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Panasonic's CF-W7 Toughbook
Review by Daniel P. Dern
Panasonic Laptop  ISBN/ITEM#: CF-WY-PTB
Date: 21 June 2008

Links: Toughbook CF-W7 Page / Show Official Info /

If you're a frequent traveler or otherwise away from your desk or office much of the day, and looking for an notebook computer that's small and light enough to carry around all day but full-featured and tough enough to handle your workload, Panasonic's three-pound "business-rugged" Toughbook CF-W7 is an ideal choice.

The Toughbook CF-W7 is 10.7 inches wide by 8.4 inches, by 1.4/1.9 inches (at thinnest/thickest places) thick -- highly portable, if somewhat thick. The unit is deceptively light for its size (thickness), thanks to the lightweight magnesium-alloy case; it weighs three pounds, with the power brick and somewhat thick AC cord adding maybe another quarter to the volume and weight.

The W7 has a 12.1" classic-format (non-wide-screen) 1024 x 768 XGA TFT active matrix color LCD display, a touch-typable keyboard that includes a key, DVD Super Multi Drive with Dual Layer Support, 802.11a/b/g, (optional) built-in broadband-cellular connectivity. Jacks, ports'n'slots include three USB 2.0, GigE Ethernet RJ-45, RJ-11 (with 56Kbps modem built in), Type II PC Card, Secure Digital, 15-pint D-sub video, and headphone/microphone. The lithium ion battery pack (10.8V, 5800mAh) is supposed to be good for up to 6.7 hours. Other features include a Trusted platform module (TPM) security chip v.1.2 (for security). Future options will include a fingerprint scanner (displacing the BlueTooth capability).

The model I tested had a Intel Core 2 Duo CPU U7500 (1.06Ghz)and 2MB of RAM --enough to let it run Windows Vista Business perkily enough -- 80 GB of hard drive, and built-in Sprint wide-area cellular wireless broadband.

I've been using the W7 for a week or so -- and used the previous model, the W5 (see my February 2008 review from TechRevu). While it's been a few months since I'd tried the W5, the new W7 feels like a significant improvement -- better performance, and much better display. The keyboard is good -- not as good as the one on a Lenovo ThinkPad, but good enough. Sound quality is decent enough for Internet radio, YouTubing and the like, although good headphones are probably better if you want to watch DVDs. I got a good four to six hours from the battery, with the display set for brightness rather than battery life. System response is fast as a good desktop.

At $2,000 to $2,500, the W7 isn't cheap. And the W7 isn't the thinnest in its weight class. But the added thickness and higher price bring benefits, including a built-in optical drive, and many of the ruggedizing features that justify the "Tough" in the name -- and, if it fits your budget and other requirements, easily justifying this as a good choice of travel machine.

The Features That Make A Toughbook Tough

The W7 combines features found in other vendors' offerings, and others unique to Panasonic's Toughbooks. In particular, "toughening" features.

According to Panasonic, the three main causes of notebook damage are falling or being pushed from desk/table height, often while running; being dropped while carried; and spills. Other problems include being squashed, e.g. while in an overhead compartment or being bumped while carried on public transit (such as a crowded Tokyo subway), and "torsion" (being picked up by an edge, and being "flexed" twisted -- enough to break connections on the motherboard). Panasonic's current "business-rugged" models are designed to survive a 2.5 foot drop, having up to 225 pounds of pressure on the closed device, having a cup of liquid spilled on the keyboard and touchpad, or being flexed.

Panasonic puts its Toughbooks through bunches of tests, including drop-test, humidity, low temperature, vibration, water-resistance and high temperature.)

My personal opinion at this point is that the added thickness is worth it for increased confidence in the machine's ability to survive. I've toted around the thinner Lenovo ThinkPad X61s (see my January 2008 TechRevu review), and while the X61s is a lovely machine -- it's got the IBM/Lenovo keyboard, after all, and a brilliant display -- I felt nervous about it being damaged. And Apple's ultra-thin MacBook Air looks like an accident waiting to happen. Carrying around a Toughbook I felt no such concern.

Size Matters: Screen, Keyboard, Machine

One important set of questions any potential buyer has to assess: what screen size (and format) will meet your productivity needs? How big and good a keyboard do you need? And how big/heavy can the notebook be without being a burden to pack, or to tote around all day, e.g., at a trade show -- particularly if you have to include the AC power supply, and possibly also an external optical drive?

The W7 has a 12.1" display, classic (non-widescreen) format. That's certainly big enough for email and web activity.

Is it big enough for serious document creation and editing (which is what most of my work consists of)? Only you can decide that for yourself -- which takes using it for a while.

Interestingly, when I was trying the Toughbook W5 (the previous model of the W7 being reviewed here) and Lenovo ThinkPad X61s, their 12.1" displays felt too small to be really useful. Then, I got to try HP's 2133 Mini-Note PC, which has an 8.9" wide-format display -- noticeably smaller. (See my May 2009 TechRevu review.)

My most recent review request to Panasonic was actually for a Toughbook Y7, which has a 14.1" display, and weighs 3.7 pounds -- I was curious to try the larger display. Panasonic didn't have a press unit available, but counter-offered a W7. By not paying careful attention, I mis-concluded they meant the previous year's model of the same size (a Y5), rather than the current model of the smaller size machine (a W7). But having most recently used the smaller-screened HP 2133 Mini-Note, the notebook that Panasonic sent felt larger than that of the Panasonic W5 or Lenovo X61s I'd previously tried.

It wasn't until I started writing the review and looked at the model number on the machine -- and confirmed matters by taking a tape measure to the display and weighing the machine -- that I realized it wasn't a 14.1", 3.7 pound machine.

Go figure.

It's still not as good as a full-sized keyboard and monitor. But it's good enough. (I still want to try a Toughbook Y7, to see if the larger screen is worth the tradeoff of the larger, half-pound-heavier machine..)

The display on the new W7 seems improved over the one on the previous W5 model, based on my test of watching an hour or two of video -- crisper, brighter colors. (It's also possible I'd had the display set differently on the other machine, though -- I don't recall.)

Non-Toughbook Features: Vista, and Mobile Broadband

The CF-W7 also has some features/aspects common to, or available on, other leading business notebooks, notably operating system and mobile broadband

Operating system: This Panasonic Toughbook W7 came with Microsoft Vista Business. (I'm not claiming this is a feature.) This is the third Vista system I've tried, so by now I've gotten used to the UI changes from XP. For whatever reason, the User Account or whatever stuff that is often a PITA isn't, on this one. You could always exercise the XP Downgrade option.

Mobile Broadband: Wireless connectivity has become an essential part of the notebook/mobile equation. The Toughbook W7 includes 802.11a/b/g. WiFi is fast -- but may not be sufficient. So you may want to also consider "mobile broadband" -- wide-area wireless access via cellular broadband networks (notably AT&T, Sprint or Verizon).

Mobile broadband is definitely a great convenience. It means 1) Internet access anywhere you get signal, e.g. waiting rooms, taxis, in your car (not while driving, of course!), at meetings, on the train; 2) one monthly rate, instead of paying for each non-free hotspot use; 3) reduced insecurity -- unlike WiFI, your cellular activity is less subject to eavesdropping, "evil twins," etc.

For some applications -- notably, ssh (secure shell, e.g. for remote terminal/shell access) -- cellular is slower than WiFI. And you'll need to pay attention to how much traffic you do. But it's great as an option, if your monthly budget can swing the service charges.

Panasonic offers optional "embedded" mobile broadband -- added "radio" chips, plus the antenna built into the case for wide-area wireless Internet access. If you're going to use cellco broadband, "embedded" (built-in) is arguably the way to go, rather than buy a PCI or PCI/Express card or USB adapter. According to vendors and other experts, the performance is better, there's less to provision and break, and the service and support go through whoever you got the notebook from.

The only current downside to the embedded approach -- soon to be a thing of the past -- is that a radio chip will only support one cellular service type, e.g. EV-DO (used by Sprint and Verizon), or HSDPA (used by AT&T) -- and you have to make this choice when you order the machine.

Soon, however, the new chipsets like Qualcomm's GOBI will support software-defined-radio, making the system able to support, and switch among, the various cellular broadband providers. (You'll still have to deal with service contract issues, but now it's a money issue, not a technology one.)

Conclusion

By definition, no notebook can match the usability of a full-sized separate keyboard -- particularly since I use an ergonomic keyboard -- or a full-sized desktop display, like the 22" wide-format one I use. But if you want a computer that has the power to do everything your office desktop does, and can run five to eight hours away from AC power (depending on the settings and what you do), and is small and light enough to carry anywhere, and is capable of lasting four or five years, this is a good choice.

-- TechRevu contributing editor Daniel P. Dern (dern at pair dot com) is a freelance technology writer. His web site is www.dern.com, and his blogs are Trying Technology and Dern Near Everything Else.

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