Toughbook 31 has the brains to go with the brawn

The GCN Lab kicks the tires on the new Panasonic Toughbook 31 and finds a fully rugged laptop PC with the power of a good desktop.

The GCN Lab has reviewed a lot of rugged laptops over the years. In fact, we’ve probably looked at more than 50 different Panasonic Toughbooks since rugged testing began 10 years ago. Although we occasionally get to see completely new form factors, most of the Toughbooks are simply slight improvements over earlier models. The new Toughbook 31 is like that, too, but the improvements it makes are significant.

Panasonic is marketing the 31 as a type of desktop replacement, and we couldn’t agree more. Our test unit came with one of the new, smoking 2.53 GHz i5-540M chips from Intel. With its turbo boost feature, you can ratchet that up to 3.07 GHz when needed. But even just running normally, the i5 is an impressive chip for a laptop. It was able to score 1,061.4 on the Passmark Performance Test benchmarks, which is easily into the desktop performance level and approaching what we might expect from a low-end workstation.
Our test unit came with Microsoft Windows XP, which is a downgrade option Panasonic offers for government customers, over the standard Windows 7. That was probably a good move because a lot of applications that the military uses have not yet been upgraded to work with Windows 7. Plus XP takes up fewer system resources than Windows 7, as our extensive testing in previous reviews has shown. With a laptop this fast, it probably wouldn’t matter one way or the other, but the new 31 probably gets extra speed from the older operating system.

Panasonic Toughbook 31

Pros: Extremely good performance, fully mil-spec rugged.
Cons: USB port still too recessed for use with some peripherals.
Performance: A+
Ease of use: B
Features: A
Value: B
Price: $3,799

The processor performance is backed up by 2G of DDR3 RAM, which is expandable to 8G. Almost needless to say, the memory is no bottleneck to the 31’s performance.

The laptop is heavy compared to most others because it is so rugged. But even so, the 31 is lighter than expected. Our unit was 8.2 pounds. A lighter version with a smaller battery comes in at 7.9 pounds. But you should go with the full-size battery — the 31 lasted for 4 hours, 30 minutes in the most demanding conditions possible, with a movie playing on the hard drive. Screen brightness was set to 80 percent, and sound matched that level.

In our rugged tests, the 31 passed the Mil-Std 810G drop tests we conducted without getting a scratch on it. We dropped it from as high as six feet onto two inches of plywood sitting over concrete. The magnesium alloy case can take the punishment, and the silver coloring tends to reflect a lot of heat as well. The 31 spent several hours inside the GCN Lab's Rain Forest environment, where heat stays at 120 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity is close to 100 percent. It worked fine in those conditions.

On the surface, the main design change seems to be slight modifications to the port covers. You have to push them down now before you pull them back. It seems minor, but none of the ports popped open during our shock testing, which, although rare, did occur in tests of almost all previous Toughbook models.

One problem Panasonic did not fix was the deep well of the USB port. It’s so deep that many secure — and hence larger — flash drives and rugged portable storage devices simply won’t make a connection with the 31. There must be a way to make a USB port sit flush with, or at least close to, a computer’s case and still be rugged. As of yet, Panasonic engineers have been unable to crack that nut.

The new 31 maintains the blackout feature we tested before on Toughbooks, in which the system can quickly shut off its monitor, all port lights and even radio signals. It's perfect for stakeouts or secret military operations, and the 31 operates in complete radio silence or in the dark until the operator brings it back up, which can be done almost instantly.

The new Toughbook 31 is selling for $3,799, which is the full retail price. There does not seem to be a government price, but really, that is a lot less than we thought it would be. For a fully rugged laptop with desktop performance, you won’t find a better deal at the moment.

Panasonic, 888-223-1012,