Panasonic ToughPad FZ-A1
21st Jan 2013 | 04:30
Designed for workers and people who like to drop things
Panasonic is not a company Westerners generally associate with computers. That said, the Japanese masters of plasma televisions and micro four-thirds cameras has managed to carve out quite a niche in the computing space with its ToughBook line of ruggedised laptops.
It's an approach that has worked quite well for Panasonic around the world. With laptops becoming a commodity and traditional PC manufacturers stuttering along, Panasonic has managed to maintain a good return on its functional, robust computers.
It's no surprise then that it hopes to do the same in the Android tablet space. Where other consumer electronics companies are throwing tablets at the market and hoping to see something stick in the battle against the iPad, Panasonic has opted to take the same measured approach of releasing a niche tablet.
Because the ToughPad's strength is not in its sleek, minimalist design and state of the art specifications, but instead in its tough, rugged exterior, it's not the kind of tablet that will race off retailers shelves. Especially with an RRP that's more expensive than some Apple computers, let alone iPads.
But for the niche market Panasonic is targeting - professions like builders, miners, firefighters, and hospital staff - it could be selling itself as the only product in town.
Let's get one thing straight: The FZ-A1 is never, ever going to win any beauty prizes. It's not much to look at. The front of the tablet houses a 10.1-inch 1024 x 768 touchscreen surrounded by a dull silver bezel.
Above the top right hand corner of the screen is a 2MP webcam, while below the screen lie five dedicated hardware buttons - the standard men/back/home buttons found on all Android devices, plus the power button and another button labelled User that can be programmed for different functions.
Flip the device over and things are even uglier. A stylus finds its home at the bottom of the device in a designated crevice, While a cover for the tablet's battery is screwed in place. Above that are all the device's codes and warnings, like it walked out of the house in its underwear.
Halfway up is a single mono speaker grill, just below the locked connection cover which houses the tablet's HDMI, headphone, MicroSD and USB connections. On the other side, is a secure slot for a SIM card.
The 5MP camera with LED flash also hides out on the back, just above the bulk of the connections.
The corners of the device are all covered up with rubber, which means you can drop the tablet from 1.2 metres and not worry about damaging the internals (or externals, for that matter).
16GB of on board flash storage offers a starting point on the internals, which can be boosted through that MicroSD card slot with an additional 32GB.
Given the tablet is rated to comply with the MIL-STD 810G and IP65 standards - which means it's spill proof, water and dust resistant, and shock proof to 1.2 metres, all that extra padding is all part of the rating.
At 993 grams, this is a beast of a tablet. Obviously the ruggedisation helps push that number towards a kilo, but given it's 50 per cent heavier than an iPad, you have to wonder where the benefit of ruggedness is outweighed by the sheer weight of the thing.
Display and Interface
The screen, magically, manages somehow to avoid reflections that plague other large screen devices thanks to a matte finish. Unfortunately, this restricts the viewing angle a bit, and does little to avoid the fingerprint smudges we've grown so accostomed to on other tablets.
The screen doesn't appear as bright or vibrant as a Retina displayed iPad 4 or the latest Galaxy tablet, but then again the ToughPad isn't designed to watch movies on.
What it is designed for is data entry in rougher environments, which is why the ToughPad comes with an included capacitive stylus.
Like pretty much all styluses on modern tablets, there's a bit of a delay between writing on the device and the content appearing, but it does end up as an accurate interpretation of the writing.
Handwriting recognition was pretty accurate although given the various quality of handrwriting out there, this is most likely a variable experience depending on who actually does the writing.
Switching between home screens and opening apps is relatively snappy - it doesn't compete with the latest batch of iPads, but it's significantly better than the likes of the Kogan Agora ICS tablet, for example.
Panasonic has opted to deliver the ToughPad with a vanilla build of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. In many cases this would be cause for a celebration - nobody has done a better job of making Android a good fit for tablets than Google itself.
But with the included stylus, it feels like a missed opportunity. There are no real applications bundled with the tablet to take advantage of the ToughPad's unique features, outside of some basic Panasonic utilities that allow for things like pen calibration, managing the user button function and device diagnostics.
Panasonic has also refused to confirm whether or not the tablet will get an upgrade to Jelly Bean in the future, but given the niche market for the tablet, that's unlikely to be an issue for customers.
Thanks to the vanilla build of Android though, navigating through the various home pages and menus is a familiar experience for all Android users.
The Marvell 1.2GHz Dual Core CPU does a pretty decent job of keeping everything flowing when scrolling through the home pages and applications. Obviously things aren't as smooth as a Jelly Bean device utilising Google's Project Butter.
It's not the fastest tablet on the market, but it does do a reasonable job of keeping up to speed. Opening apps happens virtually instantaneously, and video playback happens without a lot of judder or stalling.
Also worth mentioning is the dedicated security core in the CPU for managing file encryption and secure installations of corporate applications. While the average punter probably doesn't care, those looking to install the ToughPad in a corporate environment will enjoy the benefits of a device that is FIPS 140-2 (Level 2) compliant.
Connectivity and battery
It's no surprise that the FZ-A1 has all the standard wireless connectivity standards built-in - wireless a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1, GPS and HSPA connectivity via the embedded SIM card slot.
There's currently no 4G support, although apparently that's an option in some markets, but it does work with all the Australian carrier's HSPA networks for theoretical speeds of up to 21Mbps down.
Once connected to a mobile network, the device can also double as a wireless hotspot for up to five different devices.
In terms of accessing the web via the included browser, the ToughPad does a decent job of delivering content to its 10.1-inch screen. Swiping and pinching are responsive gestures, allowing users to zoom in and out and cycle through pages with ease.
Annoyingly, the 3.5mm headphone jack is locked away behind a dust cover, which exposes a whole heap of other connectors when you want to listen to audio through headphones. Which you'll probably do fairly often, given the embedded speaker is absolute rubbish. That's not surprising given the need for robustness, but individual covers for individual ports would have been a safer option.
Panasonic claims that the Toughpad's 4770mAh battery should be good for around about 10 hours worth of use, depending on how it's used. As with almost every battery life claim though, that figure is higher than what we achieved.
Running an HD video on a loop non stop, we got a little over six hours worth of use from the device. But understanding that this tablet will almost never be used to run video non stop, most users of this tablet will get a lot more life from the device.
The biggest issue with the ToughPad's battery comes not from its longevity, but instead its frustrating proprietary charging port. While this allows fast charging - attaining about 90 per cent charge in just three hours - it also means you can't leave home ithout the bulky proprietary charger.
And even though the tablet has a MicroUSB port, it can't be used for charging the device.
This is hugely disappointing, given the industry-wide move to a standard charging interface. It also adds unneccesary bulk to the tablet - which is already heavy enough - as you can never leave home without the charger.
Camera and Gallery
Neither the front facing 2MP camera on the ToughPad or the rear-facing 5MP camera are anything to get excited about. Given the types of professions that are likely to use this tablet though, it can't be held against it.
Images are noisy, washed out and lack detail. The interface is the standard ICS interface, which makes it relatively easy to snap photos, but the results aren't anything to get excited about.
More disappointing is the poor audio quality of the microphone, which pops and crackles on every video recording. When coupled with the tablet's in-built speaker, the results are hard to listen to.
Also disappointing is Panasonic's decision to record video in the 3gp format instead of mp4. While many devices can play back the mobile video format, it lacks the ubiquity of mp4 and doesn't offer too much more in the way of compression.
The Panasonic ToughPad is not a tablet for the everyday user. It's a niche product built for professions who require a more robust solution than an iPad or Galaxy tablet can provide.
While Panasonic has carved out a bit of a niche for itself in this space, there are some simple changes that could go a long way in making this a much more attractive device, even for its niche audience.
Anything you can drop from waist height and not have concerns over its safety is a good thing, and this tablet does that well. The fact you can spill a drink or use it at the beach without worrying about its pots clogging up with sand is also a win.
The included stylus - while not for everybody - is comfortable enough to use that professionals that need to use it will be greatful for its presence.
And while they are ugly as sin, the hard buttons on the bottom of the screen make controlling the device with gloves on possible. The inclusion of a user-dedicated shortcut button is something we wouldn't mind seeing on other tablets too.
The microphone and speaker on the ToughPad are abysmal, and should be upgraded post haste. While not everyone will use those two features of the tablet, those that need them will be sorely disappointed, especially given the amount of cash you need to spend to own one of these tablets.
The proprietary charging port is a disaster. Sure, it has the benefit of quick charging, but it's an absolute nightmare to have to carry around the charger as well as the tablet. At least give the option to charge via USB, Panasonic.
The fact that all the main ports are hidden under one water and dust proof cover sort of undoes all the good work - expose one and you expose them all. Individual covers would be a much better solution.
Panasonic is essentially playing in the rugged tablet space by itself at the moment, so it's hard to offer any meaningful comparisons. The ToughPad is very much a niche product with a targeted customer, who will definitely see the advantage in having such a robust device at their disposal.
But at $1499 a unit, there does seem to be quite a few compromises in the final product. Things like the microphone and speaker feel like hardware from a $100 device, and that's not really up to the standard we were expecting.
That said, if you work in a job where a solid device is essential, one ToughPad is going to be cheaper than buying three iPads in the long run.