We've always been fans of Panasonic's Toughbook line, especially its durable ultraportables. The all-new Toughbook F8 brings Intel's Centrino 2 platform to a machine that is impressively light given its 14.1-inch widescreen and integrated optical drive. However, it's hard to overlook the steep $2,499 starting price ($2,899 as configured), especially since the F8's keyboard is less than stellar and the system lacks such features as a built-in webcam and fingerprint reader. Given its durability and long battery life, though, the F8 is worth the premium for those who spend a lot of time out of the office.
With its angular two-tone chassis, the Toughbook F8 looks bulky for a thin-and-light, an impression confirmed by the machine's 1.9-inch thickness at its rear (the case tapers to 1.3 inches at its front). But Panasonic assures us that the Toughbook F8 is the lightest 14.1-inch widescreen machine with built-in 3G wireless broadband and an onboard optical drive. Indeed, lifting it by the integrated handle, which cleverly folds flush against the front edge of the notebook, we were surprised by how light it is--a scant 3.7 pounds to be precise, a welcome reprieve from the 4- to 5-pound heft of many other 14.1-inch thin-and-lights. Credit the magnesium alloy case, which shaves weight while adding more rigidity to protect the screen and other components.
That said, the design might not be to everyone's liking. Seeing the chic-sleek direction of models, like the new Apple MacBook and HP EliteBook lines, the chunky Panasonic seems a bit Transformer-esque. We're also not sold on the circular touchpad. In addition to being visually distracting in your peripheral vision--circles scream "Look at me," which is why advertising and packaging designers love them--it delivers annoyingly little usable mousing surface, especially when you take into account the scroll area.
Keyboard and Ports
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The unique placement of the optical drive under the palm rest gives Panasonic more room for ports on the side of the machine, but also pushes the keyboard much closer to the screen, which takes getting used to. The keyboard itself offers full-size letter keys and provided good tactile and audible feedback while typing, though the smallish right Shift and Enter keys may take some adjustment. We're also disappointed that Panasonic failed to include dedicated multimedia or even volume controls; you'll have to use the controls provided in the application for the former and Function-key combos for the latter.
Panasonic included just the basic ports: three USB, headphone, mic, VGA, Ethernet, modem, and a mini port replicator connector. You won't find FireWire, HDMI, or eSATA here, nor did our configuration have a webcam or fingerprint reader--two essential items for business computing these days. (Panasonic said a fingerprint reader will be available in future models.) The Toughbook F8 does include a PC Card II slot and an SD/SDHC Card reader, though.
Ruggedness and Security
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As for other features, a new Hybrid Cooling System incorporates a compact fan design as well as a customizable fan utility to help manage fan speed based on ambient conditions and the performance required. The keyboard can withstand up to 6 ounces of water, and Panasonic claims the F8 is drop-resistant from a height of 2.5 feet (landing on its base), thanks to the tough outer shell and internal shock-absorbing design. Integrated TPM circuitry and Intel's vPro Technology will help enterprise IT departments secure the system, though again, a fingerprint reader is an expected part of that equation. The notebook also comes with Computrace theft protection installed, but users must have it activated.
Display and Audio
The 14.1-inch widescreen has a resolution of 1280 x 800, which is comfortable to work on without squinting. The panel is bright, and while the satin-finish anti-glare coating seems unobtrusive, we did notice that color display type (such as the story links on CNN's homepage) was not as crisp as on other 1280 x 800 panels we've seen. Viewing angle performance was acceptable side to side, but abysmal in the vertical plane; the screen needs to be open to just the right angle to get the best view, which could be an issue on an airplane tray table. On the plus side, color reproduction in DVD titles such as Pirates of the Caribbean was natural, though scenes were a bit dark even with the panel's brightness cranked up all the way.
Audio from the up-firing stereo speakers was disappointing. The sound was thin and tinny, and downright grating at peak volumes. The speakers are fine for personal Web use, but not for music. If audio is an important element in your presentation, bring along a set of powered speakers.
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The Toughbook F8 comes with a 2.26-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SP9300 processor and 3GB of RAM, which combined to deliver very good performance on productivity benchmarks. The machine booted to Windows XP in just 44 seconds and scored a good 4,174 on PCMark05. It was also quick with multimedia chores, requiring just 4:40 to re-encode about two hours of music in iTunes. More impressive, the Toughbook F8 didn't slow down at all when performing the same demanding iTunes task with a Windows Defender scan running in the background, which bodes well for multitasking. Its 160GB, 7,200-rpm hard drive is small but quick; it completed the LAPTOP Transfer Test in 4:55, a rate of 17.3 MBps, which is just above the category average.
As with other business portables, the Toughbook F8's integrated Intel graphics chipset is no match for demanding 3D chores. The system's scores of 1,921 on 3DMark03 (which tests DirectX 9 performance) and a lowly 753 on 3DMark06 (which tests DirectX 9 3D graphics, CPU, and 3D features) show it's passable for Windows Vista's Aero effects (if you opt for the available Vista Business OS) but not games. On F.E.A.R., we saw frame rates of just 19 fps at 800 x 600-pixel resolution with settings on autodetect and 7 fps at the panel's native 1280 x 800 setting.
Battery Life and Wireless
The F8 offers impressive endurance. It lasted 5 hours 38 minutes on our LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi), which is more than an hour longer than the average thin-and-light notebook and 22 minutes longer than the typical ultraportable.
The machine's wireless performance is slightly above average at close range, delivering just under 20.0 Mbps at 15 feet from our access point; it falls short at 50 feet, with a subpar 13.3 Mbps. Bluetooth and integrated Gobi 3G mobile broadband (through all the major wireless carriers) have all the wireless bases covered.
Software and Warranty
As expected for a business machine, Panasonic keeps preloaded software to a minimum. The company includes recovery discs for both Windows XP and Windows Vista Business. Panasonic preloads InterVideo's WinDVD player applet; Roxio BackOn Track for disaster recovery, file backup, and system restoration; and Roxio Creator LBJ for ripping and creating audio CDs and copying data CDs and DVDs (though this build does not include Roxio's DVD authoring module). The system is covered with a three-year limited warranty and 24/7 toll-free phone support.
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On balance, the strengths of the Toughbook F8 outweigh the drawbacks. Yes, a streamlined design, better speakers, and more varied port selection would improve the machine, but those are nits considering you're getting a 14.1-inch screen, optical drive, and integrated mobile broadband in a rough-and-tumble, 3.7-pound package. If those latter attributes are important to you, and you can afford it, we say grab the Toughbook F8 by its built-in handle and go.