There's something deceptively fierce-looking about the Panasonic ToughBook CF-F8 business-ruggedised laptop.

The Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 comes with a handle, daring you to mess with it. So when we snatch it off the Test Centre workbench, we're surprised at how light this tiny ToughBook feels. We expect it to weigh a ton, but it's a mere 1.64kg.

Yet inside the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8's hard-plastic case lurks just enough power to handle most conventional tasks. Unfortunately, its price tag may put it out of reach for many people seeking a business laptop.

Since the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 is supposed to take a beating, we'll touch on the design first. The reasonably spaced keyboard provides a satisfying amount of give. Yep, in an age of supercool, cut-out Chiclet keys, there's nothing wrong with an effective (if basic) spill-resistant keyboard.

We're not a fan of having the Del key hiding down by the arrows, but that's a matter of personal preference - just like the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8's small, circular touchpad.

We actually don't mind swapping a square for a circle. We only take issue when the touchzone is so small; put two fingers together, and that's about how much room you have to work with for navigating. The two mouse buttons fare a little better, since they're a good size and they feel responsive (though a bit plastic and hollow).

The Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 comes reasonably well equipped for the on-the-go workaholic. Beyond Bluetooth and Gobi, you'll find some legacy I/O ports.

A PC Card slot and an SDHC flash-card reader sit on one side next to the audio jacks, while the other side has a few old-school outputs (VGA, ethernet, and modem jacks) in addition to three USB 2.0 ports.

Although it is nice to see that many USB ports, it would be even nicer if they weren't all stacked right on top of one another. That may not seem like a big deal, but the second you need to affix a slightly oversize dongle, you're taking a neighbouring USB port out of the picture. And don't count on having any video chats, either - on the model we received, no Webcam was in sight.

We will say, though, that we like how the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 stows the DVD-RW optical drive under the right side of the wrist rest. When the drive isn't in use, the system automatically powers it down; but flick the toggle, and the lid pops open. You drop the disc in at a slight angle (a switch from older ToughBooks), and that angle makes removing the disc later a whole lot easier, too.

Now, the usual trade-off when it comes to ruggedised laptops is that you're sacrificing performance for all of the durability (an enclosed case means that the system needs lower-powered parts that won't overheat). Not so with the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8.

Our review unit came with an Intel Core 2 Duo P9300 CPU and 3GB of RAM, running a 32-bit version of Windows Vista Business, and it scored an 88 in WorldBench 6. At that speed, the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 is more than fast enough to tackle all your work tasks.

Just don't expect it to be a laptop you'll be playing around on as well. Although the screen looks good (which we'll get to in a second), the machine's lack of a dedicated GPU means that you're saddled with lacklustre graphics performance. At least the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 laptop managed to hang on for a hair under 6 hours in our battery tests.

Also in the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8, you'll find a number of other improvements over ToughBooks released a year ago. Whereas a machine last year got by with a muddy display and measly 1024-by-768-pixel resolution, this laptop looks a whole lot better.

On the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8's 1280-by-800-pixel panel, colours pop a little more and don't get nearly as washed out. Even so, brighter images start to blow out on the matte screen. As for sound, the two grill speakers on the sides of the keyboard, while a marked improvement over a crummy mono tin can, still come off as shallow. In the end, you know that this is a business machine, not a multimedia marvel.

On the software side, the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 provides a fairly minimalist (but good) set of applications. You get Roxio Creator LJB and Roxio BackOnTrack for data backup and disc creation, and the control panel has an option for the "Panasonic Power Plan Extension Utility", which will let you squeeze as much extra life out of the machine as possible. The system comes with a PDF manual, as well.

OUR VERDICT

Although it has its drawbacks, the Panasonic Toughbook CF-F8 is certainly a good choice for the disaster-prone businessperson. However, its cost ensures that only well-to-do klutzes will be able to afford this machine.