If you're missing the UltraBay and field serviceability of the ThinkPad W-series, but need higher than average-durability, the ToughBook 55 may be a good fit.
Panasonic's Toughbook series is not mass-market consumer hardware. It's practically the only brand-name portable PC available stateside that really embraces being thicker than the average consumer-targeted system, gaining a fair bit of durability in the exchange. The new Toughbook 55 comes with an IP53 certification, which is largely durable enough for most adverse environments, but without feeling overbuilt.
For comparison, the mid-2019 MacBook Pro is 0.61 inches (15.5 mm) thick, and for better or worse, Apple products are the benchmark for the PC OEM industry, despite their own fragility. Even the ThinkPad, which is considered by enthusiasts to be the "professional business notebook" standard bearer, has increasingly relied on soldering RAM and SSDs to the motherboard to stay competitive with MacBook systems.
The semi-ruggedized ToughBook 55 is not a tank in the way that the ToughBook systems, like the 31, are built. Though it lacks the TrackPoint and visual cues that follow in David Hill's footsteps, it brings a refreshing utilitarianism to the notebook PC market reminiscent of the W-series ThinkPad, with ample expandability.
Panasonic Toughbook 55 specifications
CPU: Intel Core i5-8365U 1.6GHz vPro (Turbo Boost up to 4.1GHz), Intel Core i7 (optional)
Display: 14.0" HD (112 PPI); opt. FHD touch 1000 nit (157 PPI); special order FHD non-touch 1000 nit (157 PPI)
GPU: Intel UHD 620; Optional AMD Radeon Pro WX 4150
RAM: 8 (as tested) up to 64 GB DDR4 user-upgradeable
Primary SSD: 256 GB (as tested), 512 GB (standard), up to 1 TB M.2 2280
Secondary SSD: 512 GB - 1 TB M.2 2280
Optical Drive: Optional (DVD or Blu-ray)
Webcam & Microphone: 1080p IR with privacy cover, x4 (tetra-array microphone)
Speaker: Stereo, up to 92 dB
Ports: USB Type-A x2 (3.1 Gen 1), optional 3rd USB 3.1 Gen 1, USB Type-C x1 (3.1 Gen 1) with optional PD, HDMI 2.0 x1, VGA optional, RS-232 optional, Gigabit Ethernet x1 (optional 2nd)
Networking: Intel Wireless-AC 9560 (up to 1.7 Gbps), Bluetooth 5.0 (Class 1), 4G LTE (EM7511 Band 14), Optional GPS (u-blox M8N)
Size: 10.7" x 13.6" x 1.3", 4.6 lbs (non-touch model).
Design and hardware
Every minute detail of the Toughbook 55 feels solid, there is clearly thought given to every part of the experience—the lid opens with a latch that pushes in, which is a much more pleasant experience compared to a vintage laptop with a slide-to-open latch. There's a lot here that makes the ToughBook 55 feel slightly like an artifact from a parallel universe where the modularity and durability from light business notebooks continued to be iterated and improved, rather than discarded in a quest for thinness.
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The top lid is silver, with black accents. The screen hinge is perhaps the strongest I've ever seen on a notebook. Even when picking up the laptop and shaking it while opened, the screen does not move from the angle at which it is opened. Panasonic calls it "the thinnest and lightest laptop in its class," which is likely the case, though the number of ruggedized systems out there is not particularly high.
The ToughBook 55 includes a substantial amount of expansion potential, with two SO-DIMM RAM slots behind a screwed-down access panel, while the primary SSD is inside an enclosure that actually pops out with a latch. The SSD is a standard M.2 2280 SSD, though Panasonic used SATA SSDs on the primary SSD and expansion SSD provided for this review. Given the premium pricing Panasonic is asking for parts, seeing a full-featured NVMe SSD here would be more encouraging. The two SSDs can be configured as a RAID-1 volume.
The system can be expanded with proprietary expansions called xPAKs. The expansion SSD fits in a bay that owners of other laptops would fondly remember as the Ultrabay—the slot can be outfitted with either an SSD, a DVD or Blu-ray burner, or an AMD GPU. The expansions are effectively proprietary, though I popped open the SSD attachment and found nothing more than a bridge for an M.2 2280 SSD, there's nothing to stop buyers from swapping their own SSD into the enclosure. These expansions can be secured with screws to prevent inadvertent removal.
Likewise, there are options for batteries and expansion bays—the Toughbook can be configured with one 20-hour (on 150-nits brightness and no LTE) battery, with an optional card reader, contactless card reader, fingerprint reader, or secondary 20-hour battery. This is slightly excessive—mainstream systems include fingerprint readers in touchpads (or power buttons) with NFC possible to integrate into the case. A swappable card reader makes sense, as having an open card slot is easy enough for debris to enter, making a component swap easier in the event of failure.
There is yet another expansion port accessible from the rear of the system, with three available expansion options, an I/O board that offers VGA (D-Sub 15) and Serial (RS-232) connections, as well as an Fischer USB port, effectively two legacy connectors and one extremely specific connector used in military and aviation settings. It's niche, though if you have actual need for these ports, it prevents needing USB dongles to attach devices. Other expansions options include an additional USB-A or Ethernet port in place of the Fischer USB port.
Keyboard and screen
The keyboard is solid, and provides good travel, though the individual shape of the keys is peculiar. A Panasonic representative notes that this is "designed to reduce the chance of mis-strokes [compared to] traditional square keys." This doesn't take any getting used to while typing, but as a visual cue, it gives the system unique character. The F11 key is colored red, and isolated with a plastic guard preventing keypresses. The keyboard is modular and user-replaceable, and for some reason RGB-backlit (across the board, not per-key). The touchpad is generously sized, with two discrete mouse buttons, counteracting the trend of having single surface. Standard keyboard indicators are above the keyboard, with status LEDs for disk and SD card activity included as well.
ZDNet's Tiernan Ray dumped coffee on his review unit, and it continued to work after that, though stopped powering on after a weekend of coffee—some of the liquid got onto the motherboard. Rather than attempt to shake out the coffee from an accidental spill (as users typically would do) the coffee was allowed to settle, seemingly damaging the mainboard. While Panasonic only touts it being able to withstand water (and Panasonic has published a promo video for that), it's probably hasty to declare it Not Safe For Starbucks.
The screen is rated for up to 1000-nits brightness, and includes a touchscreen on select models. It's a decently solid 14" 1080p panel, and is sufficiently nice enough to work outside. There's a stylus stored on the right side of the system, which feels a bit more secure than magnetically-attached options from other vendors.
Software, performance, and battery
The ToughBook 55 comes with Windows 10, which is still Windows 10, through and through. (Cue complaints about OEMs being obliged to ship Candy Crush Saga on business systems.) There's not much in the way of vendor add-ons, though Panasonic's OEM software allows for configuring the keyboard backlight and creating recovery media.
The system performs admirably well, for being powered by a Core i5 from Intel's 8th generation "Whiskey Lake" revision, which has partial hardware mitigations against Spectre/Meltdown, but relies partially on microcode patches. (There's no equivalent 15W CPU in Intel's 9th generation, and design lead times are too long for Panasonic to ship 10th generation CPUs, which are also slightly constrained in availability.)
|Test Name||Intel GPU||AMD GPU|
|Digital Content Creation||3050||4182|
There's a modest increase in desktop performance when using the AMD GPU, though the performance improvements that provides for desktop productivity are a bit muted. If you're doing something graphics-intensive such as CAD, it makes sense, though if you're just looking to do some light gaming after hours, picking up a Nintendo Switch and a handful of games is cheaper than the $700 asking price for the AMD Radeon Pro WX 4150. There's something to be said for miniaturization, though that pricing is in top-of-the-line GeForce RTX 2080 or Radeon Vega 56 territory.
The 1080p webcam is quite capable, with the integrated shutter a welcome addition. Multiple people have commented positively on the performance of the camera and microphone in contrast to the 2018 Macbook Air and ThinkPad w550s which I typically use for video calls. The speakers are adequate—they do not distort significantly when cranked up to the max, and they are rated for 92 dB, though they are significantly tinny.
The battery life is good—absent a particularly scientific test, I'm able to get a full day of use out of it without running particularly low on battery, even with brightness at around 90%.
The xPAK components essentially worked on insertion, with the fingerprint reader xPAK working out-of-the-box natively with Windows Hello. The GPU required a driver installation on first use.
From a usability standpoint, the Toughbook 55 is impressive. There is a lot it does well, and can be easily expanded to meet the needs of the user. The hardware is clearly high quality, and is likely to stand up to above-average amounts of abuse, as long as you do not drown it in coffee.
There's a modest price premium compared to less-rugged business notebooks, though after-sales service is a factor. The standard model with a 512GB SSD is $2,099, with the LTE-enabled (including Band 14) version priced at $2,349. Likewise, the Toughbook 55 comes with a three-year warranty, with Panasonic footing the bill for round-trip overnight freight for in-warranty repairs. Further, Panasonic touts a 48-hour turnaround for repairs. This level of service, if purchased with systems from other OEMs, quickly brings the price up to parity.
SEE: 16 top laptops for business users in 2019 (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
The estimated prices of the xPAKs undermine the utility of the expandability, somewhat. For the smaller xPAKs, a $100 price point for the SmartCard xPAKs are reasonable, as is $150 for a 69000 mWh battery. $125 for fingerprint authentication is slightly high. The larger xPAKs pricing is peculiar. It's easy to point to the existence of USB-connected DVD drives and say $100 is too much to ask for a DVD drive xPAK, when brand-name USB DVD drives go for $20-30, and Apple's USB SuperDrive is $70. Panasonic's DVD drive is quite substantial, and I'm more confident in the durability of that drive (and I've broken name-brand disc drives from overuse, recently.)
On the high end, $400 for a Blu-ray drive is excessive. Likewise, $400 for a 512 GB SATA SSD is unjustifiable—even considering the bill of materials for the enclosure, a Samsung 970 Pro M.2 NVMe SSD (which is superior to the SATA-linked Samsung OEM drive Panasonic shipped) is $160, less than half of Panasonic's pricing. Even Apple's pricing for storage is not this steep.
The prices are estimates—depending on your negotiation skills and deployment size, you could squeeze your channel partner for some savings. That said, if your pockets are sufficiently deep, and if you have a need for ruggedized software, or if you have a pattern of breaking notebooks, the purchase is an easy decision. Otherwise, it might be a bit overbuilt.
For more, check out TechRepublic's review of the Dell Latitude 7400 2-in-1.
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