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Panasonic Toughbook goes ultraportable

New ToughBook W7 notebook acts tough but is it a computing workhorse?

Panasonic’s ToughBook line consists of mobile computing workhorses. Its ultraportable model, the ToughBook W7, is, however, a quarterhorse dragging a too-heavy cart.

The W7 has a couple of nice design choices: The DVD+RW drive loads from the top of the laptop, under a palm rest, making quick disc swaps easy to perform even in tight spaces–so no side-ejecting trays will bop your plane-seat neighbor. While the W7 lacks the Webcam and fingerprint scanner you’ll find on many business-minded notebooks these days, it does stack on just about everything else.

Three USB ports, an SDHC card slot, a PC Card slot, and a VGA output port sprout from its edges. This particular model also has built-in Wireless WAN support. Unlike with Sony’s VAIO VGN-TZ295N, you aren’t locked into a single wireless data plan. You can specify whether you want to use EvDO over Sprint or Verizon, or HSDPA over AT&T’s network. The only thing we missed: FireWire.

The notebook’s keyboard is supposed to be resistant to spills of up to 6 ounces, so go on–guzzle that tall cappuccino with one hand and type with the other.

Unfortunately, the W7’s durability comes at a sacrifice in performance. The ToughBook slogs along with a 1.06-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo U7500 CPU and 2GB of RAM, earning a WorldBench 6 score of 52. However, it stayed alive for 6.5 hours before running the battery down, or about two hours longer than the average for the ultraportables we’ve tested. The message these results tell me is that this machine was built for simple single-minded tasks–data entry, for example–but in more hostile climates than your average office.

The keyboard’s spacing is certainly comfortable enough, but the keys are more than a little more slippery to the touch. The W7 has a circular touchpad, which seems like a neat idea, but it doesn’t work well. Perhaps it would if the buttons were spaced farther apart around the wheel–or just widened. I often found that my fingers got jammed by the hinges of the top-loading DVD tray.

One major deficiency compared with other notebooks, even ultraportables: The screen’s maximum resolution is a measly 1024 by 768 pixels, so we often had to squint. It also doesn’t help that the display looks relatively dim until you crank it back to a full recliner-worthy 135-degree angle.

There are plenty of good ideas at work, here–not to mention plenty of features that make the ToughBook tough to beat outdoors. But when you hunker down and actually get to work, it may take you a little longer to get things done than you’d like.