For the past few years, I've spent a couple hours or more every day working on a laptop computer. When it works, it's great, and when it doesn't, it's the pits. Almost everything you see in this magazine, both photos and text, has passed through a laptop on the way to your mailbox. I'm a frequent traveler, and a laptop gives me the portability I need.
Recently, I tried out a new Panasonic Toughbook laptop, the CF-W5. This little computer is one of the smallest in the Toughbook line and falls squarely in the category of ultra-portable. Weighing in at 2.9 lbs. and sporting a screen that measures all of 12 diagonally, the CF-W5 could easily be dismissed as a lightweight (no pun intended) and incapable of doing any real computing. That's definitely not the case.
When I spoke to the rep about trying out the unit, I told him I would not do an evaluation if they expected me to open the box, look at it, maybe run a few tests and then send it back. I wanted to live with the laptop for at least a couple months and really use it as my primary computer. I really wanted to give you the lowdown on whether this unit could serve those who need a small, lightweight machine. The company said, 10-4.
When the box arrived, I thought a mistake had been made because it was smaller and lighter than any shipping box containing a computer ought to be. I was surprised to open it up and find the computer, requisite books and AC charging cord all inside.
As I unpacked the computer, I was quickly impressed with the satin-silver finish, diminutive size and incredibly light weight. It almost begged to be grabbed by one hand or tucked under an arm for a quick trip or project. Sporting an all-magnesium case with a shock-mounted hard drive, the unit is extremely well built. The company claims a 100-kg pressure/vibration level and about a 12 drop test. Make no mistake, this is not a fully ruggedized computer like the Panasonic Toughbooks you find mounted in many patrol cars, but it is tough, and considering the size and minimal weight, it seems a great combination.
Because the computer is so small, I was concerned the keyboard would prove too cramped to type effectively. I was wrong. Somehow, Panasonic managed to pack in the full QWERTY portion of the keyboard with not even a millimeter of compromise. I found I could type just as effectively on this keyboard as on any laptop I d ever used, and almost as well as on a high-quality desktop-computer keyboard. The keys have a slight concave surface to help you maintain your place, and provide just enough travel to give you a tactile assurance you have actually made a keystroke. The stylish circular pointing device is centered below the keys, with a right and left button underneath the circle. I found it intuitive and responsive.
All right, what about the screen? Because it s so small, I just knew I d become visually challenged when I was working for long periods or, even more likely, when I was working on photos. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised. The screen is an XGA TFT with 1024x768 resolution (not widescreen format). The unit s resolution and brightness quickly overcame my concern and caused me to question whether I really needed a bigger screen.
The CF-W5 proved usable in virtually any lighting condition, from total darkness to all but the brightest daylight. Now, I don t want to mislead you daylight use is a whole different animal, and some manufacturers have totally given up on having a laptop that can work outdoors, even in the shade. The CF-W5, however, provides a display that, while lacking saturated color, is still readable in daylight. You can also choose to dim the unit s screen to very low, which helps to conserve battery power when the brightness is unnecessary.
I was absolutely blown away by the work time I could get out of this unit. I found my work routine totally changed. Instead of always making sure it was plugged in, I frequently just grabbed the unit and did a couple of hours work. Gone were the days of walking into a conference or meeting and hunting for a power source. I just brought in the CF-W5 and went to work. And the long battery life (up to eight hours) was an incredible asset on a cross-country flight. Also, when the traveler in front of me leaned their seat back, the computer s small size allowed me to continue working. This has not been the case with many other laptops.
In an effort to downsize and lighten ultra-portables, many manufacturers leave out an optical drive (CD or DVD), which presents a bit of a challenge in certain situations. Somehow, Panasonic managed to surgically insert a fully capable DVD/CD drive under the right side of the laptop. In fact, if you don t know it s there, you ll have a tough time finding it. Once I found it, I kept showing it to others because the design just seemed so ingenious and provided a high level of functionality considering the computer s small size.
If you ve had the experience of owning a new puppy and getting attention from others, you ll be able to relate to what happened when people saw the little Panasonic. I received lots of comments on the sleek appearance and looks of envy when I handed the unit over so the person could feel the weight.
As far as tech specs, the CF-W5 uses an Intel Single Core 1.2GHz chip, and this is a big reason why the unit can run for a full work day on a single charge. The unit comes standard with 512 MB of RAM, and you can expand it to a max of 1.5 GB. That s a little on the low side, and if you have your heart set on running the new Windows Vista OS and complex programs, you may find there isn t quite enough oomph to make everything go. That said, the CF-W5 seemed capable of handling most multi-tasking fairly effectively and was almost able to keep up with my Photoshop demands. The unit has an integrated graphics card, so you can forget high-end game playing, especially with the RAM limitation and the 1.2 GHz processor.
I put more than 300 hours on the unit using a Sprint EVDO Rev A card and loved it. (See Going Wireless with Cellular about the incredible capabilities of the new wireless EVDO cards, April 2007, p. 68.) When you pair the ultra-portability of the CF-W5 with the broadband capability of EVDO Rev A, you have the ultimate in a lightweight, always-connected solution. I was up and running in less than a minute in lots of places, including airports, trains and moving automobiles. I got spoiled quickly on this count.
I did find that sometimes the top of the unit (above where the wireless card is inserted) got uncomfortably warm, and I actually had to pull the card out a few times and let it cool down. This is probably a function of the wireless card rather than the computer. You can get the CF-W5 with a wireless card built into the unit, but this type of unit was not available to me to compare the two methods of connectivity. The integrated wireless should prevent the heat problem and also provide a higher reception sensitivity due to the placement of an antenna in the upper part of the computer.
The CF-W5 comes with built-in 802.11 wireless and has the requisite expansion capabilities (two USB ports, video out, full size PCMCIA slot, etc.) on the sides of the computer, not on the back. This is a great design and one that other laptop manufacturers would be wise to emulate. I hate having to go to the back of the unit to hook things up; it just doesn t work well. With the Toughbook, I was able to connect almost anything I needed quickly and easily. For wireless peripherals, though, the computer is lacking both Bluetooth and infrared.
An SD flash-card reader is available if you use a digital camera that takes this very common form of memory. Unfortunately, my camera uses Compact Flash, and I had to use an accessory USB card reader to get the images on the computer. It would have been nice to be able to plug in the CF card, but I guess you have to give up something to get the extra-small package.
Overall, the Panasonic CF-W5 Toughbook gets a double-thumbs up. It s perfect for a traveling investigator or supervisor who must make use of every possible minute of travel time. As long as you aren t doing complex graphics or trying to play the latest video game, you ll be very pleased and quickly find yourself not leaving home without it. I m really going to hate sending this thing back.
One Panasonic Way
Secausus, NJ 07094
Dale Stockton is the editor of Law Officer.