Panasonic expands ruggedized line

Panasonic Personal Computer Co. this summer is extending its line of Toughbook ruggedized computers with three new notebooks intended not just for military users but for mainstream users who subject their systems to daily wear and tear.

At last November's Comdex trade show in Las Vegas, the company collected stories from attendees about the abuse to which they had subjected their computers.

The stories helped support Panasonic's decision to extend its line of Toughbook ruggedized computers. The Toughbook line is well-known among federal government buyers, especially military buyers, and it accounts for about 30 percent of overall sales of previous models, said John Harris, director of marketing for Panasonic.

"Everybody has their own horror story or at least knows of one," Harris said. With the new models, Panasonic borrowed features from its highly ruggedized Toughbook 25 and Toughbook 35 and used them to "selectively ruggedize" the computers in a way that protects against the most common types of damage, Harris said.

Panasonic has just started shipping the Toughbook 45, which features a magnesium alloy case around the liquid crystal display, a fiberglass-reinforced case holding the PC and a hard drive mounted in a shock-absorbent gel.

Priced at $1,949 on the General Services Administration schedule, the Toughbook 45 can be equipped with a 233 MHz or 200 MHz Pentium processor with MMX technology. It also offers the choice of 2G or 4G of storage on the hard drive, up to 160M of extended data out RAM, a 12.1-inch active-matrix display and an integrated floppy and CD-ROM drive. It weighs 6.4 pounds with the battery and disk drives installed.

"What we've tried to do for a price of about $2,000 is come up with a very good combination of weight and durability," Harris said.

The second addition, the Toughbook 71, starts shipping this month and includes more ruggedized features, including an entire case made of magnesium alloy and a spill-resistant keyboard. Its GSA price will be less than $3,500.

A 266 MHz Pentium II processor, a 4G hard drive and up to 32M of synchronous dynamic RAM are standard, and a variety of drives fit in its multimedia pocket.

Harris said the design target for the Toughbook 71 is for it to withstand a drop of 12 inches flat onto a hard surface. The fully ruggedized Toughbook 25 can survive a drop of about 22 inches.

The new notebooks are a good offering from Panasonic, but they are weak on the technical side when compared with the offerings of notebook leaders Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. and Compaq Computer Corp., said Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at Gartner Group, San Jose, Calif.

But Panasonic stands to benefit from its experience building ruggedized notebooks because "as notebooks get thinner— and people want them thinner— you are going to have to go to a reinforced display," Dulaney said.

The Toughbook 45 has been added to the Army's Portable-2 and Standard Army Management Information Systems contracts, said Jan Ruderman, government channel manager.

The Toughbook 71 will be added to the Army contracts and is already available through the National Institutes of Health's Electronic Computer Store II program and several Navy blanket purchase agreements, Ruderman said.

Panasonic is preparing to ship a third new Toughbook in September, Harris said. The Toughbook 27 will have a look and feel similar to the Toughbook 25, which has been on the market for about two years. But it will add water-resistant features, including cast aluminum port covers, and it will have anti-reflective treatment on the display to make it readable in bright sunlight, Harris said.

The design goal is to ensure that it will survive a drop of 36 inches, Harris said.

The Toughbook 27, equipped with a 266 MHz Pentium processor with MMX technology, 32M of RAM and 4G of storage, will cost about $5,100 on the GSA schedule. Harris said Panasonic has not positioned it to replace the Toughbook 25, which it plans to continue producing.

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