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Panasonic takes swing at rugged rivals as it launches latest Toughbook tablet

Panasonic Computer Solutions Co. released the latest model in its 13-year-old Toughbook line, a rugged Windows tablet with a power-sipping Intel Atom processor.

The Toughbook H1 Field is designed for emergency response professionals, construction managers and field sales reps who work in harsh conditions. Panasonic contends that it's the toughest tablet available.

Making such a claim is a new tactic for the longtime market leader. Panasonic has traditionally preferred to let outlandish video demonstrations and testimonials do the talking for its Toughbooks. (For a good roundup, check the Web site, ToughbookUniverse.com.)

But the company has seen its market share eroded by lower-priced models from Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Lenovo, as well as smaller companies such as tablet maker Motion Computing Inc.

Moreover, sales of rugged PCs have suffered because of cutbacks in federal and military budgets. VDC Research Group Inc. has predicted that 2009 sales would be down 10% from 2008.

That may be why Kyp Walls, director of product management at Panasonic's U.S. computer division, very openly talked up the H1 Field — and talked down Panasonic's competitors.

Wrapped in a magnesium alloy case that Walls said is 20 times stronger than the ABS plastic used in standard laptops, the H1 Field is certified to meet IP65 and MIL-STD-810G standards, the latter at a six-foot drop. IP65 is an international standard measuring resistance to dust or water. MIL-STD-810G is a U.S. military standard for a device's ruggedness on the battlefield.

“A lot of our competitors, like HP, Dell and Lenovo, are saying that they meet the same specs as we do,” Walls said, adding that he is skeptical of those claims.

Taking advantage of the fact that there are many different versions of the MIL test, other vendors drop their products from lower heights than Panasonic machines are dropped from and/or do the tests themselves, rather than have them performed by an independent third-party lab as Panasonic does, Walls said.

“We really go beyond the MIL spec with our tests,” he said, citing the H1 Field's sealed all-weather design that makes it resistant to rain, spills, dust and vibrations.

That's something Panasonic's competitors can't achieve because they are “taking a consumer or business-grade machine and saying 'If we bolt this on here or put a little foam there, we'll make a rugged machine.'”

Considered a fully rugged model, the H1 Field is Panasonic's fourth rugged tablet and the successor to the prior H1 Mobile. It comes with a 1.86-GHz Intel Atom Z540 CPU, a 64GB enterprise-grade SLC solid-state drive instead of a hard drive, and a 10.4-inch color dual-touch LCD screen that can accommodate a finger or a stylus.

The H1 can offer up to six hours of battery life with its two batteries.

The starting price for the tablet is $3,379, with a fully loaded machine going in the low $4,000s, Walls said.

Walls expects most customers to continue using the Windows XP Tablet operating system this year via the downgrade option. That will change within a year when the device moves up to Windows 7, he said.

While tablets are gaining popularity, Panasonic expects keyboard-based machines or convertibles (tablet-notebook combos with swivel screens) to continue to dominate the market, he said.

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