One tough tablet

Panasonic Computer Solutions Co. has done it again. Continuing its trend of developing ruggedized versions of mobile computing devices, the company has introduced a convertible tablet PC, the Toughbook CF-18.

Convertible tablet PCs are basically notebooks with screens that flip over to cover the keyboard, converting to full tablet functionality. In comparison, traditional tablet PCs are slate devices with separate or detachable keyboards, if any.

The slates are much thinner and lighter, with some measuring less than an inch thick compared to the CF-18s' nearly 2-inch thickness in tablet mode. And some slates weigh less than 2 pounds, while the CF-18 weighs 4.4 pounds.

But what makes us cringe is what happens when a traditional tablet is dropped or exposed to the elements. Obviously, you're not buying a ruggedized tablet for its size and weight; you're buying it to withstand harsh conditions.

And the CF-18 invites you to bring them on. It meets Military Standard 810F for drop shock, vibration, water, dust, heat and cold exposure. The screen and hard drive are impact-isolated to withstand drops and shocks on all four corners and the flat sides. The case is magnesium alloy, and all ports are sealed with thick, sturdy covers.

Government users will appreciate the tool-free hard-drive removal and combination of wireless connectivity options. The system offers integrated, concurrent access to Bluetooth Class 1, 802.11b, Cable Division Multiple Access 2000 radio transmission technology and GPRS Class 8. It also features an in-tegrated Global Positioning System receiver.

Computing power includes a 900 MHz Intel Corp. Pentium M processor Ultra Low Voltage, 1M of Level 2 Cache, 256M of memory expandable to 768M and a 40G hard drive.

For wired networking and communications, the CF-18 offers a 100Base-TX/10Base-T local-area network connection and a 56 kilobits/sec V.92 modem.

Ports include two USB 2.0, serial, VGA, audio in/out and PC Card slots that accept either two Type I or II PC Cards, or one Type III PC Card.

The 10.4-inch, 1,024 x 768 thin-film transistor active-matrix display with digitizer is fairly easy to view in direct sunlight as long as the glare is not directly on the screen. The anti-glare coating helps.

We liked the large, easily accessible tablet buttons on the base of the unit. In notebook mode, they face forward, and in tablet mode, they are on the right side toward the top. They include a brightness control, enter function, screen rotation, on-screen keyboard access and security, which opens the Microsoft Corp. Windows Task Manager. Three of them are user-programmable.

In notebook mode, the display jiggles a bit, but the hinge feels sturdy overall. The lock that secures the display in place in tablet mode is extremely secure yet easy to operate.

One nice feature is the ability to set the display to automatically change to your preferred orientation when switching from tablet to notebook mode and vice versa.

The keyboard is small but reasonable for a tablet PC. If you planned to do a lot of typing, you'd buy a notebook instead. In this case, the keyboard provides added functionality when needed and also allows for more ports than slate tablet PCs offer.

We reviewed a CF-18 with digitizer, but the system is also available in a touchscreen version. Digitized displays use a digital pen instead of a stylus. This facil-itates smoother movement, especially for handwriting, and allows for sturdier screens because they don't operate based on pressure, as touch screens do. In fact, the pens do not have to touch the screen to move the pointer as long as they are held within half an inch of the surface.

The digitized CF-18 comes load-ed with Microsoft Windows XP Tab-let PC Edition, while the touch screen version comes with a choice of Windows 2000 Professional or Windows XP Professional.

The bottom line: If you need a tablet PC that can withstand the elements in the field, we recommend the Toughbook CF-18. It offers full tablet functionality in a sturdy, ruggedized form that meets military specifications.


Toughbook CF-18

Panasonic Computer Solutions Co.
(800) 662-3537

The Toughbook is available on the General Services Administration schedule through GTSI Corp. for $3,738.

This convertible tablet PC is bulkier than most, but it is also much tougher than most. A heavier, thicker design means it can withstand harsh environments.

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