Panasonic’s Toughbook laptops, which range from ‘business ruggedised’ through ‘semi-rugged’ and up to ‘fully rugged’, are known for their ability to withstand a range of challenging conditions. The Toughbook CF-33 belongs to the latter category, and is a bulky, heavy 12-inch 2-in-1 hybrid with a detachable screen. It’s not cheap, starting at £2,627 (ex. VAT), but it sure is tough.
When Panasonic announced the Toughbook CF-33 back in February, it was described as “the world’s first 3:2 aspect ratio, fully rugged 2-in-1 detachable laptop”. Packing a detachable screen into a rugged chassis makes for a cumbersome device, but there’s no doubt it will be suitable for some use cases.
With standard twin batteries installed, the tablet/keyboard combo weighs 2.76kg (6.1lb), while the detached tablet weighs 1.53kg (3.4lb) — testament to just how much ruggedness has been built into this 2-in-1 system. The magnesium chassis is very solid, and both the keyboard and screen sections have all-round rubberised edge protection. Panasonic says the Toughbook CF-33 will withstand drops from 120cm (4 feet), complies with MIL-STD-810G and MIL-STD-461F, and is IP65-certified for dust and water ingress (it’s ‘dust tight’ and can withstand ‘water jets’).
The weight is fairly evenly distributed between tablet and base, and even quite vigorous prodding of the touchscreen didn’t cause the whole unit to topple backwards. This is a big plus point: often we find that 2-in-1 systems are unbalanced, with more weight in the tablet than the base.
The docking mechanism comprises two large nubs on the keyboard section, which slot into holes on the tablet unit. These nubs sit in a tray whose sides ride a couple of centimetres up the tablet’s short edges. A double-action locking mechanism — comprising both a lock and a release catch — holds the screen firmly in place.
There’s a carry handle on the back of the chassis. Even this is bulky and adds to the weight, but it’s designed for utility not for looks, and gloved hands should be able to grasp it well. It tidies away flush to the back of the laptop when not in use.
It should be clear from the weight and description of rugged features that the Toughbook CF-33 is much larger than your average 12-inch laptop. It has a sizeable footprint of 313mm wide by 288mm deep (12.3 inches x 11.4 inches), but the most noticeable aspect is its 46mm (1.8 inches) height.
The screen is a 12-inch, 2,160-by-1,440 IPS panel whose brightness goes up to an impressive 1,200 nits. You’ll want to operate well below 100 percent in the office, but the screen is very readable outdoors with brightness turned up to maximum. It’s a 10-finger capacitive multi-touch screen that can be used with gloved hands.
There’s a stylus sitting in a hollowed-out housing on the right edge of the screen, held in place by a clever locking system with a hinged panel that slides out a little to allow access. It’s possibly the smartest solution I’ve come across for on-device stylus storage; pop-out systems aren’t always long-term robust.
The keyboard’s red backlight might be jarring for some, but it’s the colour preferred by military and other users, helping to preserve night vision. There is plenty of travel, the keys feel solid and are large enough to use with gloved hands. The only real niggle is the relatively small spacebar, which is only 3.5 keys long. I had a habit of missing it, which reduced my touch typing speed a little.
Unfortunately the trackpad is much less satisfactory: it’s small and awkward to use, and requires pressure to function successfully — light-touch use is not an option. I wonder how large hands in thick gloves will cope with it. Not well, I suspect.
There are two power connectors, one on the tablet and one on the base, which independently charge hot-swappable batteries housed in each section. Between them, the pair of standard 1,990mAh batteries deliver 10 hours of life, according to Panasonic. They are hot swappable, and are easily accessed via a hinged panel on the back of the tablet. There is an optional upgrade to longer-life 4,120mAh batteries, which double the claimed battery life (and also slightly increase the system’s thickness and weight). Using the Toughbook CF-33 for mainstream productivity workloads during the test period, I found that the standard battery configuration would deliver a full working day of use.
There are a couple of configuration options. If you need to run Windows 7, you’ll need to take an OS downgrade and settle for 6th-generation Intel Core i5-6300U and Core i7-6600U processors. For Windows 10 Pro users, the options are 7th-generation Intel Core i5-7300U and i7-7600U processors. RAM options are 8GB or 16GB of RAM, while SSD storage comes in 256GB or 512GB capacities.
Ports and connectors are ranged around the tablet and keyboard sections, in most cases protected by hinged covers with a two-factor unlock mechanism. First the cover slides, and then it hinges outwards to reveal the connector. Sliding the covers can prove tricky, especially for gloved hands, but they do provide a good seal.
The tablet section carries USB 3.0, MicroSD, full-size HDMI, Ethernet and 3.5mm audio in/out. The keyboard section has a further two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card reader, full sized HDMI, Ethernet and two blasts from the past — a VGA port and a serial port.
The tablet also has a couple of programmable buttons on the front, plus an 8-megapixel rear camera and a 1080p front-facing camera.
Because the Toughbook CF-33 is aimed at multiple vertical markets there are alternative options for ports and connectors (although no USB-C), plus a range of docks for both the hybrid laptop and the tablet alone. You can also get an additional base battery, a four-battery charger unit and a second, less rugged, keyboard option called the ‘Lite’ keyboard.
Panasonic has taken on the challenge of producing a fully rugged detachable 2-in-1 laptop and come up with a no-compromise solution. The Toughbook CF-33 is a bulky, heavy and robust 12-inch system that can be configured with up-to-date processors and plenty of memory, while still offering legacy connectors if needed.
Usability is generally good, although it’s let down by a lacklustre trackpad. Still, the Toughbook CF-33 is the king of rugged 2-in-1 laptops right now.
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