Introduction, Design Features
Panasonic’s CF-33 is a detachable 2-in-1 whose screen separates from its keyboard to change from a laptop to a tablet. It offers a choice of Intel Core i5 or Core i7 power and a 12-inch display with a 3:2 aspect ratio, instead of most notebooks’ wider 16:9. In these areas, it resembles Microsoft’s Surface Pro.
Yeah, right: In the same way a brick wall resembles a paper towel.
You see, the CF-33 is better known by the name Toughbook 33. It’s one of Panasonic’s fully rugged portables, sold mostly through specialized dealers to specialized users in government, vertical enterprises, and law enforcement. In the latter case, you often see Toughbooks mounted in police-car dashboard docks—the 33 is compatible with Toughbook 31 docking solutions, and Panasonic says one advantage of the 3:2 screen aspect ratio is that it causes less interference with airbag deployment. (It also ensures you can see more of a given screen at a time vertically, which means less screen-swiping while driving.)
Such customers shrug off what civilians would call steep prices—our Core i5 test unit, equipped with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB solid-state drive, and bundled with Panasonic’s Premium Keyboard, lists for a $4,099 MSRP, with reseller prices in the $3,600s—because the Toughbook shrugs off abuse that would turn civilian laptops into plastic shards.
It’s not actually bulletproof or submersible, but repeated four-foot drops onto its bottom, sides, and corners didn’t faze it. (We tried, really we did.) Nor did putting it in the kitchen sink and spraying it with water. Nor did leaving it in the freezer for an hour. (Okay, that one did cause it to display a “Warming up the system” message for a minute before booting into Windows 10 Pro.)
The touch screen has three modes: one for regular use, one for use with wet hands or with rain on the display, and one for use with gloves. The display is three times as bright as most laptops’ (1,200 nits) for easy reading in sunlight outdoors.
If you’re a business traveler worried about the bumps and jolts of overhead compartments or the risk of a coffee spill on the keyboard, the Panasonic is expensive overkill. It would certainly get you some side-eye looks on an airplane tray table. But if your work takes you into the field or onto the shop floor, the Toughbook 33 goes where other detachables fear to tread.
Its magnesium-alloy case and plastic bumpers make the Toughbook 33 a study in silver and black—a big, fat study, with the tablet alone measuring 0.85×12.1×9.6 inches and weighing 3.4 pounds. With the Premium Keyboard closed in laptop mode, the system measures 1.8×12.3×11.4 inches and weighs 6.1 pounds.
Surprisingly, the Toughbook 33 doesn’t often feel like a burden to carry; the shorter aspect ratio makes it easier to tuck the slate into the crook of an arm, and the keyboard base has a hefty pull-out handle. That handle, when extended behind the notebook on your desk, also helps keep the top-heavy bundle from tipping backward, which it’s prone to do in your lap.
A big bumper surrounds the broad bezel surrounding the 12.0-inch touch screen. A Windows Hello-compatible Webcam is centered above the display; a handy row of buttons beneath it serve to launch a settings utility and the onscreen keyboard, adjust screen brightness, and turn auto-rotate on and off. The ones labeled “A1” and “A2” can also be used as customizable shortcut/launch buttons.
The back of the tablet features, along with a footlocker-style alloy plate with Panasonic and Toughbook logos, an 8-megapixel autofocus camera with an LED flash and a latch that lets you lift a flap to access the two hot-swappable 22WHr batteries…
It’s possible to get the Toughbook 33 with a pair of higher-spec batteries, but you need to do this at the time of purchase, as these batteries are thicker than the 22WHr ones and thus require a backplate with a bulge to accommodate them.
Speaking of latches, the tablet’s ports are all hidden behind sliding doors that protect them from the elements when not in use. On the left edge, you’ll find an Ethernet jack, USB 3.0 and HDMI ports, a MicroSD card slot, and an audio jack.
On the right are a connector for the bulky AC adapter and a nifty holder that pops out at a slight angle, then retracts, to let you stash the Panasonic’s stylus pen.
Docking the slate with the Premium Keyboard approximately doubles its connectivity. On the keyboard’s left side are a duplicate power connector; a full-size SD card slot; and HDMI, VGA, and USB 2.0 ports. On the right are two USB 3.0 ports, an Ethernet port, and a serial port. The keyboard also has a 90-degree pivoting latch to secure the tablet or lid when closed.
To detach the tablet from the keyboard, you push down a small lever, then pull a latch and lift the tablet free. Pushing the tablet back into place takes considerable force, but it can be done either in conventional laptop mode or backward, with the screen facing away from the keyboard, to match the easel-style “stand mode” of Lenovo Yoga-type convertible 2-in-1 models.
The Toughbook 33’s onboard cameras are average performers. A Webcam image was pleasingly light or well exposed despite a dim, cloudy day, but fine details were hazy. Shots taken with the 8-megapixel camera were sharper, but colors were muted. (We still think people who hold up tablets to take photos are dorks, but we’ll keep that opinion to ourselves the next time we’re pulled over on the turnpike by a state trooper wielding a Toughbook 33 tablet.)
Sound through the tablet’s speakers was somewhat muted, as well. Our MP3’s sounded good, with crisp harmonies and accurate instrumentals (though bass was predictably absent), but the audio didn’t fill a room even with the volume cranked up to 100. This Toughbook may thrive in wet or dusty environments, but it won’t make itself heard in noisy ones.
Issues we normally report in laptop reviews, such as whether there’s any give or flex when grasping the screen corners or pressing keys in the middle of the keyboard tray, are laughably irrelevant to the Toughbook 33. Sheetrock wishes it were this solid. That said, we were pleasantly surprised by the Premium Keyboard’s typing feel, which has adequate travel and snappy feedback, and mostly pleased by its layout, which makes room for two things we like—inverted-T cursor arrows and dedicated Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys—although we stumbled over the lack of a right Ctrl key. (Insert and Delete keys occupy that space.)
We were less appreciative of our test unit’s touch pad, which was not only small but seemed programmed for excessive palm rejection—it required quite a hard push, not the usual light gliding motion, to move the cursor. Similarly, it ignored most of our taps, so we resorted to clicking its buttons, which at least felt solid and responded surely.
The touch pad of the Slim Keyboard (an accessory with a street price of around $300 for those who buy the tablet separately) proved slightly better, but similarly awkward when trying to make short, precise movements. The Slim Keyboard reduces the ensemble’s weight from 6.1 to 4.8 pounds. It has the same layout and typing feel as the Premium unit, but no carrying handle and no ports—the one we received had Ethernet- and USB-shaped cutouts but no circuitry. (Custom orders from Panasonic can get you a different mix of ports, per your needs.) It can’t be docked backwards as the Premium Keyboard can, and will tip over if you try opening the laptop beyond 90 or 100 degrees. Our understanding is that it’s mostly for vehicle mounting; we certainly wouldn’t recommend it for laptop duty.
The Toughbook’s screen is a sensation. It offers a 2,160×1,440-pixel native resolution, so details are sharper than sharp; contrast is high, viewing angles are broad, and colors are poster-paint fresh. We kept it at 60 or 70 percent brightness for everyday use, but we couldn’t resist cranking it up to full brightness at least once a day to enjoy inky blacks on washday whites or to take it outdoors for reading in sunshine. Depending on how you hold the tablet, of course, you can’t read it with sun reflecting directly on it, but at all other angles, it refuses to wash out. We feel sorry for cops looking at dispatch apps and APBs on it, when we got to enjoy it with a fun array of YouTube videos.