Hands-on: Panasonic Toughpad FZ-F1 - a seriously rugged Windows 10 mobile device

Since Windows 10 launched last year, we've seen the OS make its way to an astonishing array of devices - phones, tablets, all-in-ones, 2-in-1s, smart TVs, micro-PCs, PC sticks, Internet of Things devices, the Xbox One, and all sorts of other form factors, including the good ol' fashioned desktop tower PC. The operating system, in its various versions, will continue to make its way to many more types of devices in the months and years ahead, including specialist devices that aren't designed for the mass consumer market, but which are still essential for businesses around the world.

Panasonic is one manufacturer of such devices, with a keen focus on delivering an extraordinary level of ruggedness and robustness as part of the package. Indeed, the company has built a reputation as strong as its devices in this field, and its 'Tough-'branded devices are widely considered among the best in the business.

This week at Mobile World Congress, Panasonic unveiled its new Toughpad FZ-F1, a replacement for the previous generation FZ-E1, which was an exceptionally rugged device in its own right. Waterproof and effortlessly able to withstand a drop from ten feet onto concrete, the E1 was built like a tank - appropriate, considering that it even saw deployment in military circles. It ran Windows Embedded 8.1 - but the new kid on the block has been brought bang up to date with Windows 10.

The new FZ-F1 doesn't run the Windows 10 Mobile that you'll see on consumer devices though - although it certainly looks like it does. Instead, it runs Windows 10 IoT Mobile Enterprise (although Panasonic said that the version that will be released with the device later this year probably won't include Xbox Games built in...!).

Panasonic responded to feedback from its customers, many of which - it says - were delighted by how rugged the E1 was, but suggested that perhaps it was a bit... too rugged. Many of them were apparently willing to trade some of that robustness for a slimmer, lighter device that could still deal with most of what its users could throw at it - literally, to some extent. The result is the much less chunky, and considerably lighter, FZ-F1.

Check out some of the key specs of the device:

  • 4.7-inch multitouch display with HD (1280x720px) resolution
    • Glove and rain mode
    • Supports passive pen and active pen
    • Anti-glare and anti-reflective treatments
  • Quad-core 2.3GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 (MSM8974AB) processor
  • 2GB RAM
  • 16GB onboard storage (plus microSD slot supporting cards up to 64GB)
  • 8MP rear camera with LED flash and 1080p video recording at 30fps
  • 5MP front-facing camera with 1080p video at 30fps
  • 4G LTE connectivity
  • Dual-SIM support
  • User-replaceable 3200mAh battery with warm-swap functionality (optional 6400mAh Extended battery)
  • Ambient light sensor, digital compass, gyro sensor, accelerometer
  • microUSB 2.0 slot; docking connector
  • NFC
  • Bluetooth 4.1
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
  • 3 microphones; two speakers
  • 156 x 74 x 16.3mm; 277g

...and while Panasonic acknowledges that the F1 is a bit less hardcore than its predecessor, there's still plenty of ruggedness built in:

  • Sealed ports with IP67 rating (dust- and water-resistance up to 1m for 30 minutes)
  • MIL-STD-810G certification for drops of up to 1.8m; rated for 2,000 drops (or 1,000 tumbles) of up to 1m
  • 'Raised bezel for impact protection'
  • -10C to +50C operating temperature rating

Panasonic told me that while the older device was used in some truly extraordinary situations - such as military skydives from thousands of feet in the air - the new model is intended for much less extreme scenarios; more along the lines of processing inventory in warehouses, or dealing with package deliveries. While undeniably more mundane, creating devices for these use cases is no less essential - and it's especially important to ensure that devices such as this one are designed around the needs of the workers that will spend so much of their days using them to perform very specific tasks.

As a result, Panasonic created a more 'hand-friendly' design for the F1; the thinner, lighter bodywork helps with this, as does the slightly more sculpted design compared with the previous version. The company also listened to the workers that use these devices who pointed out that the angle of the integrated barcode scanner made it awkward to use; on the new model, the scanner is now at an angle, which not only makes it much easier to quickly scan barcodes (thereby helping workers to be more productive), but also adds a 'hump' to the rear of the handset. On a consumer device, this would obviously be undesirable, but on a device developed around function rather than form, the hump boosts usability for the worker, who can hold the device a bit more easily. Indeed, it's surprisingly comfortable to hold, despite its immense weight.

On the theme of functionality, you may also note a couple of elements on the spec sheet which you might consider to be less than stellar. For example, despite being a brand new device, it uses Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800 SoC - variant MS8974AB, the same version used on handsets like the Sony Xperia Z2 and ZTE Nubia W5. Why not the latest Snapdragon 820? Well, to put it simply, it's because that would be tremendous overkill. When it comes to highly focused business devices such as this one, you cram in the specs you need, and for the tasks that the FZ-F1 will perform, the two-year-old Snapdragon 800 should prove to be more than enough to do the job.

The same goes for the display - it doesn't need to be huge, and it doesn't need to be Quad HD; a 4.7-inch display with HD (720p) resolution should, the company believes, be enough to clearly and crisply display the kind of information that workers will have to deal with routinely. It's not intended for playing games, watching movies or reading e-books, after all.

Indeed, Panasonic has apparently done its best to carefully consider exactly how the device will be used, and designed it around those functions that it will be required to perform on a day-to-day basis. It may not be exciting or sexy, but devices like this one help to move products and people around the world every day - and that makes them very important indeed.

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