Panasonic's Toughbook S9 is designed to withstand more damage than your typical business notebook, including drops and up to 220 pounds of pressure on the lid. At just 3 pounds, this 12-inch laptop is also extremely light, but it manages to squeeze in a full-powered Intel Core i5 processor and a DVD burner. So what's the catch? A steep price of $2,649. Read on to find out if this machine is worth the investment.
Weighing just 3 pounds, the Toughbook S9 is easy to take anywhere. The 12.1-inch laptop certainly has a very compact footprint (12.8 x 9.9 inches), but at almost two inches thick at its widest point, it's a bit chunky. The S9 has a sturdy magnesium alloy chassis, and we like the black-and-sliver lid. The laptop's interior is a solid metallic silver color, complete with Panasonic's trademark circular touchpad and a flip-open DVD burner hidden in the laptop's right wrist rest.
Keyboard and Touchpad
In order to make room for the laptop's unique flip-up DVD burner, the Toughbook S9's keyboard occupies less than half the length of its deck. As a result, the keys are small, short, and quite close together. You'll have to adjust to this layout. Even so, the keys have substantial travel and provide a pleasing soft click. There's also no flex at all.
The S9's circular touchpad (1.8 inches in diameter) is definitely a departure from the rectangular ones we typically see, but it functions as advertised. While it doesn't support fancy multitouch gestures like many other laptops, it will allow smooth circular scrolling within documents and web pages. Cursor movement was also responsive. The notebook's two discrete mouse buttons are small but easy to press.
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For the most part, the Toughbook S9 stayed fairly cool. After playing a Hulu video for 15 minutes, we recorded a temperature of 89 degrees Fahrenheit at the center of the keyboard. The touchpad returned a reading of 93 degrees, while the notebook's underside was 92 degrees. However, the left wrist rest crossed the threshold of what we consider uncomfortable (95 degrees), measuring 103 degrees.
What you're really paying $2,649 for is what Panasonic calls business-rugged construction, meaning the Toughbook S9 is designed to withstand the typical abuse laptops can suffer in work environments or on the road. Basically, the S9 can take one or two nasty drops during its life span, specifically from a height of 2.5 feet (while powered) onto its base. The notebook should also be able to handle drops from 1 foot (while turned off) onto hard surfaces, hitting each of the notebook's corners.
Aside from the magnesium construction, the S9's LCD and hard drive are built to absorb shocks using rubber pads and flexible connectors. In addition, the notebook can take 220 pounds of direct pressure on its lid. The keyboard is also spill-resistant. Lenovo ThinkPad laptops such as the X220 have features such as shock-mounted hard drives, magnesium-reinforced chassis, and spill-resistant keyboards, but they don't offer similar guarantees against drops.
To test the S9's toughness, we dropped the notebook once from a height of 2.5 feet (while powered) onto its base. We then placed a plank of plywood on the floor, powered down the laptop, and let the CF-S9 fall from a distance of 1 foot, impacting the plank from various angles. After that, we upped the ante by having a 210-pound person stand on the S9's lid with the plywood plank sitting in between, evenly distributing the weight. According to Panasonic, these pressure tests simulate everyday occurrences such as a laptop being crushed in overhead bins or sat on accidentally. Lastly, we poured 6 ounces of water on the notebook's keyboard, let it sit for a few minutes, then drained the water as best we could. Impressively, the Toughbook S9 ran this gauntlet with no discernible damage or impaired operation.
Besides durability, Panasonic offers a few security features on the Toughbook S9. These include a TPM security chip to help protect passwords from software threats and an optional fingerprint reader for biometeric authentication. There's also a Computrace Agent in the system BIOS to help locate the laptop if it's misplaced or stolen.
Display and Audio
The Toughbook CF-S9's 12.1-inch widescreen display has a native resolution of 1280 x 800 pixels. The matte screen is well suited for outdoor use because you don't have to deal with annoying reflections. Colors looked vibrant and blacks deep when we streamed Captain America trailers on Hulu and watched the classic flick, The Chronicles of Riddick, on DVD.
Sadly, audio pumped through the S9's single speaker didn't get very loud. When listening to "Same Dream China" by Gold Panda via Slacker Radio, sound was tinny and harsh. We recommend sticking to headphones or quality external speakers.
On the S9's left side sit two USB ports, HDMI, a power jack, Ethernet, and an old-school modem port. The front houses a glowing blue-green power switch, a wireless toggle, headphone and mic jacks, and the pop-up DVD SuperMulti Drive. On the right is an SDXC Card slot as well as two legacy ports: a PC Card slot and a VGA monitor adapter.
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One noticeable omission is a webcam, so video chat is out of the question.
Running a first-generation 2.4-GHz Intel Core i5-520 processor and equipped with 2GB of RAM, the Toughbook CF-S9 has plenty of pep for a machine its size. The laptop turned in a speedy PCMark Vantage score of 5,166, more than 1,300 points higher than the ultraportable category average. Still, the new Lenovo Thinkpad X220 (equipped with a second-gen Core i5 CPU) notched a much higher score of 7,719. The S9 was also just barely bested by the HP EliteBook 2740p (5,373) and the 13-inch MacBook Air (5,390).
The Toughbook S9's 5,400-rpm 320GB hard drive booted Windows 7 (32-bit) in a quick 49 seconds, 12 seconds faster than the category average (61 seconds).
Copying a 4.97GB folder of mixed-media files in 3 minutes and 48 seconds, the Toughbook achieved an internal data transfer rate of 22.3 MBps. This is below the category average of 31 MBps, but it's still faster than the EliteBook 2740 (18 MBps). The ThinkPad X220's 7,200-rpm drive breezed by the CF-S9 with a rate of 32.2 MBps.
The S9 can definitely handle light video editing. The notebook was able to transcode a 114MB MP4 to AVI format with Oxelon Media Encoder in 56 seconds, almost a minute faster than the category average of 1:54. In addition, the CF-S9 took 2:33 to encode a 5-minute HD clip to an iPod touch format video using Cyberlink Media Espresso, which is faster than the 3:40 category average.
With its Intel GMA HD graphics, the Toughbook S9 had no trouble playing HD Hulu and Netflix videos, but its low 3DMark06 score of 1,356 is below the ultraportable category average of 1,611. The ThinkPad X220, which has newer Intel HD grahpics, more than doubled this performance (3,494).
When playing World of Warcraft in autodetect mode, the S9 managed a poor 19 fps. With all the game's fancy visual effects dialed up to the max, the machine struggled, achieving only 6 fps. The ThinkPad X220 was able to spit out 34/14 fps on the same test, while the 13-inch MacBook Air garnered a very playable 56/24 fps.
Battery Life and Wireless
The Toughbook S9 isn't just built to last; it also lasts a long time on a charge. On the LAPTOP Battery Test (web surfing via Wi-Fi), this ultraportable lasted an epic 9 hours and 46 minutes. That runtime is more than 4 and a half hours longer than the category average. That's also 3:10 longer than the 13-inch MacBook Air, and almost 2 hours past what the Thinkpad X220 could provide with its six-cell battery (7:51).
Using an Intel Centrino Advanced N-6200 802.11 a/b/g/n wireless chip, the S9 turned in rock-solid Wi-Fi throughput speeds of 43.3 Mbps at 15 feet and 25.5 Mbps at 50 feet away from our access point. This measures up well against the current category averages of 31/19.6 Mbps, and it's comparable to the ThinkPad X220's scores of 43.7/19.6 Mbps.
A welcome feature for highly mobile workers, our S9 came with a Qualcomm Gobi 2000 mobile broadband modem installed. With it, the laptop can connect to AT&T's data network. Using this connection in our midtown New York office, we saw a fairly brisk download speed of 1.8 to 2.1 Mbps but a lowly upload speed of just 160 to 200 Kbps. We saw download speeds exceed 3 Mbps in New Jersey. Plans cost about $60 a month.
The notebook also has Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR.
Panasonic doesn't offer many configuration options with the Toughbook S9. Our $2,649 model was equipped with an Intel Core i5-520M processor with 2GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive. Buyers can opt for up a base model that forgoes the Gobi mobile broadband radio for $2,529. RAM can also be upped to 4GB. An optional fingerprint reader costs $400.
Software and Warranty
Running Microsoft Windows 7 Professional, the Toughbook CF-S9 comes with a very business-minded software package. Along with an electronic manual there's a collection of Panasonic utilities for such tasks as battery calibration and erasing the hard disk. To watch movies, WinDVD 8 is included, and a full version of Roxio Creator LBJ allows for burning of DVDs and CDs.
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The Panasonic Toughbook S9 offers plenty for business users who demand a design that's light but also highly durable. Despite its light 3-pound weight, this 12-inch machine sports an optical drive plus and is rugged enough to shrug off the rare drop or small spill. The S9 also combines strong performance with up to 10 hours of battery life. That said, $2,649 is a lot to pay for peace of mind. For that price, you could buy two Lenovo ThinkPad X220s ($1,299), which offer a larger, more comfortable keyboard and a faster second-generation Core i5 processor. The S9 is more likely to stand up to the rigors of the road, but you'll have to be willing to pay for it.