The rugged Panasonic Toughbook 31 ($ 3,699) is a monster of a laptop, weighing in at 9 pounds and standing an intimidating 3 inches tall even with its lid closed. From its name to its stature, everything about it projects its extraordinary ability to repel damage, and it has the MIL-STD and waterproof certifications to back up its swagger. As sturdy as it is, some of the people who will actually use it in the field—first responders, military personnel, and the like—may be frustrated by a design that’s showing its age, lacking cutting-edge I/O and CPU options. If you need these, competing rugged laptops like the Dell Latitude 7424 Rugged Extreme are better choices.
Waterproof and Dustproof
If you hunt enough, you can find more than a few laptops and tablets on the market built to withstand bumps and bruises to various degrees. Corporate road warriors swear by many Lenovo ThinkPads’ and HP EliteBooks’ ability to take a beating in airport security lines, and even some sleek ultraportables feature unibody metal chassis that shrug off jolts and jostling.
But none of these is on the same planet as the Toughbook 31. Panasonic’s rugged laptop is certified to the MIL-STD 810G standard. It’s designed to survive a drop from a height of six feet, not to mention lesser shocks, vibration, freezing temperatures, and high humidity. The Toughbook 31 also has an IP65 rating, which means no dust or sand can get inside it, and it can withstand a jet of water sprayed out of a half-inch nozzle from any direction.
To help it achieve these ratings, the Toughbook 31’s chassis can be completely sealed, thanks to doors that cover all of the ports and openings on the edges. Although the doors are made of thick black plastic, most of the rest of the exterior, including the display lid, is clad in black and silver magnesium alloy. When you rap it with your knuckles, it gives a satisfying thud that evokes knocking on a thick piece of wood.
Inside, protective features include a shock-mounted removable cage for the solid-state drive, which is also heated to ensure that the SSD can operate in sub-freezing temperatures. There’s a replaceable film that covers and protects the 13.1-inch LCD display, which is touch-enabled but is impervious to pressure—no screen artifacts appeared when I applied considerable pressure with my fingers or knuckles.
Panasonic says it uses a third-party laboratory to verify the Toughbook 31’s rugged certifications, and I did not attempt to replicate all of the tests in PC Labs. I did spray it with water and drop it from a height of approximately six feet, however, and the laptop showed no damage and continued to function without problems.
There are two small potential drawbacks to the Toughbook 31’s reliability ratings. The IP65 certification does not include submersion in water, so while the machine is likely to survive driving rain, ocean spray, or a quick drop in a puddle, you shouldn’t expect it to survive a true flood or a scuba-diving excursion. And Panasonic does not include any form of accidental-damage protection as part of the three-year standard warranty. This is disappointing, but it’s relatively common, as Dell doesn’t offer this with its standard warranty for Latitude rugged laptops or tablets, either.
Panasonic does offer accidental-damage coverage for an additional charge, and it’s possible that companies buying several Toughbooks could negotiate this coverage at a discount. As for the laptop itself, several Toughbook authorized resellers offer negotiated discounts on the $ 3,699 purchase price, so make sure to do your homework before you buy.
The model we reviewed is the $ 3,699 base version, with an Intel Core i5 processor, 16GB of memory, and a 256GB SSD. An upgraded version sports a Core i7 processor and doubles the RAM and storage. Both models disappointingly use 7th Generation Core processors, putting them at a slight disadvantage against the 8th Generation CPUs in the Dell Latitude 7424 Rugged Extreme and Latitude 5424 Rugged machines. This results in a noticeable performance hit under some scenarios, as you’ll see in the performance section below.
As a consolation prize for IT departments, both CPUs support Intel’s vPro remote-management features. Panasonic says that while it was designing and testing the current Toughbook generation, the 7th Generation Core processors were the only ones available with vPro support.
Open the Door, Reveal the Port
Along the right edge of the PC Labs tester unit, you’ll find the power port, a USB 3.0 port, a USB 2.0 port, an Ethernet jack, an HDMI video output, and the access door for the drive enclosure. Each port is hidden behind a locking door, and the slide-out drive enclosure has an additional two-step locking process to prevent you from opening it by accident.
There are no ports along the left edge, which instead sports a gigantic access door for the DVD burner installed in our test unit, as well as the full-size SD card reader. While it’s nice that Panasonic offers an optical drive that can read and write DVDs for people who still use them, most buyers will probably want to configure this bay with the optional second battery instead. It’s worth noting that during our drop test, the optical drive bay’s door popped open. It was the only one to do so, and the drive remained undamaged. Next to this bay is another, smaller bay that houses the removable primary battery, an 87-watt-hour cell.
Along the rear edge, you’ll find another large bay door that hides two more USB 2.0 ports, a VGA output, separate 3.5mm audio outputs and inputs, and an 80-pin docking connector. The docking port has its own sliding doggie door that lets you connect to a dock (like one installed on a police cruiser’s dashboard) without opening the main rear bay door. In a smaller bay to the right, still on the rear edge, is a nine-pin serial port.
I appreciate that Panasonic offers all of these legacy connectors for customers who need them, but I also wish the company would ditch a USB 2.0 port or two and include at least one USB Type-C port with Thunderbolt 3 support, or at least the option for one. The lack of these options would be inexcusable on a mainstream laptop that costs more than $ 3,000, but here you’re mainly paying for the Toughbook’s invincibility, so the missing ports aren’t as big of a problem. Still, it’s worth noting that the Latitude 7424 Rugged Extreme and the Latitude 5424 Rugged have graduated to USB Type-C.
Standard wireless connections include 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1. The Toughbook 31 can be configured with an optional 4G LTE modem that works with Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint, though I can’t see this being useful in truly remote areas. There’s also an optional dedicated U-Blox GPS, complete with jamming and spoofing detection, which could be far more useful for soldiers in the desert or jungle. A switch to kill the wireless radios is mounted behind the optical drive access door.
Grab and Go
On the front edge is a large pop-out carrying handle with the same silver finish as the display lid. Next to it is a slider for powering the laptop on or off. The handle includes a built-in garage for the included passive stylus.
You open the display lid using the sturdy latch above the handle to reveal the display, the keyboard, and the touchpad. In the theme of many of the Toughbook 31’s other legacy features, the screen is a 13.1-inch XGA display with a low native resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels and a resistive touch sensor instead of a capacitive one. It looks positively retro compared with the full HD (1080p) and 4K displays with capacitive multi-touch support on most modern consumer laptops.
But this stodgy front hides some unique features, including an astonishingly bright 1,200-nit backlight that makes the screen viewable in direct sunlight despite the protective film and the anti-reflective, polarized, and anti-glare finish applied to the screen. Colors and text look fuzzy and washed out, but at least you can see them outdoors.
The backlit keyboard is sturdy, if a bit cramped. The function keys offer quick taps to display the battery-charge level (F9), as well as trigger sleep and hibernation modes (F10 and F7).
The touchpad is extremely cramped—just a tiny square mounted in the middle of the palm rest. My large pointer finger can barely move the cursor across a quarter of the screen before I reach the touchpad’s edge. I actually recommend using the stylus instead of a finger to control the touchpad, since it’s pressure-sensitive instead of capacitive and works the same with nearly any object touching it. In fact, in wet conditions, my finger barely works at all, while the stylus has no problems moving the cursor.
Sounds from the single speaker at the front edge of the Toughbook 31 are plenty loud enough to hear on a windy day, though there’s virtually no bass to speak of and vocals sound quite muddy.
CPU Shows Its Age
The Toughbook 31 offered perfectly adequate computing performance for basic tasks during the few days I spent with it. I quickly installed apps and browsed the web without issue. I found myself far more limited by the tiny touchpad than I did by any onscreen sluggishness.
The results of our all-encompassing PCMark productivity and storage benchmark tests corroborate my experience. The similarly configured Latitude 5424 and Lenovo ThinkPad L390 Yoga offered comparable scores to the Toughbook 31 on the PCMark 10 general test, which assesses performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing and web browsing, and on the PCMark 8 storage test, which we use to assess the speed of the storage subsystem.
The Latitude 7424 includes a more capable Core i7, so it unsurprisingly performed better on the PCMark 10 benchmark.
When it comes to specialized multimedia tests, though, the 7th Generation Core i5-7300U shows its disadvantage against the newer Core i5-8350U and Core i5-8265U in its Dell and Lenovo competitors. The Toughbook 31 was significantly slower than the Latitude 5424 at rendering a 3D image in Cinebench and applying a series of filters and effects to an image in Adobe Photoshop.
How important this disadvantage is varies widely with how you intend to use the Toughbook 31. If you need to manipulate lots of data from remote sensors in the field, it could be significant. If you just need to display a nautical chart or look up a license plate number in a police database, it probably won’t matter as much.
Graphics performance from the Toughbook’s Intel HD 620 integrated graphics, on the other hand, is not measurably worse than that of the Latitude 5424 or the ThinkPad L390. None of these can compare to even a modest discrete GPU like the one in the Latitude 7424, however. The latter scored 49 frames per second in the Unigine Superposition video game simulation at 720p resolution, compared with 20fps or less for the Toughbook, the Latitude 5424, and the ThinkPad L390 Yoga. Realistically, gaming is at the bottom of the Panasonic’s priorities, so this isn’t a deal-breaker.
I appreciated that even while running these resource-intensive benchmarks, the Toughbook 31’s cooling system was barely audible. I could hear a faint whooshing when I held my ear to the fan exhaust on the left edge, but the system was otherwise silent.
Last up: battery testing. At more than 16 hours in our battery rundown test, which involves looping a locally stored 720p video file in airplane mode with screen brightness at 50 percent, the Toughbook 31 far outlasted its competitors…
That’s partly thanks to its large battery, and especially impressive given its extra-bright screen. (The fact that the screen is so low-resolution, however, certainly helps.) Opt for the second battery bay and get a third battery ready to swap in just in case, and you’ve got a system that will last for multiple days of use in the field, even well off the power grid.
A Beastly Laptop
The Toughbook 31 is a formidable laptop that will shrug off pretty much anything Mother Nature can throw at it, save for complete submersion in water. It offers many standard and optional features that factory-floor and field operatives need, from a removable battery to an exceptionally bright display. It lacks basic modern features such as USB-C and an up-to-date processor, however, which limits it to routine computing tasks.
For many users, this arrangement is perfectly adequate. But remember that if you need more computing power, other rugged laptops and tablets, like those in Dell’s Latitude Rugged series, offer it. Even in the rough-and-rarefied territory of MIL-STD 810G and IP65, don’t forget to shop around.