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Let’s be real: The computers we use in our daily lives are too flimsy for seriously harsh environments like war zones or construction sites. For those who need machines that can survive those situations, Panasonic has the Toughbook range of rugged devices. The latest in the series — the Toughbook 33 — is a tablet that attaches to a keyboard, and it’s the most full-featured of its kind. Not only is it the "first fully rugged product" to use a 3:2 screen ratio for business applications (more on why that is important later), it also offers a comprehensive array of tools that will support workers in even the most extreme environments.
Panasonic touts the new 3:2 screen ratio as a very important benefit. With the height gained, people don’t need to scroll as much to get to crucial information that may be nearer the bottom of a page, such as an address, phone number or mission objectives. This saves precious time for those who are responding to urgent or emergency situations. During a recent demo, I found the 12-inch screen easy to read, although I wish it delivered punchier colors. Still, with a 2K resolution, it’s a perfectly functional display that Panasonic designed to be touch-responsive even when it’s wet or you’re wearing gloves.
I was concerned that the Toughbook 33’s dated, bulky design meant it was slower than the latest devices on the market, but its performance was on par when I used it to browse a few web pages or type some short sentences. That’s likely because it uses the newest (7th-gen) Intel Core i5 (or i7) processor with 8GB (or 16GB) of RAM and a 256GB (or 512GB) SSD for smooth multitasking, which is important when you’re dealing with critical situations or deadlines.
For work that is less time-sensitive (but just as important), the Toughbook 33 also offers plenty of helpful features. In addition to USB 3.0, microSD, HDMI, Ethernet, audio and nano-SIM ports, the tablet itself also has an optional serial socket. This lets operators connect to older devices like stop lights to run diagnostics or configuration programs. The Toughbook also has two cameras — an 8-megapixel one on the rear for onsite photography, and an infrared 1080p setup around the front that’s compatible with Windows Hello for secure and convenient logins — even in the dark.
You can choose to add one other slot to a bay at the top of the tablet, such as a fingerprint scanner, a barcode reader, another camera or an insertable smart card reader for secure credit-card scanning. There are also five physical buttons below the screen for volume control and accessing the home screen, as well as two that can be customized to launch apps or macro actions (such as repetitive automated tasks like adding a value to a new spreadsheet row). Panasonic also throws in a Wacom-made digitizer that stows away on the tablet, so you can mark up documents or scribble sketches on the go. And in case this exhaustive list wasn’t enough, there’s an SD card reader, HDMI port, VGA connection, Ethernet, serial port plus three more USB sockets on the companion keyboard.
At 3 pounds each, the keyboard and tablet weigh a whopping 6 pounds together. To make lugging that hefty combination easier, Panasonic built in a sturdy handle that you can pull out from the back of the hinge connecting the Toughbook 33 to its keyboard. I was able to comfortably tote the device by this handle for about a minute before my weak spindly arms started wobbling — it’s certainly not for the average consumer.
To keep all these tools working in harsh environments, the Toughbook is designed to meet MIL-STD-810G military standards for durability and is rated IP65 for water- and dust-resistance. The magnesium alloy body and rubbery elastomer edges certainly felt impenetrable when I played with it. Panasonic says it chose the magnesium alloy as it helps dissipate heat. Still, the Toughbook 33 uses a heat-piping system throughout the machine to keep it cool.
Under the protective case are slots for the two batteries that power the Toughbook 33, which can last for up to 10 hours altogether. The device will get energy from them simultaneously, switching seamlessly to the other pack when the first is depleted. Indicator lights will show when each is empty, so you can hot-swap it out without stopping what you’re working on.
At $4,099 for the tablet and keyboard, the Toughbook 33 is a big investment that Panasonic says its customers can expect to last between five and seven years. Its hefty price tag and footprint aren’t for everyone, but for those who need a two-in-one that can do it all in environments as extreme as war zones, the Toughbook 33 looks to be a capable and uncompromising device.