Best Panasonic Toughbook

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Panasonic’s Toughbook 55 rugged laptop has an ingenious modular design, making it possible to remove and replace most of its key components in seconds. It’s got a startlingly bright display, a built-in stylus, and a cutting-edge CPU, too. It’s also quite durable, tested to survive 3-foot drops, water spray, and some dust ingress. It lacks ultimate rugged bragging rights, though. Panasonic refers to it as “semi-rugged,” and its tougher Toughbook 31 cousin can withstand higher drops (from 6 feet) and a direct hit from a water cannon. Still, unless you need this extreme level of protection and are willing to make sacrifices to get it, the versatile, advanced Toughbook 55 (starts at $2,099; $2,499 as tested) is a better laptop, and earns our Editors’ Choice award.

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With so many thin, light, and sturdy laptops on the market, it might seem hard to justify buying a “true” rugged one like the Toughbook 55. With a 4.6-pound weight and a thickness of 1.3 inches, it dwarfs most other laptops that share its 14-inch screen size, many of which can also withstand everyday accidents like a splash of water or a fall from a coffee table. Its IP53 rating isn’t particularly impressive—even mainstream smartphones like the Google Pixel 3 have higher waterproof ratings. (IP68 is common among flagship phones, signifying the ability to survive complete submersion in more than 3 feet of water.) But the Toughbook 55 can do one thing that most of these other devices cannot: transform into entirely new configurations with minimal effort.

A large portion of the Toughbook’s 13.6-by-10.7-inch base is made up of bays that can accept a dizzying array of modules—everything from RFID readers to Blu-ray drives. Panasonic loaned us a total of nine individual modules to test out, in addition to the modules that are installed in the Toughbook 55’s entry-level configuration. Even the keyboard can be swapped out, though doing so does require a screwdriver. This is truly a flexible machine.

Most of the module bays have quick-release sliding locks that, when released, let you pop out the module and swap in a new one. This includes the storage drive and the primary battery bay. Others, like the rear expansion area and the GPU bay (yes, there’s even a swappable graphics card module!) have screws in addition to quick-release levers that keep their components more securely in place. Even these bays are easy to access, however. I replaced the placeholder module in the GPU slot with the GPU module (based on the AMD Radeon Pro WX 4150) that Panasonic supplied, booted the Toughbook 55, and saw the GPU was already enabled in Windows Device Manager.

 

I especially like how the SSD module is located in its own dedicated, easily accessible bay on the bottom of the Toughbook 55. The ability to remove the boot drive can improve data security, allowing you to store the drive in a separate location from the laptop.

All of these modules come at an additional cost, of course, which will vary depending on where you buy them. And since they’re specific to this laptop, upgrades using third-party components will be unlikely—expect to install Panasonic’s modules or nothing. At current list prices, which in most cases are quite high, a second 512GB SSD is $400, the GPU module is $700, a second battery is $150, the fingerprint reader is $125, and the Blu-ray optical drive is $400.

Some other rugged laptops have basic degrees of on-the-fly configurability. The Toughbook 31, for one, can accept up to two hot-swappable batteries secured with quick-release sliders, or an optical drive instead of the second battery. The Dell Latitude 5424 and Latitude 7424 also feature dual removable batteries, and all three of these laptops can be configured with alternative connectivity options installed at the factory, such as legacy VGA ports or GPS receivers. But none of them can match the range of post-purchase swappable component options that the Toughbook 55 offers.

 

This nifty configurability comes in addition to hallmark Toughbook features, such as its bottom docking-slot that’s compatible with police-cruiser mounts, the extendable carrying handle built into the front edge of the laptop, and the signature silver magnesium-alloy case. Also on board: MIL-STD 810H certification for resisting vibration and to ensure safe operation at extreme altitudes and temperatures.

A Cutting-Edge Toughbook

Besides its swappable bays, the Toughbook 55 also brings significant performance and compatibility improvements to the Toughbook line, which often remains several generations behind the cutting edge. Unlike the Toughbook 31, which uses older 7th Generation Intel processors, the Toughbook 55 offers far more capable and efficient 8th Generation “Whiskey Lake” Core i5 or Core i7 processors. It’s also the first Toughbook to offer a USB Type-C port, an HDMI video output, and Bluetooth 5.0. These are all common on most mainstream consumer laptops, so it’s nice to see them join the Toughbook line.

PROS

  • Super-bright display, suited for outdoors use.
  • Relatively thin and light for a rugged laptop.
  • Components are easy to swap out.
  • Built-in stylus holder.
  • Long battery life.

CONS

  • A step down in ruggedization from other Toughbooks.
  • Swap-in modules may be pricey.

The refreshed Panasonic Toughbook 55 MK2 is now available direct through Panasonic and associated resellers like MooringTech and GovDirect. It replaces the original 2019 Toughbook 55 (MK1), although all the existing accessories, mounts, chargers, and batteries are fully compatible between the two.

Pricing begins around $2,000 depending on volume purchases and configuration choices. The Toughbook 55 can be configured with various processors, optional 4G, dedicated GPS, touch or non-touch display, RAM (16GB to 32GB), and storage (up to 2TB).

Special orders can be made for Toughbook 55s with no cameras and no wireless connectivity (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth) for security concerns.

Panasonic Toughbook 55 MK2: What you’ll like

The Panasonic Toughbook 55 MK2 is classified as a semi-rugged laptop. The new MK2 model effectively makes it an excellent consumer Ultrabook but built for professional field use. The target audience is police, fire, EMT, military, government, and utility, although anyone can buy one for personal use.

Being semi-rugged means being MIL-STD 810H compliant for short drops (3 feet), salt fog, temperature shock, etc., and being IP53 certified. IP53 means the Toughbook 55 is “dust and splash-proof,” primarily because the ports (ingresses) have covers. The keyboard is also spill-resistant, the display is recessed for impact protection, and the chassis is a rugged magnesium alloy.

While the MK2 version is identical to the 2019 MK1 model externally, the hardware has been refreshed to make it faster and better than before (it’s also better suited for the optional Windows 11 upgrade).

Here’s what’s new for 2021:

  • 11th Gen i5 and i7 vPro CPUs (up from 8th Gen)
  • Intel Iris Xe graphics (up from UHD)
  • 512GB to 2TB NVMe SSD (doubled max size, faster read/write)
  • 16GB to 32GB DDR4 3200MHz RAM (doubled std size, 1.5x faster)
  • Wi-Fi 6 (up from Wi-Fi 5)
  • Bluetooth 5.1 (up from BT 5.0)
  • Thunderbolt 4 (up from Type-C 3.1)
  • USB-A 10Gbps (up from 5Gbps)

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