Panasonic's 5-inch 'handheld tablet' redefines tough

The Toughpad line of mobile devices also offers built-in heaters to keep the products warm in freezing environments

Panasonic Toughpad FZE1 (1)

Panasonic Toughpad FZE1 (1)

They aren't exactly smartphones, tablets or even phablets, but Panasonic's new Toughpad line of "handheld tablets" redefine tough for mobile devices and include the ability to warm themselves in extreme cold with a built-in heater.

The Toughpad FZ-X1 and Toughpad FZ-E1 have smartphone-size, 5-inch screens. When I picked one up during a product demo, though, the thick, rugged design made it feel like a tablet. Starting at US$1,799, the devices can be used as LTE smartphones, but are also available only with Wi-Fi for more tablet-like uses.

Weighing in at 425 grams, which is more than an iPad, and sporting 25.4-millimeter-thick silhouettes, the devices are built to take bumps and bruises and work in extreme environments. The Toughpad line also marks the introduction of small-screen devices to Panasonic's product lineup of rugged devices, which includes the Toughbook laptops.

"We don't want to call it a smartphone because some may order it without telephony," said Kyle Day, senior product manager at Panasonic.

The handhelds have unique customization features, but what stands out is ruggedness. The Toughpads can withstand 3-meter drops to concrete, and can remain immersed in up to 1.5 meters of water for up to half an hour.

The screens have been reinforced to withstand a drop of a 396-gram steel ball from 80 centimeters. I couldn't test that claim since I didn't have a steel ball handy, but Day said that the company provides a three-year warranty to repair or replace the products in case of an incident.

In addition, a "built-in heater turns on automatically in cold temperatures to keep the battery warm, allowing the unit to boot up in atmospheric temperatures as low as -4 degrees Fahrenheit," Day said. "This is similar technology to what has been used in fully rugged Toughbook laptops."

Heaters in the bigger Toughbook laptops prevent hard drives and motherboard circuits from freezing in cold environments.

The Toughpads are designed to operate in temperatures from -4 degrees Fahrenheit to 140 degrees Fahrenheit (-20 degrees Celsius to 60 degrees Celsius). In comparison, the operating environment for an iPad Mini is 32 degrees Fahrenheit to 95 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius to 35 degrees Celsius).

Other interesting features revolve around the Toughpad's customization options, a trend highlighted by Google's Project Ara, an open hardware platform for creating modular smartphones.

Panasonic's take on customization is simple: The devices have seven pin ports so functional components like bar-code scanners, credit card readers and other parts can be attached to the phone via a specific pin port. The ports make the Toughpads versatile, and Panasonic itself will sell parts to attach to the phone, Day said.

The devices also have buttons on the base that can be customized for specific tasks. The Toughpad FZ-X1, which runs on Android 4.2.2, has four buttons that can be customized for functions such as taking pictures, scanning items, push-to-talk capabilities or dialing specific numbers. The Toughpad FZ-E1, which runs Windows Embedded 8.1, has two customizable buttons.

The Windows-based Toughpad FZ-E1 has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor running at a clock speed of 2.3GHz, while the Android-based FZ-X1 has a Snapdragon 600 chip with a 1.7GHz clock speed. Other features include an 8-megapixel rear camera, a 1.3-megapixel front camera and 32GB of storage. The devices offer 14 hours of battery life on continuous use.

The FZ-E1 Windows model will start at US$1,849, while the FZ-X1 Android model will start at $1,799.

Panasonic will compete in the rugged handheld market with Honeywell and Motorola Solutions, which in April entered an agreement to be acquired by Zebra Technologies for $3.45 billion.

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