Panasonic ToughBook T4 Review (pics, specs)

by Slappy Reads (45,746)

by Jonathan Esten

Introduction

The Panasonic ToughBook T4 notebook computer is part of the semi-rugged line of Toughbooks; the line that includes the W4 recently reviewed by this site. The T4 is a fraternal twin of the W4 — the more business-oriented twin. With a 12.1″ 4:3 aspect screen (as opposed to the W4′s widescreen), no disc drive, and a claimed battery life of 9+ hours, the Panasonic Toughbook T4 is aimed squarely at serious business use. Let’s see if it delivers.


Panasonic T4 (view large image)

Features

  • Intel Pentium M Processor ULV 753:
    • Processor speed 1.20GHz
    • 2MB L2 cache
    • 400MHz FSB
  •  40 GB Hard Drive
  • 512 MB Ram, expandable to 1 GB
  • 12.1″ 1024 x 768 XGA anti-glare TFT Active Matrix Color LCD with Touchscreen
  • PC Card Type II slot
  • Secure Digital (SD) Card slot
  • Intel PRO/Wireless 2915ABG network connection 802.11a/b/g
  • Lithium Ion Battery Pack (11.1V, 7.65mAh)
  • Microsoft Windows XP Professional SP2
  • Standard 3 year warranty

Dimensions:

  • 1.1″/2.7″ (H) x 10.6″ (W) x 8.3″ (D)
  • 3.4 lbs.

Aesthetics

If it is important to you to have a pretty notebook, then this isn’t the notebook for you. Many people who saw it during my review period thought it was cool because of its size, its battery life, its low weight, or its features, but nobody thought it was pretty. The Toughbook T4′s tough construction makes it blocky, and any slim chance that remained that the T4 would be attractive was killed when they glued a beige plastic stylus holder to the lid.

AC adapter bricks aren’t exactly sexy, either. This small, low-power computer comes with a small adapter that’s easy to toss in your bag or even a large jacket pocket. I have to give Panasonic credit for making some attempt at cord management, supplying a Velcro strip attached to the power cord that connects to the computer. It isn’t great, like the rubber straps on Dell adapters, but at least they give us SOMETHING to work with. [Hint, hint, every manufacturer out there! These little things can be pretty important!]

Build and Construction

Since this is a Toughbook, let’s see how tough the T4 really is. As part of the “semi-rugged” line, you shouldn’t take this computer swimming, rock climbing, or on deployment with your Special Ops squad. Civilians in normal business life will rarely put their computers in such severe situations, and the T4 is built to handle anything “normal life” could dish out… and then some.

The case is advertised as entirely made of a magnesium alloy, and that alloy is some very sturdy stuff. I did not go gently on this machine over the three weeks used for this evaluation, as will be revealed in my tests of the other “Tough” aspects of the T4, but the case received my toughest (pardon the pun) scrutiny. I repeatedly dropped the machine from a height of about 2.5 feet, my guess of the average height the computer would be from the floor when pinched in a person’s hand like a paperback novel. Despite being dropped from this height twice each onto a hardwood floor, pile carpet, tile, a concrete sidewalk, rough parking lot asphalt, and once on the nasty industrial carpeting at my law school (the only accidental drop of the bunch), the T4 still works flawlessly and shows no marks. There’s a small black dot on the cover that was there when I received the computer, perhaps from a previous user’s carelessness with a Sharpie pen, but otherwise the computer could pass for brand new.

With all that said about dropping the T4 more often over the course of three weeks than most of us would drop our computers over a lifetime, it goes without saying that stuffing the T4 loose in a bag full of case books and other odds and ends, including the T4′s pointy-plugged power brick, had no effect. What would amount to abuse with any consumer notebook doesn’t shake the Toughbook at all.


Back side view Panasonic T4 on top of HP dv4000 15.4″ screen notebook (view large image)


Panasonic T4 upside down on top of HP dv4000 15.4″ screen notebook (view large image)


Top view of T4 (view large image)


T4 left side view on top of dv4000 (view large image)


Lid view of T4 (view large image)


Left side view of ToughBook T4 with screen open (view large image)

The all-alloy claim does give me a slight pause, though. The chassis may be entirely made of magnesium alloy, but there are still some vulnerable places on the closed notebook. The battery is not encased in alloy, but plastic. The covers for the RAM compartment and HD compartment are also plastic. I didn’t want to owe somebody a bunch of money, so I didn’t test this theory, but I would guess a drop onto a hard corner, such as a desk corner or a rock on the aforementioned sidewalk or parking lot, would do some serious damage to these plastic pieces. It is only “semi-rugged” and not part of the ber-rugged line, so an impact like that seems like an unlikely freak accident. The cost of enshrouding the battery in metal might be too high, but I’d like to see the plastic covers for the RAM and HD compartments replaced with magnesium alloy plates. On a premium-priced notebook, such cost-cutting measures seem incongruous.

Many notebook screens bear the marks of their keyboards. The T4 won’t have this problem for a couple of reasons. First, there is a protective film on the screen, but not even the film will ever end up touching the keys. Around the edges of the screen, Panasonic has placed nice thick rubber pads to hold the screen off of the rest of the chassis. You’re not going to mar the screen on the keyboard by stacking books on top of the T4, either; the case is just too sturdy. “How sturdy?” Panasonic rates the computer up to 100 kg. That’s about 220 pounds at sea level, and that’s a lot of weight to put on top of your computer. I weigh about 180, and you’re not going to catch me standing on my computer very often!

I stood on this one, though. Look at the pictures — do you see a big dent in the cover? Nope. Enough said.

I pressed on the back of the screen with all my might and couldn’t cause a ripple — not surprising, given how thick the lid is. There is above-average space between the cover and the screen, so you would have to push that tough magnesium alloy in pretty far to come close to the back of the screen. The hinges are metal and rock-solid. Since it is a Toughbook, I even did a test that shouldn’t be done on any powered-on LCD. I grabbed the top corners and pushed them, hard, in opposite directions. Not even this torture caused ripples, but it did cause noticeable distortion while the screen was bent. After I released the corners, though, the screen sprang back into shape and appeared perfectly happy to go about our business. And speaking of the screen…

Screen

Panasonic’s Toughbooks have a reputation for notoriously dim screens. I have heard several people say that the dim screen was the deal-breaker for previous models — the dark, near-useless screen decided them against a Toughbook when all the other features fit their needs to a “T”. Personally, I believe that Panasonic made a huge mistake and only hired engineers, product testers, and quality-assurance workers with extremely light sensitive eyes. My television is also a Panasonic, and it barely goes up to “bright enough” for me, where every other HD TV I’ve seen can be adjusted to a brightness akin to a solar flare.


Screen set to brightest (view large image)


Screen set to dimmest (view large image)

With the T4, Panasonic has definitely taken a step in the right direction. The matte screen is a 12.1-inch “classic” aspect screen, as opposed to a 16:9 or 16:10 widescreen. There is no glossy (BrightView, brilliant, etc.) option, but at least the screen is not too dim to use in a room with fluorescent lighting as the old screens were.

I’m not saying that the screen could ever qualify as “bright.” Rather, I’d say that it is bright enough for business use, the use it was designed for. For comparison, I set my HP dv4000 with its 15.4″ glossy screen next to the T4. With both running on battery at maximum brightness, the comparison looked like this:


T4 compared to dv4000 (view large image)


T4 compared to dv4000 (view large image)

Due to the exposure time of the camera, the difference is not as noticeable in the pictures as it is to the eye. The shot in the lit room shows a noticeable difference in the brightness levels, and it is even more noticeable still in person.

The important thing to take away from this comparison is not that the screen is dimmer than the excellent screen HP provided me. What readers should take away from this is that, finally, Panasonic has given the Toughbook a screen that goes up to “bright enough.” Anywhere but direct sunlight, the T4 is absolutely useable without super-human eyes.

One final thing to note is that the screen comes with a pre-installed, replaceable, plastic screen protector. This transparent sheet is unnoticeable when the screen is on, and you have to really look for the edges in order to find it when the screen is turned off. The screen protector reminds me of the aftermarket protectors available for Palm and Windows CE handhelds. Since handhelds use a touch-screen interface, a replaceable protector is an essential to my mind, and I always wondered why they weren’t stock. Thankfully, the protective film is stock on the T4, because the T4 also has a touch screen — and a darn fine one, as I’ll go into when we talk about the usability of this small wonder.

Keyboard


Keyboard view (view large image)

Like all ultra-portable notebooks, the Toughbook T4 comes with a non-standard keyboard. The T4 keyboard has 83 keys in a layout very different from your classic desktop keyboard. The eccentricities of this set-up take some getting used to, and there were a few I couldn’t fully adjust to at all. Despite the small size, the key travel is very good, almost as far as a standard notebook. I did notice some light flex in the very corner at the top left of the keyboard, but the main typing area and the other corners are all flex-free. This keyboard will really take a beating.

The main QWERTY keys are about 90% normal size, and I was able to completely adjust to the slightly smaller main keys in two days. Some functions that usually have dedicated keys, such as “Page Up” and “Page Down”, are relegated to secondary functions. For example, in order to “Page Up” you have to hold the “Fn” (function) key and press the up arrow.

I’m not going to knock the T4 for the smaller keys or for leaving some keys off — that’s the nature of the ultra-portable beast. A 12.1-inch notebook is not large enough for a full-sized keyboard, period. Panasonic’s choices of what keys to sacrifice, in whole or in part, deserve some closer scrutiny.

Many are the complaints about the infamous, tiny space bar. Personally, I didn’t have a problem with it because I’m left handed — I space with my left thumb 97.4% of the time. For right-thumb-spacers, though, life isn’t so good. Without some serious right-thumb-reaching, righties will hit the far right edge of the spacebar at best. You’ll hit the Alt key dead-center at worst, because that’s right where my right thumb hovers in standard touch-typing position. Right? Right.

Speaking of that Alt key, why is it there? As I mentioned, the small form factor mandates that some keys be sacrificed. For example, the only Ctrl key is on the left — the right Ctrl key of a standard keyboard is gone. Why not ditch the second Alt key as well, and increase the size of that little spacebar?

Personally, I have problems with all the keys on the bottom row to the right of the spacebar. The aforementioned second Alt key is superfluous, and the others are either so seldom-used that they should be relegated to secondary function-key status or so far from where they are usually placed that I didn’t use them on this keyboard. I’ve never used the menu key on any keyboard, for example. The delete key, while commonly used, is in such a non-standard place that I could never get used to reaching down there for it. I just move my cursor (by poking the right spot on the convenient touch screen) and backspace.

The real bane of my existence in this area of the keyboard, though, was the insert (Ins) key. Since the keys are small, sometimes I would brush the “Ins” key when I typed a period, the key directly above it. Since that switches Microsoft Word to typing over what you’ve already written instead of inserting new text, these accidental key presses had negative consequences in my class notes. To my mind, the “Ins” key is so seldom used that it should be out of the way, as it is on a normal keyboard.

Other keys that usually lie in the top-right corner of a standard keyboard deserve mention. The “Home” key is relegated down near the right “Shift” key, not too far from where many consumer notebooks place it. “End” is relegated to a secondary function of the “Home” key. In the top right, more or less where they usually are, we find keys for Number and Scroll Lock, Print Screen and “SysRq”, and Pause/Break. Personally, I seldom use those last two keys. I would find it more functional to have independent keys for Page Up, Page Down, and End, since I use those commands all the time while creating and editing documents… send those esoteric functions up in the top-right to the land of function keys.

My final nitpick about the keyboard comes from the top-left portion. The “Tab” key is microscopic. I use this key a lot, and I often find my left pinky reaching too far and sliding off the edge of the computer altogether. In the same vein, I think the smaller keys threw off my hand-memory of where the number keys belong. The same finger, my wayward left pinky, would find the “2″ about as often as the “1″ when I was reaching for the “1″ to type an exclamation point. Perhaps I’m just too used to the tilde (~) key being the first key of that row that I couldn’t quite adjust to its placement along the top row.

Keyboard Function Keys

It’s standard for a notebook to offer functions such as volume control and brightness control by holding the “Fn” key and pressing the Function keys at the top of the keyboard. Panasonic has provided the standard brightness, volume, mute, and monitor-switching functions, but there are a few that I wasn’t too familiar with. F9′s alternate function brings up an on-screen battery gauge and a percentage remaining — much more accurate than the little C-cell that shows up in the System Tray. Since I use keyboard shortcuts more often than the mouse I found it more convenient to press this key combination instead of hovering the mouse pointer over the Windows battery gauge.

Two more that were new to me were on the F7 and F10 keys — a RAM chip with some Zs on the F7 and what looks like a napping stack of pancakes on F10. The sleeping RAM chip will put the computer in Standby mode, and the pancakes (I know, I know, it’s the HD symbol) will send the computer to Hibernate. Since this computer has battery life to spare, you’ll use these modes more often than with most other computers when you’ll only be away for half an hour or more.

Touchpad

The touchpad might be as polarizing as the small space bar. Traditionally, touchpads are rectangular, but the T4 has a round touchpad. It is responsive and smooth, but small — even smaller than it seems necessary on the small area available. Perhaps the huge, thick bezel (with indicator lights for the Locks — Caps, Num, and Scroll — and HD activity) could be a bit thinner to give more touchpad area. It takes almost three full passes from left to right on the touchpad to drag the pointer from edge-to-edge on the screen. Diagonal movement is even harder, since the shape of the touchpad doesn’t provide the corner-to-corner distance of a traditional rectangle.

Let me just insert here that this isn’t as troublesome to me regarding the T4 as it could be. Once I got used to having a touch screen, I didn’t use the pad for serious dragging and dropping.

Standard touchpads let you scroll the active window by dragging a finger along the right edge of the pad and, if you choose, across the bottom edge. Since there are no sides to the T4 touchpad, Panasonic has taken a page from the iPod to provide scrolling functionality. Anyone who has adjusted the volume on a Click Wheel iPod will take quickly to scrolling on the T4 — you place your finger along the edge of the pad, against the bezel, and spin clockwise along the edge to scroll down and counterclockwise to scroll up.

What appears to be a proprietary program handles this functionality, and provides some customization settings. You can turn the touchpad off with the utility, reverse the direction of the scrolling, and activate horizontal scrolling. If you choose to use horizontal scrolling, you can set a section along the bottom of the pad as the starting point for horizontal scrolling. If you start spinning around in that section, you’ll scroll horizontally, start spinning at the top or sides and you’ll scroll vertically.

This unique scrolling was a love-it-or-hate-it thing for my friends who tested it. I liked it, but then again I have a Click Wheel on my iPod. The program has some bugs, though. With no rhyme or reason, the scrolling function would just stop working. Sometimes it would last for hours before I’d lose scroll functionality, other times it would stop mid-scroll when I checked the morning news five minutes after boot-up.

Touch Screen

The touch screen is a really useful tool. I first played Bejeweled on a Palm, and using the touch screen on the T4 I was able to break all of my personal records on Bejeweled 2. It’s amazing how much time you save when you don’t have to move a mouse or drag your finger across a pad, just poke the gems you want to flip….

On the serious side, the touch screen worked flawlessly. I forgot to run the calibration program until after the first week, but once I did the touch screen was pinpoint-precise. The included stylus fits securely in a (remarkably ugly) holder on the back of the screen. A springy tether is included to guarantee that you won’t lose the stylus, but I had to remove it. As I mentioned, I am left-handed, and the stylus holder is permanently mounted at the factory on the right side of the screen. Stretching the tether across or around the screen in a way that it didn’t interfere with my vision or my hand was just too awkward. I know we’re only 11% of the population, but the stylus could be made lefty-friendly by making the stylus holder user-installed.

Again, the screen is covered with a replaceable protective film. Besides improving durability, the film provides just the right amount of grab so that dragging the stylus across the screen feels like writing on thick paper with a wooden pencil. Some might like a smoother feel, but I appreciated the tactile feedback. Three hard weeks of use didn’t produce noticeable wear of the film, but once it does wear out a quick replacement will have the T4 behaving like-new.

Another software program comes with the T4 that lets you rotate the screen. When you double-click a System Tray icon in Windows, the screen rotates 90, 180, or 270 degrees. A second double-click will return the screen to the traditional position. Right clicking on the icon gives you the option of rotating to any of the three positions or back to 0 degrees, access to the settings for how far a double-click will rotate the screen (default is 180), and “Exit”, which turns the screen rotation utility off. I’m not sure what use 180 degrees would be, but I found 270 to be the right setting for me. With the screen rotated 270 degrees, I could hold the computer in my right hand like an open book and use the touch screen as if it was the left page of the book. Righties, of course, could do the same with the 90 degree setting and switching hands.

Ports and Switches

The battery of the T4 takes up the entire back of the case, so all ports are relegated to the sides and the front. Like most ultra-portables, El Guapo would not find a plethora of ports on the T4. (My hearty congrats to all who get the reference.) Along the front, from right to left, the T4 has a microphone port, the screen latch release, a headphone port, a battery light, an “ECO” light to indicate whether or not the battery economy mode is on, the WiFi on/off switch, and the power switch. The power switch glows a bright green when the machine is on and flashes about once per second when in Standby mode.


Panasonic T4 front side view closed (view large image)


T4 back side (view large image)

Along the left side, from back to front, the Toughbook T4 has the DC power jack, a VGA port for an external monitor, a port marked “Ext” for the optional external port replicator, and a stack of card slots — PCMCIA on top and SD on the bottom.


Left side (view large image)

Along the right side, from back to front, we find the wired LAN port, a phone line port for the built-in modem, a lock slot, and two USB ports.


Right side (view large image)

Note that the LAN and modem ports are covered by an attached rubber plug. My thinking is that this is done because the springy pins in these ports are the most vulnerable to a loose pen or other pointy object that the computer might encounter in a briefcase or bag. Since there are only two USB ports, it is a major plus that they are not stacked, guaranteeing that just about any two devices can be plugged in simultaneously. I did find that the ports were too snug — every device, from my flash drive to a standard USB cable, required a lot of force to insert. It appears that the cut-outs in the magnesium casing just barely admit a USB plug, and a few of my cables actually show scratches where they rubbed the openings.


T4 underside with cover off (view large image)

Wireless

The built in Intel 2915 card worked flawlessly, connecting to a variety of routers using all protocols: 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g. Having the “a” functionality was an unexpected boon — most of my fellow students at law school connect using “b” or “g”, and too often somebody has set their computer to create an ad hoc network on those protocols with the same name as the school network. When that happens, everyone else in range gets little or no internet connectivity. Using the T4, I could connect to the seldom-used “a” routers and make sure I didn’t miss any important e-mails during class… I mean, check and see if any changes had been made to the law during class. Yeah.

Signal strength on the Panasonic T4 was lower than it is on my HP dv4000, but still quite strong within the rated range of each router tested. From Panasonic’s diagram in the manual, it seems that the built-in antenna for the T4 is along the right side of the main body whereas the dv4000′s antenna is behind the screen. Perhaps the antenna size or orientation results in this slightly weaker reception.

The wireless connection is managed by the Intel PROset/Wireless program. The interface is easy to use, but I found that the Intel program took significantly longer to identify and connect to networks than the standard Microsoft Windows wireless connectivity program.

Battery

Panasonic markets the T4 as having a battery life of up to 9.5 hours. That’s a whopping claim, and it also marks the first time I’ve encountered a manufacturer’s boast that I could not only match in real life testing, but actually exceed. With screen brightness set as low as I could handle it, about , and the wireless card off, I was able to run Microsoft Word and the standard Windows games for 10 hours and 22 minutes before the battery conked out.


Battery and touch-screen stylus (view large image)

Under my normal use, the battery lasts between eight and 8.5 hours. “Normal use,” in this case, is a brightness of about and WiFi on at all times. Usually, I will have one or two documents open in Word, a browser window or three open, and an e-mail application running. With such monumental battery life, I got in the habit of leaving the power brick at home. I would take the computer to school, put in a full day, and still have power left for some internet browsing on the couch. When I would turn in I’d plug the computer into the power brick and let it get a full charge overnight — it takes about five hours with the computer off, seven with the computer on.


Power Adapter of the T4 (on the left) compared to the dv4000 (on the right)(
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T4 adapter on top of the dv4000 (
view large image)

That long battery life comes at a price, but not a high one. The computer’s rated weight is 3.4 pounds, six-tenths of a pound higher than its widescreen brother the W4, and the W4 comes with an optical drive built in. The extra weight is all battery. When I take the battery out of the computer and hold the battery in one hand and the computer in the other, it feels as if the weight is about equal.


Panasonic T4 with battery out (view large image)

If you don’t need millennia of battery life every day, you can turn on “Economy Mode” using a System Tray program supplied by Panasonic. This mode restricts the battery to using only about 80% of its capacity, preventing deep cycling and increasing the useable life of the battery. I’m not sure what the replacement cost of the battery is, but if it is within the standard $100 range, I wouldn’t bother with this, but that’s just me.

Sound

Nobody should ever buy a Toughbook T4 as a multimedia machine. The tiny speaker in the top-right corner of the chassis is quiet and tinny. The headphone port on the front provides decent stereo output, but barely. There is a noticeable hiss at all volume levels, but it is not overpowering. At high volumes, the signal broke up and was not really listenable.

Operating System and Software

Panasonic supplies a very clean install of Windows XP Professional with the Toughbook T4. No, I repeat, no bloatware comes installed. It was a joy to boot a computer and start using it out of the box rather than spending an hour cleaning out free trials for dial-up internet providers and 10-day trials of useless programs. The proprietary utilities for the Toughbook’s features are all pre-installed — the touchpad utility, the screen rotation utility, the economy mode utility, and a System Tray version of the WiFi on/off switch. This last one seems superfluous, since we’ve got a beefy switch on the front of the machine to slide back and forth, but it does provide one more way to know if you’ve accidentally flipped it off.

With such a clean install, XP Pro boots very quickly on the T4. From power-on to full functionality, I timed the boot process at 1:22. I like a boot of under one minute, but I’ll give the T4 an extra 22 seconds since it uses a 1.2 GHz processor and a 1.8″, 4800 RPM hard disk.

A full version CD of XP Professional is included in the box, but I did not receive a disc with the proprietary programs. I was using a review sample, though, and the software may be included with the retail T4.

Performance

No ultra-portable is a screamer. This form factor is designed for portability and battery life, with a target market more along the lines of executives than programmers. As a law student, I think my needs for a work computer are along the lines of most non-technical professionals: I create and edit documents, I perform internet research, and I access e-mail using MS Outlook and Novell GroupWise. All of these tasks ran flawlessly and seamlessly on the T4, but anything that requires more grunt might require more computer.

The 1.8″ hard drive is shock mounted and, supposedly, controlled by a motion sensor of some kind within the chassis. I opened up the bottom of the T4, since I’d never seen a shock mounted hard drive, and I was surprised at how low-tech it really is. Basically, the drive sits in a plastic envelope with semi-soft foam tape on every edge. It might not be the hydraulic system I was envisioning in my mind, but it works. I don’t know if it was the mounts or the sensor disabling the drive, but I didn’t experience any data loss during a turbulent plane ride or even when I picked it up and shook the computer violently. If it can survive that, I wouldn’t worry about the T4 on a bumpy bus ride.


T4 hard drive (
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T4 Hard drive shock mounts (
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Benchmarks

For the sake of showing off some cool desktop wallpaper (that’s Japanese singer Hiromi Oshima on the desktop) and including some more pictures, the benchmark results are presented here in image format for HDTune, PCMark04, PCMark05 and 3DMark05 results.  Being an ultraportable, results are not astounding by any means, but you’ll see that they’re enough to run any business applications:

HDTune Hard Drive Results


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3DMark05 Results


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3DMark05 Detailed Results


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PCMark05 Results


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PCMark05 Detailed Results


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PCMark04 Results


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Heat and Noise

Fanless. Oh, how wonderful it is to be fanless in the classroom (or a meeting, or the library, or…). Since the low-voltage processor and integrated graphics don’t put off as much heat as their high power counterparts, the T4 doesn’t need a fan for cooling. What heat the drive, processor, and RAM produce is dissipated by the metal chassis, and so the only noise you’ll hear from the T4 is the spin of the 40 Gig hard drive. The drive is noticeable in a silent environment, but even slight ambient noise drowns the soft “whir” out.

The chassis does have some hot spots, though they are mostly confined to the bottom. The HD cover gets warm to the touch, as does the area around the RAM expansion slot. Directly under the left palm rest gets warm, too. The only warm spot on the top is that left palm rest, and during extended use it can get quite warm indeed. While it never got uncomfortably hot, it did warm enough to make the heel of my hand sweat. The heat/sweat combination actually resulted in most of the ink smudging off of a sticker on the left palm rest. (The sticker in question was reminding me that the T4 was a tester and I couldn’t keep it. Does that mean I don’t have to send it back? No? Drat.) A sticker on the right palm rest met a similar disfiguring fate due to my watch clasp, but the underlying magnesium alloy on both sides is undamaged.

Usability Issues

Perhaps I’ve prattled on too long already, but the Toughbook T4 has a few odds and ends that don’t fit our usual categories. If you look at the pictures of the bottom of the notebook, your eyes probably noticed the strap right off. Next to the strap is a row of black padding. By sliding your hand under the strap and resting the heel of your hand on those pads, you can use the T4 on the move if you’re a skillful one-handed typist or comfortable with the touch screen. The screen only opens 140 degrees, and it doesn’t swivel, so you don’t have true tablet functionality, but rotating the screen 90 or 270 degrees as I mentioned above gives you “book” functionality. This is useful for reading documents and even formatting them with the stylus and toolbar buttons.

The strap is adjustable, but mine came with only about an inch of play. That seemed perfect to me, providing a snug fit while allowing blood to reach my fingertips, so I just left it alone. With the computer closed, the strap provides a great way to carry it with a sure grip, so there’s no excuse for putting it on top of a stack of books and then dropping it… again.

On the strap are two rubber feet. Since the strap has some play, if you just set the notebook straight down on a table they won’t line up together perfectly. After a few hours (… okay, days, so I’m not that quick…) of typing on a computer with a slight wobble, I found a surefire way to avoid it. If you set the computer down a little further back than you want it and drag it across the table about an inch toward you, the feet set and the computer is as sturdy as the tabletop itself.

 


Underside view of T4 and view of carry strap (view large image)


Carrying the T4 with the included strap (view large image)

A time or two on this site, I’ve stepped up on the ergonomics soap box. Different people are comfortable with different things, but ergonomic studies have shown that a forward tilt to the keyboard is bad for a typist’s wrists. For the most part, I believe the prevalence of the forward tilt is a foolish, archaic throwback to mechanical typewriters, though I do no some typists who find it more comfortable than a flat keyboard. Personally, I want a flat keyboard at least, and I find a negative tilt is actually best for my wrists.

The Panasonic T4 looks like a ramp. I don’t know where my grade school protractor is, but I’m eyeballing it as about five to seven degrees of forward tilt. That doesn’t sound like much, but it is enough that a full day of typing on the T4 leaves me with sore wrists.

Conclusions

Sure, it’s ugly, but I’ll take function over form any day. As a work computer, I loved the T4. I don’t do any power computing as a law student, and I won’t as a lawyer. The small footprint left plenty of room on my desk for books, printouts, and a beverage. In my ideal computing world, the T4 would be my notebook for work and I’d have a beast of a desktop for multimedia and gaming at home. Packing this computer back up and sending it back to Panasonic won’t be easy.

With that said, anybody who uses a computer for fun will not want the T4 as his or her only computer. Since the computer has no CD drive, the only way to install programs is over a network or by adding an external USB drive. The screen is too dim for enjoyable video playback, the sound is tepid at best, and there is nowhere near the power required for gaming. Simply put, this computer is all business… not that that is a bad thing.

Complaints

  • Dim screen
  • Non-standard keyboard layout with small spacebar and questionable key placement/elimination
  • Forward-tilted keyboard
  • Warm left palm rest
  • Too-tight USB ports
  • About as pretty as a cinder block
  • Small touchpad
  • Buggy proprietary touchpad program
  • Strange round touchpad… or is that one of the…

Praises

  • Cool round touchpad… depending on personal preference…
  • Fanless
  • Battery life from eight to ten hours
  • Great touch screen
  • Nigh-indestructible under normal conditions
  • Enough power and hard drive space for office applications
  • Incredibly useful function keys
  • Standard 3 year warranty

Final Thoughts — Who Should Buy?

Executives and non-technical professionals could do a lot worse than the Panasonic Toughbook T4, but I’m not sure they could do much better. This computer is tough enough to be treated like a business tool, not a fragile piece of technology. With the epic battery life, you can really grab it and go without worrying about scooping up the adapter.

If you need a lot of power for your computing tasks or you want to enjoy video and music on your notebook, this Toughbook isn’t for you. If you want a computer that will give you three years of work, work, work, the T4 is well worth the price.

Pricing and Availability: Panasonic ToughBook T4 Price Comparison


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