On June 23, 2014, Panasonic introduced a duo of fully-rugged 5-inch handheld tablets. The Windows Embedded 8.1 Handheld-based Toughpad FZ-E1 and the Android-based Toughpad FZ-X1 further expand Panasonic's lineup of rugged Toughpad tablets, with a choice of either Windows or Android in each size class.
While Panasonic calls the newcomers "handheld tablets," they are also the first Toughpads to offer optional voice connectivity (and even push-to-talk on specific if the chosen network offers the service). The 5-inch screen size puts them in the contemporary large smartphone class, but perusing these new Toughpads from all sides quickly shows that these are tough tools for tough jobs and not the sleek fashion statements consumer smartphones have become.
With a footprint of 6.5 x 3.4 inches, these 5-inchers are just barely pocketable, and they also weigh roughly a pound. That's a much as four iPhone 5s, and these Toughpads are also four times as thick as an iPhone 5. We just mention that to make sure everyone understands that Panasonic is not aiming at outdoorsy smartphones here — these are industrial-strength computing and communications tools.
Just how much tougher are they than your typical consumer smartphone? Pretty much infinitely tougher. Thanks to their ultra-rugged construction they can survive drops from up to ten feet to concrete and handle severe vibration, humidity, altitudes, extreme operating temperatures (-4° (thanks to a built-in heater) to 140°C), etc., and they are also totally dustproof and waterproof. No consumer smartphone comes close.
As far as technology specs go, Panasonic, like everyone else in the rugged handheld and tablet computing space, faced the difficult question of whether to offer Android or Windows. It's a vexing issue. While virtually all consumer smartphones, and the majority of consumer tablets, run iOS or Android, most rugged handhelds still run old versions of Windows CE or Windows Mobile, and most rugged tablets run Windows. So offering both Android and Windows versions makes sense, for now, despite the overhead of needing to support both. This is somewhat easier than with Panasonic's 7-inch and 10-inch tablets—where the Windows and Android versions differ greatly—as the FZ-E1/X1 both use almost identical hardware.
Of note here: Windows Embedded 8.1 Handheld is a new development that's incompatble with any of the older Windows Mobile/Windows Embedded Handheld OS versions, but fully compatible with Windows Phone 8.1, upon which it is built. We haven't had any experience with it so far, and only time will tell if it'll become the heir to Windows CE/Mobile or not.
For specs, both versions use a quad-core Qualcomm "Snapdragon" processor, the Windows E1 a 2.3GHz 800 Series and the Android X1 a 1.7GHz 600 Series, both plenty competent. All other specs seem identical: 2GB RAM and 32GB Flash plus what's in the micro SDXC card slot on the storage side. A sunlight-readable 5-inch screen with 1280 x 720 pixel resolution, anti-reflective treatment, and 10-point capacitive multi-touch. The latter, Panasonic says, works with any type of glove, and there's even a rain-sensing feature that allows for single-touch even in pouring rain. There are 8mp (rear) and 1.3mp (front) cameras, for communication and documentaton, as well as standard NFC and optional integrated 1D/2D barcode reading and attachable magnetic stripe reading. 801.11ac and Class 1 Bluetooth v4.0 make for speedy, contemporary WWLAN/WPAN connectivity, and there are dual SIMs for 4G LTE/3G/GPRS/CDMA2000 mobile broadband. Since voice calls can be trying in noisy outdoor/work settings, Panasonic added intelligent noice cancelling and powerful dual front speakers that can generate up to an amazing 100 decibels in volume.
While contemporary tablets generally have more than sufficient battery life, most consumer smartphones don't, and Panasonic wanted to make sure customers wouldn't have to worry about being stranded with a dead device. The FZ-E1/X1 battery packs 23.6 watt-hours — less than a full-size tablet, but much more than a consumer smartphone — which is good for up to 14 hours.
What's the price? That'd be US$1,799 for the WiFi-only version. Telephony and mobile broadband versions add US$50. That prices Panasonic's 5-inch Toughpads at well over twice the cost of an unsubsidized top-of-the-line consumer smartphone. That's the cost of smooth deployments, guaranteed ongoing support, longer lifespan, and likely an overall lower total cost of ownership.
With the FZ-E1 and FZ-X1, Panasonic now offers industrial-grade, "phablet"-size, telephony-capable data collection mobile computers that will fill a need in numerous enterprise and field deployments. And customers can decide whether they want Windows or Android.