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January 24, 2008

Panasonic -- Still top of the heap?

We just finished taking another detailed look at an old acquaintance, a Toughbook from Panasonic. Now called the CF-30, it's a descendant of the original Toughbook that goes back many years and essentially created a whole new market. The way that came about was that a number of Japanese companies that had once dominated the US laptop market found it increasingly difficult to be profitable. At some point the US launched protectionary measures against TFT LCD panels, making them more expensive. And the Taiwanese were beginning to move in.

Panasonic's approach was to seek new ways and they decided to gamble on a niche they had discovered. As notebooks were increasingly used in the field, customers became unhappy with standard laptops breaking all the time. It really wasn't the laptops' fault. They were built to be used at home and in an office, and then being shuttled back and forth. But with companies now deploying them for all sorts of field applications, they just couldn't handle it. So Panasonic conceived the idea of notebooks that were as elegant and powerful as standard laptops, but a lot tougher. And they came up with the "Toughbook" moniker, which was brilliant.

For many years, Panasonic owned the market. It wasn't that they were so much better than the rest, but their products sure looked better, and they had giant Matsushita behind them, so there were plenty of resources and off-the-shelf components right inside the company. And they knew the importance of industrial design. Compared to the utilitarian-looking competition at the time, Panasonic's ruggedly handsome Toughbooks were simply in a league of their own.

Panasonic also did a terrific job working with the press. In the heydays of vertical market print publications, when we did Pen Computing Magazine, Panasonic's PR folks always made sure we were informed of every new product. They made review units available and just generally helped us in every way to get information and hands-on time with the units so that we could keep our readers informed. So we reviewed many Toughbooks, liked most and criticized some. Panasonic was always appreciative of feedback and apparently passed constructive criticism on to their engineers as the machines steadily improved.

But time does not stand still, and the only constant is change. The rest of the industry began catching up and Panasonic, as the market leader, had a bullseye on their back. They were everyone's target. All of a sudden, superb industrial design was no longer exclusively found at Panasonic. One look at currently available rugged and semi-rugged notebooks shows that it's a real race now, and one where Panasonic no longer automatically has an edge.

There are other issues. Relationships matter, and after many years of superb access to Panasonic through a couple of long-term PR people, things changed and it became next to impossible to get anything from Panasonic. Seemingly every contact with them was from a different PR person. So when we emailed one of them, s/he was already no longer with the company, or the PR firm had changed. Not good. Whoever we deal with does their best, of course, and sometimes things just cannot be helped.

Anyway, we finally did get another longer term hands-on with a Toughbook. As described in detail in our review on the site, the Toughbook CF-30 is almost unchanged. Which is really a good thing. After all those years, that particular platform -- the traditional full-size rugged notebook -- is as mature and perfected as it gets. And having talked to Matsushita's engineers and designers In Japan, and having seen the production facilities in Osaka and Kobe, I am not surprised at the extremely high level of execution, fit and finish. It's probably nearly impossible to meet Panasonic's sheer perfection when it comes to do wizardry with magnesium or applying the most eye-catching finish to it.

And Panasonic certainly keeps the machine technologically up-to-date. The one we reviewed had an Intel Core Duo processor, but by the time the review was over, in January 2008, Pana had already revved the machine again and it now has a Core 2 Duo and a few other enhancements, albeit not enough to change the name from CF-30 to CF-31 just yet.

Outdoor viewability is becoming ever more important, and there has been a lot of progress in that field. Our technology editor, Geoff Walker, is an expert in that field, and thanks to him we have a pretty good idea of the state-of-the-art. From what I can tell, and from what I have seen with my own eyes, Panasonic is not completely at the forefront with their outdoor displays, but they are close. No display is anywhere near perfect yet, but the progress that's been made is amazing, and current technology can only do so much against the sun.

But is the CF-30 still on top? That's hard to say. In terms of look and finish, it remains unsurpassed, but it is an aging platform. The touchpad was just plain unresponsive and certainly didn't make the machine easy to use. In the olden days, a quick call to our sources at Panasonic might have yielded an explanation as to why a particular type of touchpad was used, but these days the path of communication is longer. Fortunately, today's company websites contain so much information that grabbing a missing spec is usually just a lookup away, but, alas, as pretty and professional as Panasonics Toughbook website looks, it is a total bear to navigate and find anything. If it takes me several screens to actually find a product, something's wrong. And the confusing, inconsistent way Panasonic literature and online resources handle ruggedness specs is not doing them any favors. And Panasonic's "Legally we can't say...." campaign we're assaulted with in every airport or business magazine, well, the less said the better.

But what about other Panasonic products? Well, most are still there and more or less the same. I saw the prototype of the very compact CF-18 notebook convertible at Panasonic in Japan back in 2002, and we later reviewed the final product. It's almost six years later now, and the CF-18 is now the CF-19. Is it still the best? Maybe, maybe not. GETAC's V100 competes with it now, and when we reviewed that rather excellent machine we wondered whether Panasonic has kept up.

Don't get me wrong. The Panasonic CF-30 is an awesome machine. But the world has changed, and it's not clear to me if Panasonic has made all the right moves.

Posted by conradb212 at January 24, 2008 05:05 PM