I have recently returned from an event in South Wales hosted by Panasonic to celebrate the tenth anniversary of its Toughbook line of ruggedised notebooks. While you always have to treat these types of tub-thumping events with a pinch of salt I must admit my cynicism was seriously challenged by the level of engineering that goes into your average Panasonic Toughbook.
For those unfamiliar with the Toughbook line they are a series of so called "ruggedised" laptops, ranging from seriously hefty machines designed primarily for outdoor use in sectors such as the military, police and utilities to lightweight business laptops engineered to better withstand the knocks and scrapes of getting kicked around an aircraft hold or crammed onto a Japanese subway.
The engineering on the more sturdy of these models is quite remarkable. Magnesium alloy cases and shock absorbers for the hard drive and other critical components ensure the machines can survive ten rounds with Amir Khan, while a fully moisture and dust resistant keyboard and sealed port and connector covers keep them working in both rain and dust storms - a not unimportant consideration when some one of your major customers tend to spend a lot of time messing round in the Iraqi desert (more of which later).
Meanwhile, an unusually bright screen makes everything visible in daylight and, perhaps most importantly, a simple handle makes the laptop easy to carry around despite its unsurprisingly significant weight.
All of this is tested to exceed the MIL-STD-810F military standard for robustness - a fact that at least one US soldier is extremely happy about after his life was saved during a firefight in Iraq when a Toughbook intercepted a chest-bound bullet.
For those cynical hacks who only believe what happens in front of their own eyes Panasonic was willing to break the first rule of technology PR (never demo a product in front of a room full of journalists) by demonstrating the sturdiness of the CF-18 model (pictured opposite).
While the PRs balked at the suggestion of reenacting the Iraq incident the machine was turned on and then dropped several times onto a plank of wood from a height of about a metre, before having the contents of a watering can poured all over it. From where I was sitting the screen, although slightly damp, kept glowing away happily and everything remained in working order.
According to Panasonic this level of engineering has given the Toughbook a leading marketshare in the ruggedised notebook market and helped some customers reduce their failure rates from over 40 percent to under five percent - which to me still sounds high, but then again these machines are being used down sewers and up telegraph poles.
With a dominant position amongst field service operatives Panasonic is now setting its sight on the business notebook market with its new five series of lightweight Toughbooks for "whitecollar" workers.
These sleeker, lighter models incorporate some of the shock absorbers and other innovations that make the heftier models so robust – a fact that is likely to become increasingly important to some executives following recent travel restrictions that forced them to put their beloved laptops in the hold when flying.
However, whether it will prove a big enough differentiator for Panasonic with the laptop market becoming increasingly commodotised remains to be seen, particularly given the cheapest five series will be priced at over £1,300 excluding VAT when it is officially launched in October.
Still if you want a laptop that won't break the next time you hurl it across the desk following your monthly meeting with that cretinous bean counter in finance it is good to know there are options out there. And even if the price tags are a bit steep it is also encouraging to find that despite all the media scare stories claiming engineering excellence died out during the industrial revolution, commitments to build quality and attention to detail are not completely extinct – it's just that you'll only find them in Japan.
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