Designed to take a licking, the Panasonic Toughbook CF-53 isn't a laptop for your typical road warrior. This semi-rugged notebook was designed for highly mobile professionals, from inspectors to claims adjustors, who need a machine that can survive drops, spills and chills. That audience will also appreciate the CF-53's super-bright display and long battery life. Our $2,449 review model even includes a touchscreen, but is the price tag too steep for what the CF-53 can withstand? Read on to find out.
Despite its tank-like durability, the Toughbook CF-53 has a rather sleek design. Sticking with Toughbook design conventions, the chassis is made of magnesium alloy. The majority of the lid is covered in a textured silver aluminum finish, but a small piece at the top is made of smooth black plastic, along with the rear hinges, front spring-loaded hatch, and built-in handle. A set of subtle vertical lines elegantly run along the lid creating a pair of raised ridges.
The notebook's interior is also decorated in a matte black plastic, with the exception of the gray keyboard deck. A speaker rests on either side of the keyboard and a gray power button sits directly above. An attached stylus slides inconspicuously into the built-in black plastic handle on the front of the notebook.
At 6.4 lbs., the 13.4 x 11.1 x 1.8-2.2-inch CF-53 is slightly lighter than the 6.6-lbs., 14 x 9.7 x 1.5-inch Dell Latitude E6420 ATG. Although both notebooks can fit into a large messenger bag, the CF-53's built-in handle made transporting the notebook much easier.
The semi-rugged Toughbook CF-53 isn't as durable as fully rugged machines, but it can still take more than a few dings and scratches. The hard drive is shock-mounted, protecting it against various shocks and vibrations. Panasonic claims this laptop has passed nine MIL-STD-810G tests. The magnesium-alloy chassis is supposed to withstand drops from 3 feet while closed. The spill-resistant keyboard can handle spills of up to 6 ounces. The system can also endure extreme temperatures ranging from 140 degrees and minus-4-degrees Fahrenheit, as well as extreme humidity.
Aside from the power port, secure lock, and headphone and microphone jacks, every port is protected by flaps designed to protect against water and dust.
For our drop testing, Panasonic insisted that we use plywood and perform the test two times, making sure the notebook was closed. These restrictions make us wonder how durable the notebook will be in the real world, where workers often put their laptops on tables that are more than 3 feet off the ground. To be fair, the similarly priced Dell Latitude E6420 ATG is only meant to survive a 30-inch fall, but can do it up to 20 times, not just twice.
We dropped the Toughbook CF-53 from a height of 3 feet, while closed, onto a plywood floor. After the drop, the notebook turned on instantly, as if nothing had happened. The notebook also passed the water test unscathed, allowing us to type without incident after pouring 6 fluid ounces onto the keyboard. Instead of going into a drain, we noticed that the majority of the water ran off the sides like water off a duck's back.
Keyboard and Touchpad
For the most part, typing on the CF-53's island-style, spill-resistant keyboard was comfortable. We liked the palm rest's ribbed texture, which stayed cool even after an hour of use. However, despite having generous spacing between the black, matte, slightly convex keys, feedback was slightly mushy. We also noticed that the Caps-Lock, space bar, and Enter keys were a bit undersize.
The 3.1 x 1.75-inch Synaptics touchpad gave us plenty of real estate. Our finger glided over the smooth, black matte surface, allowing for accurate text highlighting and desktop navigation. We also experienced fluid reactions from multitouch gestures such as two-finger scroll, rotation, pinch-to-zoom, and three-finger flick. The mouse buttons were a tad small, but supplied firm feedback.
After streaming a full-screen Hulu video for 15 minutes, the Toughbook CF-53 kept its cool, measuring a frosty 73 degrees Fahrenheit on the touchpad. The space between the "G" and "H" keys measured 75 degrees, while the underside came in with 83 degrees. As we consider anything over 95 degrees to be uncomfortable, temperatures on the Toughbook were more than acceptable.
Display and Audio
The CF-53 is the first Panasonic notebook to feature a 1366 x 768-resolution display. Averaging 841 lux, the Toughbook CF-53's 14-inch display is extremely bright. Thanks to the anti-glare and reflection treatments, we could use the notebook in just about any lighting situation, including direct sunlight. Looking at images on CNN.com and Gameinformer.com gave us deep, vivid colors. The display also delivers wide viewing angles, which preserved the color no matter where we sat in the room. However, there was a pervasive graininess that made reading text slightly difficult.
The display also doubles as a resistive touchscreen, which delivered an accurate desktop navigation experience when we used the stylus located in the left side of the built-in handle. Using our fingers garnered a limited, choppy response. While there are double taps for zooming in and out, multitouch gestures such as pinch-zoom and two-finger rotate were absent.
We were pleasantly surprised by the loud audio delivered by the CF-53's speakers. At full volume, the triumphant horns on Meek Mill's "Ima Boss" track were rich and full, as were the rappers vocals. Unfortunately, the bass was pretty much nonexistent.
The right side of the CF-53 houses a USB 2.0 slot, a USB 3.0 slot, a SD card reader, an ExpressCard, a PC Card slot, a power jack, and a compartment for the 6750mAh Lithium-ion battery. A DVD burner occupies the left side, while a headphone jack and a microphone jack sit in the front. Two USB 2.0 ports, Ethernet, VGA, HDMI, a serial port and a secure-lock slot reside on the rear of the notebook.
The Toughbook CF-53's lack of an integrated webcam eliminated any chance of conducting video chat. However a 1.3-megapixel integrated webcam can be purchased for an additional $350.
The Toughbook CF-53's 2.5-GHz Intel Core i5-2520M CPU with 4GB of RAM, 320GB 7,200-rpm hard drive and Intel HD 3000 GPU provided solid performance in our testing. On PCMark 07, a synthetic benchmark that measures overall performance, the CF-53 scored 2,314, slightly above the 2,238 mainstream category average. However, the CF-53 was no match for the Latitude E6420 ATG and its 2.7-GHz Intel Core i7-2620M processor, which scored 3,373 on the same test.
During the LAPTOP File-Transfer test, the CF-53's 320GB 7,200-rpm hard drive booted the 32-bit version of Windows 7 Professional in 49 seconds, beating the 0:61 mainstream average. However, the E6420 ATG and its 128GB SSD launched Windows in only 35 seconds.
The CF-53 duplicated 4.97GB of multimedia files in 2 minutes and 58 seconds during the LAPTOP File-Transfer test. That's a transfer rate of 28.6MBps, which is slightly below the 30.1MBps category average and well below the E6420 ATG's rate of 82.6MBps.
On the OpenOffice spreadsheet benchmark, the Toughbook CF-53 matched 20,000 names to their corresponding addresses in 5 minutes and 1 second. That's nearly two minutes faster than the 6:56 mainstream-category average.
The Panasonic Toughbook CF-53's Intel HD 3000 GPU allows the notebook to play HD video and casual games. On 3DMark06, a benchmark that tests overall graphics performance, the CF-53 scored 3,684. That's 1,064 points below the 4,748 mainstream-category average. The Latitude E6420 ATG and its Nvidia NVS 4200M GPU notched a higher 5,926.
During the "World of Warcraft" test, the CF-53 delivered a disappointing frame rate of 27 fps with graphics set to Good, and the display at 1366 x 768. The E6420 ATG scored a slightly higher 40 fps, but both came in well below the 63 fps category average. When we cranked the settings to maximum, the CF-53's frame rate plummeted to a dismal 12 fps, failing to reach the 28 fps mainstream average. The E6420 ATG performed better, with 31 fps.
Software and Warranty
Panasonic keeps things simple on the software front, packaging only a few utilities and programs. We managed our hard-drive and display settings using Intel Control Center. Panasonic's PC Information viewer was a treasure trove of information, displaying hard-drive and battery status as well as our active drivers and programs.
Third-party software includes WinDVD, Windows Live, Adobe Reader 8, and Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2007.
The Panasonic Toughbook CF-53 comes with a three-year limited parts and labor warranty.
During the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing via Wi-Fi), the CF-53 lasted 8 hours and 52 minutes. That's 4 hours and 15 minutes longer than the mainstream-category average and 52 minutes longer than the E6420 ATG's runtime of 8:00.
Our $2,449 review unit comes equipped with a 2.5-GHz Intel Core i5-2520M CPU with 4GB of RAM, 320GB 7,200-rpm hard drive, Intel HD 3000 Graphics GPU and a 14-inch touchscreen display. There is a $2,029 option that has identical specs to our review unit, minus the $105 touchscreen display. The $1,607 base model features a 2.1-GHz Intel Core i3-2310M CPU with 2GB of RAM, a 320 GB 5,400-rpm hard drive and Intel HD 3000 Graphics GPU.
The $2,449 Panasonic Toughbook CF-53 provides a solid mix of durability, performance and endurance. Users looking for more speed and a better-looking chassis should check out the Dell Latitude E6420 ATG, which is available with a 2.7-GHz Intel Core i7-2620M processor and discrete graphics. However, the heavier Dell had problems with our water test. Overall, the Toughbook CF-53 is a very good choice for people who want some durability without all the bulk.