Panasonic Toughbook CF-74

Just as you wouldn’t wear cowboy boots to a black-tie ball, you would probably never carry a rugged notebook into a mahogany-paneled boardroom. The
Panasonic Toughbook CF-74 is an exception. This semi-rugged sytem is made for highly mobile people who are tired of replacing less-durable notebooks but want something that still looks, acts, and runs like a mainstream machine.

In fact, except for the sturdy handle that forms this model’s front panel, you would probably never know that this is a rugged notebook, semi or not. The CF-74 has no large bumpers on the corners, and the sturdy magnesium-alloy case is as fashionable as it is functional. We also like the 13.3-inch display, which is relatively large for a semi-rugged system.

 A closer look at the display reveals some special capabilities. The bezel is unusually thick (0.67 inches versus the typical 0.5 inches), suggesting better-than-usual durability for this expensive component. As expected for a notebook unafraid of the outdoors, the screen stands up quite well to direct sunlight, where ordinary LCDs would go black.

There are three aspects of this CF-74’s design we don’t like: One is the bulge on the bottom panel that’s required to house this model’s capacious battery. This bulge not only adds extra thickness, it also tends to press a groove in your thighs while sitting on your lap. Speaking of bulk, its 1.7-pound AC adapter is the heaviest we have seen in quite a while. Finally, we understand that the doors over each of the connectors may deter dirt and moisture, but they may confuse some users. They offer no indication of what’s behind each one.

Creature comforts tend to be lacking on semi-rugged notebooks, but not here. The keyboard has a good feel, the Synaptics touchpad works well, and the touchscreen does not require a stylus; you can use your finger. Of course, if you do want a stylus, Panasonic has supplied one, along with two storage sheaths, thoughtfully located on each side of the notebook. It’s not a unique feature for this class of system, but the CF-74’s carrying handle is particularly useful, even for carrying the notebook short distances. In fact, after a few days, we began to wonder why every notebook doesn’t have one.

Inside, the CF-74 packs some impressive components. Like most newer notebooks, this Toughbook features a 1.83-GHz Intel Core Duo processor supported by a fast 667-MHz front-side bus. The shock-mounted hard drive provides 80GB of storage space. Memory options range from 512MB (included in this configuration) to 4GB. A good chunk of memory (128MB) is shared by the Intel 945GM integrated video accelerator. We suggest an upgrade to 1GB of RAM ($165) to better handle Windows Vista Premium when that OS launches early next year.
This system scored 245 on our MobileMark 2005 benchmark test, well above the average mainstream notebook. Because of Intel’s integrated graphics solution, the CF-74 turned in a low 3DMark03 score of 1,224, although it managed to beat the Itronix Hummer. The most impressive score for this Toughbook was its battery life. In our benchmark tests, the CF-74 lasted 5.5 hours. That’s still short of the advertised seven hours but impressive nonetheless. Although the CF-74 does not offer GPS like the Itronix Hummer, it more than holds its own in the communications department. Standard equipment includes an 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi adapter. Our test unit was also equipped with a new wireless WAN adapter from Sierra Wireless, which forms a slight bulge on the back of the display, used for accessing Verizon’s high-speed EV-DO network (a $600 option). In our tests, this adapter was able to connect at speeds of approximately 425 Kbps, not far from the Dell Latitude D620’s top score. A Bluetooth wireless adapter is also available.Like all rugged and semi-rugged notebooks, the Toughbook CF-74 is expensive. Its list price of $2,999 matches that of the Itronix Hummer, but the Toughbook has a three-year limited warranty, two years longer than the Hummer’s. There’s also a 24/7 telephone support line, which the manufacturer claims has a wait time of less than a minute (in our test, they answered in 25 seconds). After seeing two or three mainstream notebooks destroyed, many forward-thinking buyers would rightly consider this semi-rugged Toughbook one of the best bargains on the market.  


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