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Panasonic Toughbook 54

Panasonic's slender, semi-rugged business notebook for mobile professionals gets a mild overhaul under the hood
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)

On June 30, 2016, Panasonic introduced an upgrade to its Toughbook 54, a semi-rugged notebook that emphasizes light weight and a slim profile while providing good performance with a 6th generation Intel Core i5 processors as well as very good battery life (up to 18 hours with two batteries). The upgraded Toughbook 54 is designed to a highly portable tool for mobile professionals who need durability beyond what a standard consumer laptop can offer.

The Toughbook 54 is the successor to a whole series of prior semi-rugged Toughbooks — starting with the venerable Toughbook 51, then the 52 and 53 — all meant to provide lighter and more affordable alternatives to Panasonic's big and heavy fully rugged models while still offering robust construction and durability. Over the years, the Toughbook 5x Series has gone this way and that, responding to consumer demand for ultra-high resolution and other display options, early conversion to wide-format displays, focus on high performance, etc.

With the Toughbook 54, Panasonic resolutely placed the emphasis on paring down excess weight and giving its semi-rugged a sleek and slender profile. That's because it may be okay for rugged industrial gear to be on the bulky side, but smartphone and tablet toting mobile professionals want it thin and light these days. So the basic 14-inch Toughbook 54 weighs just 4.2 pounds, down 25% compared to the starting weight of the older Toughbook 53. And yet, it remains a Toughbook through and through, magnesium alloy construction with integrated carry handle and all.

How did Panasonic pull this weight loss regimen off? A look into the engine department provides a clue. Essentially by switching from standard voltage 35 watt TDP chips in the older Toughbook 53 to ultra-low voltage 15 watt Thermal Design Power processors. That meant a much lower power draw and therefore considerably less heat. Which means the Toughbook 54 can do with less cooling and a smaller battery battery. And that makes for less weight and a slimmer profile. There.

Did the switch from standard to ultra-low voltage CPUs affect performance? Probably a little (Panasonic never submitted a Toughbook 54 for testing). The initial Toughbook 54 came with an Intel Core i5-5300U chip running at 2.3GHz and maxing out at 2.9GHz. Despite the smaller available batteries (34.8 and 46.6 watt-hours vs 48.6 and 72.9 watt-hours in the older Toughbook 53), Panasonic claimed better battery life for the 54 than for the 53. The June 2016 upgrade switched to a 6th generation Core processor with a base clock speed of 2.4GHz and turbo frequencies up to 3.0GHz. The 6th gen Skylake microarchitecture uses a new design compared to the 5th gen Broadwell, and also new integrated graphics, but remains at the same 14nm process technology.

In order to meet the wide variety of customer requirements, Panasonic offers the new Toughbook 54 in four different models — Lite, Prime, Gloved Multi Touch, and Performance. Here are the primary differences between the four models:

Toughbook 54 Model Lite Prime Gloved Performance
Std/Max RAM 4-16GB 4-16GB 4-16GB 8-16GB
Display resolution 1366 x 768 1366 x 768 1920 x 1080 1920 x 1080
Direct bonded IPS No No Yes Yes
Discrete Graphics No No No Yes
Touch No No Yes No
1,000 nit luminance No No Yes No
Weight 4.2 lbs. 4.4 lbs. 4.6 lbs. 4.6 lbs.
Std. HD speed 5400rpm 7200rpm 7200rpm 7200rpm
Opt. 2nd drive No Yes Yes Yes
Battery 34.8 whr 46.6 whr 46.6 whr 46.6 whr
Battery life 9 hrs. 11 hrs. 11 hrs. 11 hrs.
Optional Core i7 no yes yes yes
True RS232 port No Yes Yes Yes
Dual fan No No No Yes
Opt. web camera No Yes Yes Yes
Height 1.2" 1.2" 1.2" 1.4"

In addition to the four different models, customers may also specify 256, 512, or 1024GB solid state disks, or a 1TB hard drive. The unit's media bay can accommodate a DVD Super Multi Drive, a second battery, or a PC Card slot. And customers may opt for either dedicated u-blox GPS or a 4th USB port or a rugged Fischer USB connector ora 2nd RJ45 LAN port. Performance model customers may opt for AMD Firepro M5100 discrete graphics (which we wish would have been upgraded, too).

Standard I/O remains generous, consisting of three USB 3.0 ports, HDMI, RJ45 LAN, docking, audio in/out, a true RS232 serial DB9 connector (except on the Lite version), and a SDXC Card slot of the UHS-II variety, meaning it has an Ultra High Speed (UHS) bus with a theoretical data transfer rate up to 156 MB/s.

Below you can see what the backside and the right of the laptop look like, with protective doors open:

On the wireless front, there is 802.11a/b/g/n/ac WiFi (now of the Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 8260 variety), Bluetooth 4.1 and Intel Wireless Display capability. Optional gear includes integrated 4G LTE multi carrier mobile broadband with satellite GPS, dedicated u-blox GPS, contactless SmartCard/NFC reader, and a high-gain antenna pass-through.

As a semi-rugged machine, the Panasonic 54 has a spill and dust-resistant case, keyboard, touchpad and screen. Panasonic claims the machine passes nine MIL-STD-810G tests (drop, shock, vibration, dust, altitude, high/low temperature, thermal shock, and humidity). Initial data sheets don't go into ruggedness specifics other than stating the machine can survive 3 foot drops. That is very respectable for such a light machine, and significantly better than your garden-variety consumer laptop.

As for pricing, a base Toughbook 54 starts at US$1,499, with higher-end and specially equipped models going for considerably more. That is reasonable, albeit US$150 more than the starting price of the Toughbook's primary competition, the recently introduced and more modern Getac S410. As is, the Toughbook 54 remains a competent and remarkably light semi-rugged notebook. -- Conrad H. Blickenstorfer, June 2016

Specs Panasonic Toughbook 54
Added/changed Added 06/2016
Type Semi-rugged notebook computer
Processor Intel Core i6-6300U
Processor speed 2.4GHz (3.0GHz turbo)
OS Microsoft Windows 10 Pro with Windows 7 Professional downgrade option
Chipset Integrated
Graphics Integrated Intel HD Graphics 520; additional AMD FirePro M5100 in Performance model
Standard/Max RAM 4GB to 16GB DDR3L 1,600MHz
Disk/drive Shock-mounted flex-connect 500GB 5400rpm or 7200rpm HDD; optional 256/512/1024GB SSD, hard drive heater, 1TB 7200rpm HDD
Card slots 1 x SDXC Card UHS-II, optional PC Card Type II (takes up media bay)
Media Bay DVD drive or 2nd battery or PC Card slot
Display type Transmissive IPS LCD with LED backlight, anti-reflective and anti-glare treatment, direct bonding (FHD displays)
Display size/res 14.0" 1,366 x 768 pixel or 14" 1920 x 1080 pixel or gloved multi-touch 1920 x 1080 (1,000 nits)
Digitizer/pens Optional gloved multi-touch screen with 1,000 nits FHD display
Keyboard/scale Integrated 87-key, 100%-scale, electrostatic touchpad with multi touch support, optional backlit emissive keyboard backlight
Housing Magnesium alloy
Operating Temp MIL-STD-810G tested
Altitude MIL-STD-810G tested
Vibration MIL-STD-810G tested
Humidity MIL-STD-810G tested
Sealing IP5x dust-protected design, spill-resistant keyboard and touchpad
Shock 3-foot drops
Size (WxHxD) 13.6 x 10.7 x 1.2 inches
Weight 4.2 to 4.6 pounds
Power 10.8V 3,220mAH battery ("9 hours") or 11.1V 4,200mAH battery ("11 hours"), optional 11.1V 2,960mAH 2nd battery
Camera Optional 1080p webcam and mic
Interface 3 x USB 3.0, 1 x HDMI, 1 x Gigabit RJ45, docking, audio in/out; optional VGA, optional 1 x RS232, optional USB 2.0 or Rugged Fischer USB or 2nd Gigabit RJ45 or dedicated uBlox GPS
Security Kensington lock slot, TPM 1.2, Computrace in BIOS, optional: fingerprint reader, insertable SmartCard reader, 13.56MHz contactless SmartCard/NFC reader
Wireless Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 8260 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Class I Bluetooth v4.1, optional: 4G LTE w/ AGPS, dedicated u-blox NEO M8N, high-gain antenna
List price Starting around US$1,499
Website Panasonic
Product page Toughbook 54
Brochure Toughbook 54
Warranty 3-year limited warranty, parts and labor
Panasonic Toughbook 54