Panasonic Toughbook CF-19 (Mark 5) review

Pros

  • Unparalleled rugged chassis
  • Converts into a tablet
  • Great battery life
  • Decent everyday application performance

Cons

  • Unresponsive trackpad
  • Chunky

You might think your stylish aluminium- or magnesium-clad notebook could survive a knock or two, but you wouldn’t want to use it on a building site. Or in the rain. Or in Afghanistan. For some years now, however, Panasonic has been delivering notebooks for these kinds of scenarios in the shape of its Toughbook range. The CF-19 Mark 5 we have on test here is fully ruggedised, yet inside is a pretty powerful selection of laptop technology.

Generally, specialist products such as the CF-19 have to make do with previous-generation components, because the process of testing takes so long. Our CF-19 sample follows this rule, but it’s still a very capable machine, and a Mark 6 version is also due later in the year with the latest Intel processor generation. Our sample incorporates an Intel Sandy Bridge processor, in the shape of a Core i5 2520M. This is a dual-core CPU with both Intel Hyper-Threading and Turbo Boost 2.0. It runs nominally at 2.5GHz, but individual cores can increase to 3.2GHz when required, and Hyper-Threading means it acts as four virtual cores rather than two physical ones, with benefits for multi-tasking and multi-threaded applications like 3D renderers. So this is a pretty meaty CPU for a notebook, but it also supplies the graphics in the shape of an Intel HD 3000 integrated chipset. This isn’t particularly powerful, and is one of the primary areas where Intel’s latest Ivy Bridge generation is a vast improvement, with its Intel HD 4000 graphics. The processor is backed by 4GB of DDR3 memory, upgradeable to a maximum of 8GB.

The central feature of the CF-19, though, is of course its rugged chassis. With very solid magnesium alloy used extensively, in a fetchingly rough-and-tumble silver and black combination, the CF-19 meets the requirements for a number of international standards.

It’s vibration and shock resistant as well as dust and waterproof to MIL-STD 810G level, which means it has been tested with a long list of substances and survived them all. Its dust and waterproofing are also IP65 rated, meaning that it will be totally impervious to dust, and can withstand jets of water but not a complete dunking for an extended period. There are no specific details on drop resistance, but with rubberised flaps over all ports and a locking catch to hold the screen in the closed position, the CF-19 has few physical weaknesses.

The CF-19 has another weapon in its arsenal, too. A central catch below the screen hinge releases it so it can rotate, and then fold back over the body of the notebook with the display facing outwards, turning it into a tablet. In this configuration, the CF-19 is not going to give iPad owners anything to be jealous of, as the ruggedising means it’s unbelievably chunky. The touchscreen is operated with a pen that slides into one edge. So you can make handwritten notes or fill in digital forms.

Despite its chunkiness, the CF-19 is not actually that heavy, thanks to the magnesium alloy. In fact, it weighs 2.3kg, which may be a bit much for a 10.1in notebook, but not so surprising when you consider that it’s 49mm thick. A robust sliding power switch can be found on the front right, with membrane switches for screen brightness, keyboard backlighting and other functions on the left. Individual heavy-duty rubber flaps cover a plethora of ports. On the rear can be found headphone and microphone minijacks, a USB port, D-sub and even a nine-pin serial port, there for legacy connectivity requirements. The left edge incorporates another USB port, four-pin Firewire, Ethernet and RJ-45 for phone, fax and modem use.

A longer flap on the left protects an SD memory card slot, physical wireless LAN switch, and twin PC Card slots, a rarity these days since ExpressCard took over a few years ago. Whilst the individual port covers just push into place, the longer flaps lock tightly shut. There are also similar locks securing the battery and hard disk, which are both removable. Strangely, Panasonic hasn’t opted to include an SSD, which presumably would have been more shock resistant than the 320GB Hitachi Travelstar Z5K320 hard disk that has been used. Conspicuous by its absence is any form of digital video output, with no HDMI or Mini DisplayPort included. There’s no optical drive, either, but this is a familiar omission these days, and not something you would want to bother with in a dusty environment.

The 10.1in transflective display has an XGA resolution of 1,024 x 768. It has a polarising filter, and the overall brightness and sharpness aren’t particularly outstanding, thanks to the touch-sensitive layer. However, viewing angles are decent, and the screen is more visible than most in bright sunlight, which is the kind of conditions it’s meant to cope with. The keyboard is small, so you will need to get used to its dimensions for comfortable touch-typing, but the action is responsive enough. The touchpad has to be one of the least responsive we’ve ever used, however, and the rubbery membrane buttons are somewhat stodgy too. So there have been some compromises for durability.

Overall performance is decent, however. The score of 1.89 in the rendering portion of Maxon Cinebench R11.5 isn’t outstanding, but it’s well above most ultraportables. The Maxon Cinebench R11.5 graphics result of 7.09 implies you won’t want to do any major 3D work at the building site, and 3,093 in 3DMark06 means some limited war zone gaming would be possible, but you probably won’t want to play Battlefield 3 at the actual battlefield using the CF-19. That said, you will be able to take this notebook out for extended periods away from the mains. The CF-19 endured 156 minutes in our gruelling 100 per cent workload test, meaning it will manage at least twice that time with lighter usage, and possibly even close to the quoted 10 hours, for a full day’s work while on the move.

Verdict

The CF-19 is hard to criticise. There are virtually no competitors that can offer the same combination of robust chassis and features. However, at around £2,700, this is much more expensive than a non-rugged notebook with a similar specification, which would probably set you back well under £1,000. So you are paying a hefty premium for the ruggedness. Still, where there is a good business case for having a notebook that can dependably withstand rough treatment, this is a brilliant piece of kit, with Panasonic’s wealth of design experience in rugged construction behind it.

Next page > Specifications

Manufacturer and Model

Panasonic Toughbook CF-19

Processor

2.5GHz Intel Core i5 2520M

RAM

4GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM

Graphics

Intel HD 3000

Hard disk

320GB Hitachi Travelstar Z5K320 5,400rpm hard disk

Optical disc

None

Display

10.1in TFT with 1,024 x 768 pixels

Networking

802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0

Interfaces

2 x USB 2.0, SD card reader, 2 x PC Card

Width x Depth x Height

271 x 216 x 49mm

Weight

2.3kg

Operating system

Windows 7 Professional

Warranty

3 year collect and return; 5 years parts only