For Road Warriors Who Are Movie Buffs, Too

Panasonic's new Toughbook isn't laptop perfection, but it's light and can play two flicks

At last I can have my cake and eat it, too. I decided a couple of years ago to give up the convenience of a built-in CD/DVD drive in my laptop to lighten the load when I'm on the road. Still there are times when it would be nice to have that drive, especially on long, boring plane trips when the ability to play the movie of my choice would make the time pass faster.

Panasonic (MC ) has come up with a solution with the $2,190 Toughbook W2, a laptop that offers a 12.1-in. display, battery life conservatively rated at four hours, and a built-in drive that plays DVDs and both plays and writes CDs -- all in a 2.8-lb. package. It's not a perfect road-warrior notebook (the keyboard, in particular, could stand some improvement), but it comes closer than anything else I've tried.

The Toughbook's secret is an extremely clever approach to tucking the drive into the confines of a slightly wedge-shaped notebook that is only 1.2 in. thick at the front end. A conventional sliding-tray drive is way too thick, and even a slot-loading drive of the sort used in car stereos (and Apple (AAPL ) PowerBooks) would not have fit. Instead, Panasonic turned the left half of the 3 1/2-in. deep area between the keyboard and the front edge of the notebook into a hinged cover. Slide a latch on the side, and the panel pops open to reveal the drive, very much like the cover on a portable CD player.

OTHER FEATURES OF THE TOUGHBOOK are more or less standard for an ultralight notebook. The 900-MHz Centrino processor is slow by today's benchmarks, but a computer like this will rarely run applications more demanding than e-mail and a word processor. So you'll only notice the lack of speed when your programs take a few seconds longer to load. The integrated wireless networking comes with a new Intel Wi-Fi management program that switched automatically between networks when I moved the laptop between home and office. The standard memory is 256 megabytes of RAM, expandable to 512 MB with a 40-gigabyte hard drive.

The Toughbook's biggest flaw is the keyboard design, a serious weakness on many Japanese-designed laptops. The overall feel of the keyboard is not bad, and it even has a standard-size right shift key, unlike some Sony (SNE ) and Sharp (SCHAY ) laptops. The problem is the bottom row. To make room for two useless Windows keys, the spacebar had to be shrunk. I kept hitting the Alt keys on either side of the spacebar, an action that usually brought up some unwanted menu.

I have a longstanding preference for pointing sticks over touch pads, but the round Synaptics (SYNA ) touch pad on the Toughbook almost made me a convert. One nice feature is that running your finger clockwise around the pad's outer edge scrolls the display.

Although Panasonic has been successful selling ruggedized notebooks to police and fire departments, utilities, and other customers whose equipment takes a beating, it has never gone after the mainstream corporate market dominated by Dell (DELL ), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ), and IBM (IBM ). The company hasn't developed the sort of sales and support operation required to compete in the enterprise market, and this model lacks features that corporate IT managers demand, most notably a docking connector. But what corporate managers, whose main desire is uniformity, demand and what users want is often different.

Corporate buyers call the shots, though, so don't expect the corporate Big Three to rush to include DVD drives in their smallest notebooks, which should at least get thinner and lighter in their next versions. I think it's wonderful to have a laptop like the Toughbook with the battery power to play two feature films. But executive entertainment is not high on the priority list of the folks who buy corporate computers.

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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