There's something deceptively fierce-looking about the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 business-ruggedised laptop.

An Intel dual-core processor and 3GB RAM fire the ruggedised, 14in Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 laptop to an impressive WorldBench 6 benchmark of 97. But you won't get to use such speed in Windows 7, as the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 comes only with Vista or XP. Our sample had Windows XP installed.

Multimedia playback will be no problem: the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 is no gaming rig, but achieves playable framerates - 19fps in FEAR at Medium, but 7fps at our standard Maximum settings.

It won't let you down on the move, either, cranking out an impressive six hours and 13 minutes of active battery life in our MobileMark 2007 Productivity test. Enough to do almost a full working day free from the tyranny of the socket, this is in fact even longer than Panasonic claims.

The 14in, 1280x800 anti-glare display is bright and clear, housed in a chassis mostly wrought from magnesim alloy. This embues it with good strength and impressive lightness. Pick up the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 and you'll find that at just 1.6kg, it's no millstone.

It's also, as the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 moniker suggests, a hardy soul. There are various levels of ‘ruggedization' to the Toughbook range - this one is at the lower end of indestructability, and refererred to as Business Ruggedized.

The lack of serious weight and a toughened shell mean that dropping the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 does little harm. We tried some reckless sweeping of this Toughbook from an office desk to the floor 0.7m below, with no discernible ill effects at all.

The Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 case is said to be partly watertight too: spill coffee on your keyboard and it should wash away without damage.

You pay a price for solidity, however, not just in cold hard cash. The keyboard, though full-size, feels cramped - we found it a little tough to type accurately.

To squeeze in an optical drive, Panasonic added a top-loading DVD burner next to the tiny, circular trackpad. This takes up a hefty chunk of real estate, pushing back the keys. Throw in a tiny and irritatingly small right-side Shift key, and you've got sore wrists and alphabet soup.

The Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 is blessed with a range of connectivity options - and cursed with a plethora of hardware switches. There's ethernet, three USB ports, an SD card reader and VGA.

You get Bluetooth and 802.11b/g/n wireless - although the latter requires both a hard- and software switch to be enabled. Why? There are separate front-facing switches to open and boot the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8, and one to spring the dust-proof DVD drive hatch.

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The Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 comes with a handle, daring you to mess with it. So when we snatch it off the Test Centre workbench, we're surprised at how light this tiny ToughBook feels. We expect it to weigh a ton, but it's a mere 1.64kg.

Yet inside the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8's hard-plastic case lurks just enough power to handle most conventional tasks. Unfortunately, its price tag may put it out of reach for many people seeking a business laptop.

Since the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 is supposed to take a beating, we'll touch on the design first. The reasonably spaced keyboard provides a satisfying amount of give. Yep, in an age of supercool, cut-out Chiclet keys, there's nothing wrong with an effective (if basic) spill-resistant keyboard.

We're not a fan of having the Del key hiding down by the arrows, but that's a matter of personal preference - just like the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8's small, circular touchpad.

We actually don't mind swapping a square for a circle. We only take issue when the touchzone is so small; put two fingers together, and that's about how much room you have to work with for navigating. The two mouse buttons fare a little better, since they're a good size and they feel responsive (though a bit plastic and hollow).

The Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 comes reasonably well equipped for the on-the-go workaholic. Beyond Bluetooth and Gobi, you'll find some legacy I/O ports.

A PC Card slot and an SDHC flash-card reader sit on one side next to the audio jacks, while the other side has a few old-school outputs (VGA, ethernet, and modem jacks) in addition to three USB 2.0 ports.

Although it is nice to see that many USB ports, it would be even nicer if they weren't all stacked right on top of one another. That may not seem like a big deal, but the second you need to affix a slightly oversize dongle, you're taking a neighbouring USB port out of the picture. And don't count on having any video chats, either - on the model we received, no Webcam was in sight.

We will say, though, that we like how the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 stows the DVD-RW optical drive under the right side of the wrist rest. When the drive isn't in use, the system automatically powers it down; but flick the toggle, and the lid pops open. You drop the disc in at a slight angle (a switch from older ToughBooks), and that angle makes removing the disc later a whole lot easier, too.

Now, the usual trade-off when it comes to ruggedised laptops is that you're sacrificing performance for all of the durability (an enclosed case means that the system needs lower-powered parts that won't overheat). Not so with the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8.

Our review unit came with an Intel Core 2 Duo P9300 CPU and 3GB of RAM, running a 32-bit version of Windows Vista Business, and it scored an 88 in WorldBench 6. At that speed, the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 is more than fast enough to tackle all your work tasks.

Just don't expect it to be a laptop you'll be playing around on as well. Although the screen looks good (which we'll get to in a second), the machine's lack of a dedicated GPU means that you're saddled with lacklustre graphics performance. At least the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 laptop managed to hang on for a hair under 6 hours in our battery tests.

Also in the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8, you'll find a number of other improvements over ToughBooks released a year ago. Whereas a machine last year got by with a muddy display and measly 1024-by-768-pixel resolution, this laptop looks a whole lot better.

On the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8's 1280-by-800-pixel panel, colours pop a little more and don't get nearly as washed out. Even so, brighter images start to blow out on the matte screen. As for sound, the two grill speakers on the sides of the keyboard, while a marked improvement over a crummy mono tin can, still come off as shallow. In the end, you know that this is a business machine, not a multimedia marvel.

On the software side, the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 provides a fairly minimalist (but good) set of applications. You get Roxio Creator LJB and Roxio BackOnTrack for data backup and disc creation, and the control panel has an option for the "Panasonic Power Plan Extension Utility", which will let you squeeze as much extra life out of the machine as possible. The system comes with a PDF manual, as well.

Although it has its drawbacks, the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 is certainly a good choice for the disaster-prone businessperson. However, its cost ensures that only well-to-do klutzes will be able to afford this machine.

Darren Gladstone

PCWorld.com

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Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8: Specs

  • 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SP9300
  • 14.1in (1280 x 800) 16:10 matt LCD display
  • 6MB L2 cache
  • 1066MHz FSB
  • Windows Vista Business (with XP downgrade option)
  • 3GB DDR2-533 RAM, (expandable to 4GB)
  • 160GB hard drive (shock-mounted and removable)
  • DVD±RW DL Super Multi Drive
  • Intel GS45 chipset (GMA 4500MHD graphics controller)
  • stereo speakers
  • PC card type II x 1, SD/SDHC Card slot, 78-pin mini dock box replicator, headphones/speaker, microphone/line in
  • 3 x USB 2.0, gigabit Ethernet, 56K modem
  • 802.11a/b/g/draft-n, Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR (Class 1)
  • 59Wh lithium-ion battery
  • 335 x 250 x 48mm
  • 1627g
  • 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SP9300
  • 14.1in (1280 x 800) 16:10 matt LCD display
  • 6MB L2 cache
  • 1066MHz FSB
  • Windows Vista Business (with XP downgrade option)
  • 3GB DDR2-533 RAM, (expandable to 4GB)
  • 160GB hard drive (shock-mounted and removable)
  • DVD±RW DL Super Multi Drive
  • Intel GS45 chipset (GMA 4500MHD graphics controller)
  • stereo speakers
  • PC card type II x 1, SD/SDHC Card slot, 78-pin mini dock box replicator, headphones/speaker, microphone/line in
  • 3 x USB 2.0, gigabit Ethernet, 56K modem
  • 802.11a/b/g/draft-n, Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR (Class 1)
  • 59Wh lithium-ion battery
  • 335 x 250 x 48mm
  • 1627g

OUR VERDICT

The Panasonic CF-F8 Toughbook offers great performance in a challenging shell. If you can get used to the slightly cramped typing position, it’s a fine option for the business road warrior.

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