Tablet mode – still not sure if it was left or right I should be pushing – I found that the screen would not budge. It turns out this was to be my first rugged experience. You see, to turn the screen one needs to physically hit a release latch to unlock the swivel mechanism for it to go into Tablet mode. Although at first glance I didn’t think much of this feature it does make a lot of sense; given that I am very prone to picking up my convertibles from their screen having the screen locked gave this unit a lot more rigidity and firmness than other convertibles.

So now it was time to play with the pen. To my horror the device Panasonic had shipped me sported a resistive touchcreen, and not an active digitizer as I had assumed. In total ignorant bliss I hadn’t even realized that Panasonic have two flavours of these beasts. The CF-18, the device I held, is Panasonic’s 10.4” which actually ships with an optional Digitizer Screen and Active Pen.
Upon exploration of the All Programs menu I stumbled across an application named the Panasonic Inking Utility. Not only was I able to write using a dummy pen directly on the screen, but what I found most amusing, but not very functional, was that the mouse pad found on the base of the keyboard actually had a pen mode too! By taking the stylus I could literally write straight onto the mouse pad as I would on the screen. The inking utility even allowed for this behavior specifically via a toggle button that told the Toughbook whether I was writing on the screen or on the mouse pad. Again, I couldn’t see the real purpose (anone???) but I did find it intriguing to say the least.

Now that I could rotate the screen, and take some notes, it was time to lock the device in tablet mode so I could become more mobile. Being a rugged machine the CF-18 had an awesome flip-latch to mechanically lock the screen down. With a closing movement akin to that of a mechanics toolbox the latch lifts up, over, and locks heavily down on its base to give the Tablet mode of the this notebook a more permanent place. Now I wouldn’t like to see this incorporated into something like the new Toshiba R400 but it was by far the best locking mechanism I had been exposed to. Given the alarming trend notebooks shipping notebooks without any lock mechanism at all (like the Kohjinsha SA1 UMPC and my free ACER Ferrari 1000 - yes I got one too) I found this rudimentary technology a welcome return.

Now it was time to explore I/O ports and Expansion slots. Starting from the front initial investigation would reveal and array of non-programmable hotkeys. Working from left to right there was the screen brightness up/down button, then the soft keyboard launcher, then a user log off button, and a screen rotate button that supported 360 degree rotate, and finally the Control Alt Delete button which allowed a user to log in or call up of the Task Manager too. The buttons were very responsive and had rather nice recessed feel so that a user frequenting the CF-18 might even learn to navigate these with the use of touch only. One major let down, exacerbated by the lack of Windows XP Tablet Edition, was the soft keyboard. Not only was this keyboard not resizable but it had less function than that of a very basic PDA (and about the same size I might add).

Deciding to work my way around the device clockwise I remained in Tablet mode and found myself with the first indication of how manufacturers obtain an IP (Ingress Protection) Rating. What is an IP Rating you might ask?

An IP Rating is often used when specifying the environmental protection afforded by enclosures around electronic equipment. These ratings refer to specific tests and each test is awarded a specific rating via an IP Number. The IP number is made up of two components as follows: for e.g. In IP44 the first number refers to the protection against solid objects and the second against liquids. The higher the number the better the protection.
Source: Antares
It turns out that the Panasonic CF-18 Toughbook has an IP Rating of IP54, which is considered very high. The CF-18 has successfully obtained it via an array of very tightly sealed flaps, or hard-plastic doors if you like, that conceal ports and slots. My first glance at the right hand side would reveal an AC port, 2 USB ports, an Ethernet and a Modem port, and no less than two PCMCIA slots. So when you consider what’s behind these hard-plastic doors you begin to realize just how well they do their job.

In case you are interested the number that follows the IP Rating is broken into two components. In this case, IP54, looks something like this:
  • (5) Protected against dust, limited ingress (no harmful deposit)
  • (4) Protection against water sprayed from all directions - limited ingress permitted

Let’s keep working our way clockwise shall we?

Looking at the back of the device we find, once again hidden behind the IP Rated doors, access to an SD Card Slot, a VGA Out Port, and a seldom found Serial Port. Given the target audience of these device is Telecommunications Companies and the Military the serial port was an obvious inclusion for work with Cisco gear, and more.

Finally one more clockwise movement and we find the battery chamber and the hard drive chamber. For those of you unfamiliar with Ruggedisation it’s important to note that most of the Intellectual Property that surrounds this technology can be found in the later, i.e. the Hard Drive chamber. Because the spinning platters of a standard 2.5” hard drive do not like sudden jolts or movements then the Hard Drive chamber of a rugged notebook is where you will find most reggedization occurs. Panasonic terms this the “Shock mounted removable hard drive in stainless steel casing.”

For your convenience I have shot a small video of the enclosure to give you a closer look. Silly me forgot I was holding a CF-18 so when I mention CF-19 just replace it - in your clever little heads - with CF-18. LOL.

Photos and Vidoes C/O my 5yr old son
Watch it on MyYouTube

The CF-18 has one more definable feature in that it is 100% fanless. With dust protection such an integral part of the IP Rating process the fact that this notebook can operate without a fan makes its ruggedisation even more successful. Panasonic has gone to great lengths to protect its Intellectual Property surrounding this feature, and no matter how hard I tried, the representative from their office was as tight lipped as the hard-plastic doors protecting the USB ports on the device. Even more remarkable is that the successor to the CF-18, the CF-19, deliverable in February 2007, will in fact sport an Intel Dual Core Processor while still remaining fanless. Well done Panasonic.

Overall I was pleased with the device and its intended use. Ruggedisation is something that will become more popular in the mainstream as devices like Ultra-Mobile PC and Tablet PC become more mobile, i.e. full day usage. Because end-users will look at taking UMPC on extreme sports outings, and even as a travel mate, ruggedisation is going to become a key factor. Given that TabletKiosk launched its first entry into the Tough Tablet market via the ToughTab 7” UMPC this week at CES 2007 it’s not hard to see that I am right. Many corporate and enterprise folks favour ruggedisation as a form of future proofing their dollars and one can only expect that mum-and-dad consumers will do the same in the not too distant future.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this deep dive into Panasonic’s Toughbook CF-18. If there’s any questions you have or anything in particular you want to see this year on the UberTablet Blog just let me know…it’s your resource!


Anonymous said...

Hugo! Big fan from Texas here! Welcome back from the holidays...hope yours were outstanding. Enjoyed your review of the Panasonic. Incidentally, I got to spend a few minutes with one of these when Brinks Security was installing a home security system in my house. I was thoroughly impressed with all of the rugged aspects of the device. But, the keyboard absolutely sucked. I couldn't believe how bad it was, especially in light of the fact that everything else about the machine was so impressive. And, it wasn't light...that's for sure. Although, I know they're much lighter than they used to be. Anyway, I've got a P1610 on the way, and you're implicated on that one...take care!

-- Dave Gray (Austin, TX)

Hugo Ortega said...

Hey Big Dave,

Thanks for your support and enthusiasm. The holidays were awesome. Obviously its summer here so I've been enjoying the pool and my new little daughter!

I hear you on the Keyboard, a real shitty experience. Given the price tag these devices carry I think Panasonic has done a great job of the ruggedisation but they thoroughly missed the point about the usability. Even the pen features, and touch for that matter, were lame. I think it's so cool that you got to play with one the way you did. Enough from me for now...

Cheers mate, I got lots of great stuff planned this year so stick around!

Between you and I, and a couple of thousand readers...I think Fujitsu owes me a lot of commission! :-)

Robyn Tippins said...

Sounds like it would be fairly heavy? I'd like to see a rugged tablet (or UMPC) that is light enough to travel. And, I agree, Fujitsu does owe you some money... ;)

Hugo Ortega said...

Hi Robyn,

If you're talking about the Toughbook I agree it is heavy. It was actually over 4 pounds I think in US terms (just under 3Kg). The new TabletKiosk ToughTab looks quite nice in that it comes in at under 1kg.

I strongly believe there will be a call for semi-ruggedized devices on a grander scle as the years clock over. I for one am not gentle on my gear so having netter quality, or even rugged versions of devices will get my vote every time.

In regards to Fujitsu I think I better be a little cleverer (LOL) next time they call!

Elwyn Jenkins said...

Best toughbook review around. I will definitely recommend that my readers come and pay you a visit.

Anonymous said...

Hi i'm q07sa, from Spain. I've been using this tablet PC, wich incorporates FOrd ETIS software, and I think it's a fantastic and useful PC. Also, tocuhpad and touchscreen makes easier. But the keyboard is a little bit (doesn't matter :p)

Hugo Ortega said...

Hola Anonymous!

thank you for the comment! I am glad you like the machine! I think it is a great one too...albeit the keyboard is...


Take care and stay in touch! Un abrazo!

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