Laptop computers are generally fragile, but Panasonic’s Toughbook CF-AX2 takes the Ultrabook concept and makes it capable of surviving more than just the most basic of drops, making it ideal for people who are tough on their gear.
Built to survive, Panasonic’s CF-AX2 Toughbook isn’t your ordinary Ultrabook. It’s thin and light, but designed differently, to take a beating from the world, or a clumsy owner if the case may be.
That said, it still needs to be a computer, and a usable one at that, so to make that happen, Panasonic has included many of the specs you’d expect to find in an Ultrabook, except in a machine that can take a beating.
There’s an Intel Core i5 processor here, taken from the third-generation processors also known as “Ivy Bridge” and clocked at 1.8GHz, working alongside Intel HD 4000 graphics, 4GB RAM, and a 128GB solid-state drive.
You’ll find all of this sits under a 11.6 inch touchscreen display, running the resolution of 1366×768, and sitting in a frame that still has a Windows button sitting dead centre at the top.
There are ports aplenty on the Toughbook, with so many options that are normally missed on Ultrabooks. As such, expect to find wired Ethernet, VGA monitor, SD card slot, microphone, headphone, two USB 3.0, and an HDMI port, as well as a Kensington lock that has been built into the metal frame of the machine. Good luck stealing this thing when it’s held in place with a Kensington lock.
Two batteries also arrive on the Toughbook CF-AX2, one built in and the other removable.
The Toughbook CF-AX2 also employs a rather interesting design whereby a different type of perpendicular hinge is used, making it possible to push the screen so that it not only lies completely flat, but that it wraps around the back of the computer and keyboard section, effectively turning it into a tablet on one side with a keyboard on the other (when used in this mode, the keyboard deactivates).
A few buttons exist on the outside of the computer to help in this mode, with volume buttons and a rotation lock, while a wireless switch allows you to quickly turn wireless connections on and off.
If you think about a durable machine, you might automatically assume the product has to be heavy, built with lots of thick pieces of metal or with large protrusions of rubber to stop anything from breaking when the product falls. If you think this way, though, and then look at Panasonic’s 11.6 inch Toughbook, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Pick up the CF-AX2 and you’ll be surprised at the weight: it’s just so light, and very well balanced. There’s plastic surrounding a metal casing and overall, it just feels complete.
We’re told the machine weighs 1.15 kilograms, which isn’t much more than the lightest Ultrabook we’ve felt yet, the LG Z940, but altogether, Panasonic has crafted a super well-weighted machine.
In fact, the design and balance of the CF-AX2 are so good, it’s easy to consider this Toughbook a work of art.
And then you drop it.
And it doesn’t break.
That’s the first thing you learn about Panasonic’s Toughbook series, and it can make for a fun way to scare people, since this is one computer that can take most of what you can throw its way.
Unlike other heavier Panasonic Toughbooks, there is no water resistance here, but the drop proofing is such that a fall from just over half a metre won’t dent the laptop at all. Try doing that with another Ultrabook (actually don’t, because disaster will ensue).
Moving past the incredible build quality, Panasonic’s take on the convertible is one of the best we’ve seen, incorporating a double hinge that makes the machine work in both a traditional laptop design — screen sitting perpendicular to the keyboard and computer innards — as well as letting the screen fold backwards and ignore the keyboard altogether, functioning at this point like an 11 inch tablet.
It’s an intriguing concept, and one we wish more laptop makers supported, as it not only means the screen can lay completely flat, but also that the touchscreen on the AX2 can turn into an 11 inch tablet with gestures control in a heartbeat.
Be careful of your fingers, though, as the double hinge has the tendency to nick the flesh of your digits as your flipping the screen around.
Switch the screen back into the traditional computer design, though, and you can get stuck into performance, which isn’t the best you’ll see these days, thanks to the use of one of the Intel third-generation Core i5 processors, also known as Ivy Bridge.
Before Intel’s fourth-generation “Haswell” processors came along, the choice of a third-generation Intel Core i5 clocked at 1.8GHz wouldn’t have been a bad bet. It’s still not, mind you, but with newer chips that run cooler with better battery optimisation and less fan use, it’s just not as fantastic as the latest and greatest Intel processor.
That said, Panasonic has paired it with 4GB RAM and a 128GB solid-state drive, and for the most part, software we ran seemed to fly with no apparent problems, and multitasking ran without slow downs. The system does have the tendency to get a little loud, that said, with the fan switching on even when nothing is happening.
You may have some issues waking the computer up, that said, as a simple keystroke doesn’t always bring it back to life, so try two, or better yet, the glowing power switch on the side, which always seems to work.
The keyboard, though, is one area that definitely needs improvement.
The keys feel clunky and rubbery as you press them down, the travel is extremely shallow, and overall the entire keyboard experience is just one closer to that of typing on a cheap rubber keyboard.
It’s not helped by the strange placement of some of the keys, and while this is a small laptop with an understandably small keyboard, important keys like control and shift are all very small, too small comparatively, with the right shift noticeably broken up by an oddly placed directional pad.
If you’re reliant on the right shift key, this bizarrely placed set of directional keys will bug you, pressing the “up” key instead of the “shift,” and our typing experience was littered with errors that weren’t helped by this design.
At least the mouse isn’t poorly made, and you’ll find a large trackpad at your disposal, with gestures supported, and two obvious buttons underneath for left and right click. A third button sits in the middle, and while you might think this is the middle click, it’s not, acting as a trackpad disable, so try not to get it confused or your mouse will become temporarily inactive.
Panasonic’s battery also could do with some work, as it only seems to have a maximum of three hours.
Granted, you’re paying for the durability here, so don’t expect the MacBook Air of battery life. That said, three hours is nothing, and in transit, you’re going to want to keep that power pack with you at all times.
According to our Panasonic, we had two batteries in our CF-AX2 unit — one fixed and one removable — and that equated to a maximum of three hours, with all of that spent while writing, web surfing, and checking emails. If you feel the need to get more done on your laptop, expect the battery life in this model to drop very quickly.
Oh, and there’s the screen, which is very flat and lacking in contrast.
Viewing angles for the panel Panasonic has equipped the CF-AX2 Toughbook with are poor — very poor — and make us wonder why a computer with a recommended retail price over two grand has been designed with what is so obviously a Twisted Nematic (TN) panel.
For those playing at home, a TN panel is generally easy to spot, providing terrible vertical angles that wash out colour quickly, requiring you to position yourself and the screen at a specific angle or risk the colours looking weak.
The resolution on offer is certainly decent enough, sitting at the high definition res of 1366×768, but it could be better, and we yearn for a sharper Full HD screen. Maybe next time.
To Panasonic’s credit, it is at least a touchscreen, which makes Windows 8.1 much, much easier to use, and even works as a touchscreen computer without the keyboard when the screen is folded over, thanks to Panasonic’s ingenious convertible tablet design.
Just make sure you position the screen at the angle you need it when it’s folded like a laptop, though, otherwise you’ll be left with washed out colours across the board.
Make no mistake: the form factor, design, and durability are what you’re paying for in Panasonic’s CF-AX2 Toughbook, a machine that will happily survive several falls down the stairs (yes, we tried) and quite a few more crashes to the hard, hard ground.
While the screen, battery, and keyboard all all a touch underwhelming for the package, the build quality is superb, resulting in a machine that isn’t just durable, but is also insanely light and easy to carry with you.
We’ll happily acknowledge that Panasonic has built a brilliantly durable computer here, but it’s one that will take some getting used to.