The Panasonic Toughpad FZ-G1 is an interesting beast. It is simultaneously a remarkable and impressive feat of engineering; as well as being a source of frustrations that can become irksome to say the least.
It is a sturdy tablet that houses a fully-functioning PC within its solid, flat frame. Not only is it a sign of the times that this technology has been minimised to this extent (although admittedly the FZ-G1 is no lightweight), but that it can be so designed as to be confidently dropped or splashed without particular cause for alarm. Panasonic says you can even bake it in your oven at 120 degrees if you like, just remember to wear gloves when you pull it out.
Being outside our usual realm of review devices, we'll approach this one a little differently with some pros and cons at the outset.
- Fast. Very fast. This thing operates with a speed bereft of most desktop PCs.
- Reliable. Despite the cons, the experience is always the same. There is no random lag or unexpected bugs. You will quickly learn how it operates.
- Turning on and off. The FZ-G1 powers up and down incredibly quickly. This means that you can save battery when not using it, without making the sacrifice of waiting around every time you turn it back on.
- Battery life. The battery life is very good, in part thanks to being able to shut it down without fuss. Some decent battery management software is also probably behind this.
- Durable. You can drop it and you can splash it. Don’t go throwing it against a wall or submersing it in water, that won’t do. But for the kind of damage that may occur on work sites or in the field, the FZ-G1 is well-protected.
- Full Windows. Being a PC, rather than a mere tablet, it comes running a full version of Windows 8. You can also update it to Windows 8.1 for free, if you have a few spare hours and a live internet connection.
- UI not great. The user interface is not always friendly to touch-screen interfacing.
- On-screen keyboard. The software keyboard at times covers up what you are typing.
- Windows 8 and 8.1 aren't great anyway. Normally you can side-step the Metro UI on a laptop or PC. Unfortunately, when it comes to touch, you're pretty much forced to use it.
- Needs more USB. There is only one USB port by default, but you can opt for a second.
Never has the term “mixed bag” applied more accurately to a device we’ve reviewed. In terms of build and raw hardware the FZ-G1 is as good as you could expect. It is sturdy and well-protected, while offering the kind of hardware that can blitz through anything we threw at it. For all intents and purposes Panasonic has done a great job building a portable, powerful PC, with only one, albeit glaring, problem.
There is only one USB port on the default model. How on Earth a serious professional is supposed to get by with one port is mystifying. Remember, this is not so much a tablet as it is a replacement for a laptop or desktop. It’s a sturdy alternative that can be taken out to a work-site, but is not supposed to compromise on usability when operated back in the office.
The problem is, the tablet form-factor will never be as efficient as something with an external mouse and keyboard. At least, not for a very long while yet.
The Toughpad FZ-G1 would be enormously more useful if, once you were at your desk, you could plug it in to a mouse and keyboard with one spare USB port for regular data transfer. Three ports would be optimum: one for a mouse, one for keyboard and one for data. However, minimalism being what it is, you could get by with just two if you were willing to go for a wireless mouse + keyboard combo pack.
Admittedly, there is Bluetooth connectivity, so you can connect a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. But, considering the kinds of uses this device will get, that's not optimal. Bluetooth accessories aren't exactly the kind of thing you always find in a home or office. If you're out on an emergency call or just visiting another office, the last thing you want to be doing is scrounging around for a Bluetooth accessory that may or may not be in the vicinity.
This one seemingly-minor deficiency is enough to completely change a would-be fantastic user experience in to one fraught with contrasts of frustration and usability. The Windows touch-screen user experience has a long way to go before you can cast away your peripheral mouse and keyboard, something you are reminded of constantly if you're after doing office-type work.
You can go ahead and fork out extra for another USB port at the top of the device, but with what you’re already paying we feel this should be included by default. Really, your only option is to go out and buy some Bluetooth accessories and make sure you carry them around with you if you want to get any serious work done.
Windows 8 is already a confusing OS at the best of times, with most users simply ignoring that the Metro-UI Start Screen section even exists at all. That’s all well and good on a desktop, but when you’re going the touchscreen route it becomes an unfortunate necessity.
One immediate problem is that you’re almost required to use Internet Explorer as the default browser. Of course, it’s quite possible to use another option like Chrome, but only IE has a tablet-friendly design for Windows 8. If you do choose to set another browser as default, any Live Tiles that you create through said browser will be ugly and devoid of any live-info updates. So really they’re just ‘tiles’, with nothing ‘live’ about them.
It’s not as bad as it could be. IE is much better than it once was, and if you fully throw yourself in to the Metro UI then you can get some decent use out of this as a touchscreen device. Unfortunately, like a lot of Windows 8, there are areas where all of the touchscreen control elements disappear and you’re thrown in to desktop mode without a mouse and keyboard.
Take writing a Word document. Using the on-screen keyboard is great, until you’ve written about half a page. At this point something ludicrous happens: you can’t see what you’re typing because it’s behind the keyboard.
On a normal tablet you would just scroll up and keep going, but Windows 8 doesn’t support that command in Word or Wordpad. So far as it’s concerned there’s no need for you to scroll because it doesn’t care that your keyboard is covering half the screen. Attempting to scroll will just end up impotently highlighting your text as your rage grows. The UI is replete with these kinds of oversights.
You probably won’t be doing office work anyway
So, the Toughpad isn’t office-work friendly; you need to pay extra for the second USB and the touchscreen isn’t great for writing up reports. Fortunately, that’s not really what it’s for.
This is a machine for first-responders like firemen and ambulance drivers. It’s for military use on the front line or for covert ops. It’s for bunging in to an off-road vehicle and not worrying about it slipping and banging all over the place. It’s just waterproof enough to not worry about a sudden downpour of rain.
All of these scenarios would have you using pre-made, custom-built software designed specifically for the task at hand. For this the Toughpad is perfect. Running 64-bit Windows means it’ll run just about any program around. The brightness goes between a super-low 2 nits and an honestly-impressive 800 nits, which gives you good visibility in direct sunlight.
No, the UI isn’t particularly intuitive but a professional operating under these circumstances will have received training in the use of all their gear. Panasonic isn’t pandering to the general consumer here: it’s offering a hardcore processing option to a very niche market. And it’s doing it well.
My kingdom for a USB port
Still, Panasonic would do itself a favour by making the Toughpad just a little more user-friendly. After all, if you’re making a tablet that will work under all of these conditions then it would be a godsend on many a work-site.
That extra USB port would make it ideal for a mobile office at a mine, or building site, or demolition site. The kind of place where the user makes several transitions from office to tough outdoors and back to office every day. These are also the kinds of places where you might find users that are less than comfortable with computing technology, and may not realise they need to buy the optional extras until it’s too late.
That's not to say construction management professionals are necessarily luddites, but there's never any harm in making your tech a little less demanding on the user to provide their own positive experience.
If you're after hardware specifics then we have that, too.
- Core i5 3437U 1.9GHz, 2.49GHz
- 4GB RAM
- Integrated Intel graphics card
- 64-bit Windows 8 (upgradeable to 8.1) pre-installed
- WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n
- Bluetooth 4.0
- Optional 3G or 4G
- 1x HDMI port
- 1x USB 3.0 port
- 3.5mm headphone jack
Not ever having served in the military, or as an emergency-response professional, it’s difficult to say just how useful the Panasonic Toughpad FZ-G1 would be. Bending my imagination a little I would say it could be a remarkable addition to these circumstances. There aren’t too many options out there for a fully rugged tablet-shaped PC, and certainly not many that are as powerful as this.
It is a shame, though, that Panasonic came so close to making a great PC for worksites, too. With some relatively minor additions the Toughpad could have increased its potential audience significantly.