REVIEW: Panasonic Toughpad FZ-A1 (WiFi & 3G GPS Versions)

11 Dec 2012 Neerav Bhatt – Tech Review

The Panasonic Toughpad FZ-A1 is a ruggedised Android 4.0 tablet computer which lives up to its name. Unlike consumer products like the iPad the Panasonic Toughpad FZ-A1 is not a thing of beauty, nor is it meant to be.

The Toughpad was first hinted at just over a year ago while I was on a guest tour of Panasonic’s punishing Toughbook testing facilities in Japan reporting for Technology Spectator. This final version hardware is externally almost the same as an engineering sample I viewed back then.

While it weighs a hefty 993grams which is 50 per cent more than an iPad, the Toughpad knocks it’s city cousin for six in terms of ruggedness and reliability.

Toughpad rugged features includes compliance to MIL-STD 810G and IP65 standards, spill proof, water and dust resistant, ability to operate in temperatures from -10 °C to 50 °C and a three-year limited warranty covering parts and labour.

During the media launch event, demo units of the Toughpad had a bucket of water poured on them, were repeatedly dropped and some on display were even encased in ice blocks but still dutifully displaying a video on loop.

In our own testing a drop from 1.2 metres onto concrete while it was starting up caused no damage whatsoever. The Toughpad just bounced on its rubberised corner, the pen dislodged from its slot at the back and the port covers remained closed because we had locked them in place.

When viewing the Toughpads 10.1” 1024×768 resolution screen outdoors in full sunlight it was not as rich as a Nexus 7 tablet or Samsung Galaxy S III smartphone. However, the Toughpad is a work device not meant for watching hours of videos. Claimed battery life is 10 hours but it’s more realistic to expect about seven to eight hours, less if using 3G data and satellite tracking a lot while outdoors with screen brightness turned up high.

Where the Toughpad’s screen excelled over the other devices is in legibility of text and other information onscreen because its matt finish greatly reduced glare and its special surface somehow made fingerprints less visible, even if there were lots of them. To aid use while wearing gloves there are physical buttons at the bottom of the screen for menu, home, back, a user programmable button and power button.

In terms of connectivity WiFi speed is impressive, at 160 to over 200Mbits the Toughpad achieved a much faster N connection to my office WiFi access point than most other laptops, phones or tablets we’ve tested in the past. The Toughpad optionally comes with HSPA+ 3G connectivity up to 21 Mbps. We unsuccessfully tried to test this using a spare microSIM in a fullsize SIM adaptor but it got stuck and had to use tweezers to remove it. Other connectivity is Bluetooth 2.1 and Satellite GPS.

The waterproof mono speaker is placed halfway up the right side of theToughpad and is very weak even when listened to in a quiet environment, anywhere with ambient noise it would be almost useless. Listening to audio through headphones is much better.

The headphone jack is available after opening the port seal at top right, which also houses a mini hdmi port, micro sdhc slot and usb port. While the Toughpad says it has 16GB internal storage only 12.9 GB is usable so if you need to carry a lot of files with you a large microSDHC card (upto 32GB) will be necessary. Camera functionality is 2MP front facing and 5MP rear facing with LED flash.

Handwriting and drawing functionality is enabled on the Toughpad by using the included battery free digitiser pen which slots in the bottom back of the tablet. Don’t lose yours because a replacement costs over $60.

We tested the Toughpad’s pen accuracy using the popular handwriting to text conversion paid Android app 7Notes and it revealed two things. Firstly that my cursive handwriting has deteriorated a lot since I was taught it at school. No surprise there since like many people aged in their 20’s and 30’s all I use handwriting for is to fill out a paper form now and then. Secondly if your writing is careful, the characters are well defined and the words are spaced out it is possible to take handwritten notes at a very high level of accuracy.

Many users will be glad that Panasonic’s Android implementation is stock 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich without another layer of fancy menus. This is good in one way but it’s disappointing that there are no enhanced alternate Panasonic widgets for business users e.g. calendar, email, maps etc.

When I first logged in to my Google account and updated all the apps via Google Play this ended up causing the Calendar and Chrome browser apps to crash on start. A spokesperson for Panasonic’s Toughbook division assured me that this was only an early software bug and:

“As most companies will build their own image for the device they will be able to control all applications and updates on the FZ-A1. We expect most companies will have applications built fit to suit their operating environment. Additionally, automatic updates, notifications and applications can be simply controlled manually on the device should the IT department not be building their own image”.

Security is built in to the Toughpad at the hardware level with a dedicated security processor core SoC compliant with FIPS 140-2 Level 2, Marvell Trusted Boot, Marvell hardware assisted storage encryption and AuthenTec Mobile Security.

Overall the Panasonic Toughpad FZ-A1 is dual core so it’s not the fastest tablet, at $1799 NZD RRP for the WiFi version and $2029 NZD RRP for the 3G GPS version it’s not cheap either, its screen is not the highest resolution available and it won’t win any design aesthetics awards. What it will do is survive … outliving and outlasting any other Android tablet on the market despite being used in rough work environments.