Editor’s note: Panasonic recently announced a "fully rugged" Toughbook Android tablet, due out before the end of the year. It’s expected to have much the same durability as the laptop we tested here.
I wouldn’t buy a Panasonic Toughbook 31 for everyday use.
After all, it’s [PDF] nearly 8 centimeters thick, weighs as much as 4 kilograms, and retails for up to US $3600. You can get a Lenovo ThinkPad that’s half that thickness and weight for one-fourth the price.
But Toughbooks aren’t meant for everyday use. They’re designed for the situations that even "business rugged" machines—which can’t handle much more than a 75-centimeter drop or a cup’s worth of coffee on the keyboard—aren’t capable of surviving.
"Fully rugged" machines are the HumVees of the computing world. While vendor definitions of "rugged" vary, the most frequently cited is the U.S. MIL-STD-810G specification. Laptops that meet it can withstand rain, snow, ice, dirt, sand, oil, and fungus, as well as coffee; temperatures from –23 to 60 °C; and that 75-cm drop while open and running (150 cm if closed and off).
"We use magnesium alloy cases, which are 20 times stronger than acrylonitrile butadiene styrene plastic for the same thickness," says Kyp Walls, Panasonic’s director of product management. "Mag alloy is very difficult to work with—it has to be molded at 1000 tons of pressure—so it’s expensive." The Toughbook’s hard drive has to hold up to shock and vibration, which also adds to its production cost.
To help provide drop protection, says Walls, "The LCD is floating in the frame, so when the case hits, the shock isn’t transferred directly. And we shock-mount the hard drives." Ordinary laptops use accelerometers, which protect a disk drive only if the drop is high enough to give the hard drive sufficient time to park the head before impact.
Other cost bumpers include the design of the screen, "because we have to pass more light through," says Walls. "Plus there’s the cost of the screen treatments and coatings that improve viewability in direct sunlight." The laptop’s seals—and the protective doors on its ports—are so good that you can use a Toughbook in the shower, though not the bathtub. Most laptops are outsourced, lowering costs, but Panasonic makes all of its Toughbooks, because of fears about reduced reliability.
So how well does the Toughbook hold up in practice?
Rugged computers are hard to test because while manufacturers talk a good game, when it comes to letting you pound on a review unit, some shut up rather than put up. For example, when I tried to put a Durabook MT10 Mobile Clinical Assistant for Health Care Professionals through its paces for a piece in the pages of this magazine ("A Notebook That Can Maybe Take a Beating," November 2009), GammaTech Computer Corp. wouldn’t even let me send its tablet on a trip through the dishwasher, even though that was one of the tests the company had bragged about on its website.
Panasonic, fortunately, has a lot more confidence.
And justifiably so. The Toughbook that the company lent me survived two different drop tests, the first from a height of one meter onto concrete with the machine open and operating. The second, onto a stone patio, was from 2 meters high while closed and powered down. I also bonked the Toughbook into the back porch’s wooden rail a few times.
Panasonic recommended a vibration test that called for placing the Toughbook 31 "on the floorboard of a car or truck...while driving down a bumpy road," but while I was happy to do that to the laptop, I wasn’t willing to do it to my car.
With the Toughbook’s ports sealed and the device powered on, I took a garden hose and watered the Toughbook along with the lawn. And I tested it under pressure by putting it on a floor scale under a short wooden plank, on which I then stood and picked up my grandson. (Together, we weigh about 130 kilograms.)
Panasonic suggests baking the Toughbook in a 60 °C (140 °F) oven, garnished with onions, garlic, and parsley (okay, not really). But the lowest temperature setting on my oven is 80 °C, so instead I left the Toughbook in my car while it was parked on asphalt pavement with the windows shut. That tested it up to about 50 °C. I then left it in a freezer overnight set to –23 °C (–10 °F). At both extremes, it did fine.
The bottom line is that the Toughbook survived all the tests I threw at it and still works. It’s too pricey and heavy for everyday use, but I’ve had plenty of trips where I would have appreciated something with its ruggedness. In fact, I wish my car were this tough.
About the Author
Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology writer based in Newton Centre, Mass. His website is Dern.com. When he’s not dropping notebooks, he can be found writing more of his Dern Grim Bedtime Tales (Few of Which End Well).