Panasonic’s Toughbook 55 rugged laptop has an ingenious modular design, making it possible to remove and replace most of its key components in seconds. It’s got a startlingly bright display, a built-in stylus, and a cutting-edge CPU, too. It’s also quite durable, tested to survive 3-foot drops, water spray, and some dust ingress. It lacks ultimate rugged bragging rights, though. Panasonic refers to it as “semi-rugged,” and its tougher Toughbook 31 cousin can withstand higher drops (from 6 feet) and a direct hit from a water cannon. Still, unless you need this extreme level of protection and are willing to make sacrifices to get it, the versatile, advanced Toughbook 55 (starts at $2,099; $2,499 as tested) is a better laptop, and earns our Editors’ Choice award.
Modular and Rugged
With so many thin, light, and sturdy laptops on the market, it might seem hard to justify buying a “true” rugged one like the Toughbook 55. With a 4.6-pound weight and a thickness of 1.3 inches, it dwarfs most other laptops that share its 14-inch screen size, many of which can also withstand everyday accidents like a splash of water or a fall from a coffee table. Its IP53 rating isn’t particularly impressive—even mainstream smartphones like the Google Pixel 3 have higher waterproof ratings. (IP68 is common among flagship phones, signifying the ability to survive complete submersion in more than 3 feet of water.) But the Toughbook 55 can do one thing that most of these other devices cannot: transform into entirely new configurations with minimal effort.
A large portion of the Toughbook’s 13.6-by-10.7-inch base is made up of bays that can accept a dizzying array of modules—everything from RFID readers to Blu-ray drives. Panasonic loaned us a total of nine individual modules to test out, in addition to the modules that are installed in the Toughbook 55’s entry-level configuration. Even the keyboard can be swapped out, though doing so does require a screwdriver. This is truly a flexible machine.
Most of the module bays have quick-release sliding locks that, when released, let you pop out the module and swap in a new one. This includes the storage drive and the primary battery bay. Others, like the rear expansion area and the GPU bay (yes, there’s even a swappable graphics card module!) have screws in addition to quick-release levers that keep their components more securely in place. Even these bays are easy to access, however. I replaced the placeholder module in the GPU slot with the GPU module (based on the AMD Radeon Pro WX 4150) that Panasonic supplied, booted the Toughbook 55, and saw the GPU was already enabled in Windows Device Manager.
I especially like how the SSD module is located in its own dedicated, easily accessible bay on the bottom of the Toughbook 55. The ability to remove the boot drive can improve data security, allowing you to store the drive in a separate location from the laptop.
All of these modules come at an additional cost, of course, which will vary depending on where you buy them. And since they’re specific to this laptop, upgrades using third-party components will be unlikely—expect to install Panasonic’s modules or nothing. At current list prices, which in most cases are quite high, a second 512GB SSD is $400, the GPU module is $700, a second battery is $150, the fingerprint reader is $125, and the Blu-ray optical drive is $400.
Some other rugged laptops have basic degrees of on-the-fly configurability. The Toughbook 31, for one, can accept up to two hot-swappable batteries secured with quick-release sliders, or an optical drive instead of the second battery. The Dell Latitude 5424 and Latitude 7424 also feature dual removable batteries, and all three of these laptops can be configured with alternative connectivity options installed at the factory, such as legacy VGA ports or GPS receivers. But none of them can match the range of post-purchase swappable component options that the Toughbook 55 offers.
This nifty configurability comes in addition to hallmark Toughbook features, such as its bottom docking-slot that’s compatible with police-cruiser mounts, the extendable carrying handle built into the front edge of the laptop, and the signature silver magnesium-alloy case. Also on board: MIL-STD 810G certification for resisting vibration and to ensure safe operation at extreme altitudes and temperatures.
A Cutting-Edge Toughbook
Besides its swappable bays, the Toughbook 55 also brings significant performance and compatibility improvements to the Toughbook line, which often remains several generations behind the cutting edge. Unlike the Toughbook 31, which uses older 7th Generation Intel processors, the Toughbook 55 offers far more capable and efficient 8th Generation “Whiskey Lake” Core i5 or Core i7 processors. It’s also the first Toughbook to offer a USB Type-C port, an HDMI video output, and Bluetooth 5.0. These are all common on most mainstream consumer laptops, so it’s nice to see them join the Toughbook line.
Other cutting-edge features include a webcam with both a privacy door and infrared sensors to support Windows Hello face recognition. I especially appreciate the webcam’s 1080p resolution, since the 720p cameras found on most consumer laptops tend to offer grainy video quality in indoor lighting conditions.
There are four microphones on the Toughbook 55 to help improve audio clarity in loud environments, a gigabit Ethernet port, and even a backlit keyboard with—surprisingly enough—programmable colors. I found both the keyboard and touchpad to be far more comfortable than their equivalents on the Toughbook 31 when using them with bare fingertips. Many rugged laptops have pressure-sensitive touchpads designed to be used with a stylus or with gloved hands, and these often don’t function well with bare fingers.
A fingerprint reader can be installed using an optional module that takes the space of the second battery. This seems like a lot of wasted space, and I would prefer if Panasonic had included a fingerprint reader built into the keyboard deck. Besides the fingerprint-reader module, you can instead choose to install Smart Card or RFID reader modules in place of the second battery.
One of the best parts of the Toughbook 55 is its 14-inch display. The unit I tested comes with the upgraded full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) panel, which is rated for a whopping 1,000 nits of brightness. (For context, most of the brightest consumer laptop displays top out around 500 nits.) This display is clearly viewable outdoors, although direct sunlight does create significant glare. Panasonic offers anti-reflective and anti-glare screen treatments as configurable options.
The screen also has capacitive touch support, which means you can interact with it using either your fingers or the built-in passive digital stylus, which slides into a nifty slot on the right edge when you’re not using it. The base display option is a lower-resolution 1,366-by-768-pixel panel without touch support. I’d spring for the upgrade in a heartbeat, since it offers far better quality than the washed-out 1,366-by-768 resistive touch display I tested on the Toughbook 31.
The base port configuration includes a headphone jack, a microSD card slot, USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-A and Type-C ports (one of each), an Ethernet jack, and a power connector on the right edge. The rear offers another USB Type-A port and an HDMI output. All of these are hidden behind protective doors.
The left edge contains no ports, with its entire area taken up by the primary battery and optical drive/GPU bay. Configurable port options include a module with VGA and serial ports as well as a second Ethernet port, which can be installed on the rear edge using screws.
In addition to Bluetooth 5.0 and 802.11ac Wi-Fi, which come standard, you can also configure a Toughbook 55 with GPS and LTE connectivity, present on our review unit. The latter supports FirstNet, an LTE band on AT&T’s network reserved for emergency communications between first responders when cell networks are overloaded.
Competent Processing Power
Our Toughbook 55 review unit is equipped with the base-level Intel Core i5-8365U processor with vPro support, 8GB of memory, and a 256GB SSD. Panasonic currently plans to sell a configuration identical to this one except for a 512GB SSD, for a list price of $2,499. It will offer plenty of power for basic tasks, like writing reports or accessing databases in the field. As with the rest of the laptop, both the memory and storage are user-upgradable. Two RAM slots accept up to 64GB of RAM, and there are two drive bays, heated for extreme cold weather operation, that can each accept up to 1TB SSDs.
The only option you’ll need to configure when you order is the CPU. Panasonic offers a single upgrade, which is to a Core i7-8665U. This chip also features vPro support, and it comes with a slightly higher maximum clock speed (4.8GHz versus 4.1GHz) and a larger cache (8MB versus 6MB), though both chips have four cores and support up to eight processing threads. It’s an incremental upgrade, and unless you know your specific tasks will benefit from a higher clock speed, you’ll likely be just fine with the Core i5.
I compared the Toughbook 55’s computing performance with a few other rugged laptops we’ve tested recently, whose specs are listed below. Overall, the Toughbook 55 rivals its Dell competitors on basic computing tasks, even though the Latitude 5424 and Latitude 7424 both have more memory in the configurations we reviewed. On specialized multimedia workflows, the Toughbook 55 far outperformed its Toughbook 31 sibling, a difference significantly influenced by the latter’s older CPU generation.
The performance situation is perhaps best summed up by the results of the PCMark benchmark. The PCMark 10 test we run simulates different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows. We use it to assess overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheet work, web browsing, and videoconferencing. The test generates a proprietary numeric score; higher numbers are better. With its Core i7 and 16GB of RAM, the Latitude 7424 has a very small advantage on this test, and the Toughbook 31 predictably performed the worst.
PCMark 8, meanwhile, has a Storage subtest that we use to assess the speed of the system’s storage subsystem. Today’s PCI Express SSDs all perform roughly the same on this test, so there’s little variation among these four laptops.
Better 3D Graphics, if You Need Them
On specialized multimedia tasks like rendering a 3D image using Cinebench and applying a series of filters to an image in Adobe Photoshop, the Toughbook 55 performed very well. Its class-leading Cinebench score is a welcome surprise, and its Photoshop time is very close to that of the Latitude 7424.
The Photoshop test stresses the CPU, storage subsystem, and RAM, but it can also take advantage of most GPUs to speed up the process of applying filters, so systems with powerful graphics chips or cards may see a boost. Interestingly, I ran these tests without the Toughbook 55’s optional AMD GPU installed, so it’s possible that if you opt for it, your results on multimedia workflows could improve.
One thing the discrete GPU option will definitely improve is the Toughbook 55’s 3D graphics performance. With its superior graphics chip, the Latitude 7424 was clearly the best on both our Superposition and 3DMark gaming simulations. 3DMark measures relative graphics muscle by rendering sequences of highly detailed, gaming-style 3D graphics that emphasize particles and lighting. Like 3DMark, the Superposition test renders and pans through a detailed 3D scene and measures how the system copes, but returns a result in frames per second instead of a proprietary score.
After I installed the Toughbook 55’s GPU, I reran the 3DMark Fire Strike benchmark and achieved a much better result of 3,786, suggesting that this configuration will offer performance roughly comparable to the Latitude 7424, as well as to other laptops with entry-level GPUs like the Nvidia GeForce MX250.
One of the side benefits of using cutting-edge components is that they’re very good at maximizing battery life. The Toughbook 55 achieved more than 16 hours on our battery rundown test with only its main battery installed, and Panasonic touts up to 40 hours of life with both batteries installed. If you buy a third battery and keep it charged and ready to swap in, you could potentially have enough power to last through a multi-day trip to a remote location.
Just Tough Enough?
The Toughbook 55 is the most advanced—if not the most rugged—Toughbook we’ve tested to date. It’s not impressively equipped compared with the latest consumer laptops, and flagship phones (and other rugged laptops) are far more water-resistant. But the ability to configure the Toughbook 55 with so many different components gives it a different strength, especially for buyers looking for a blend of features and ruggedization and willing to compromise to achieve them.
In fact, you really won’t find a direct alternative to the Toughbook 55 on the market at this writing. Some stalwart Toughbook customers, especially police and fire departments, have begun switching to smartphones and tablets for many tasks. But there’s no substitute for a rugged Windows-powered laptop for many other customers, and the Toughbook 55 will offer them a Goldilocks blend of toughness and cutting-edge features.