There is no doubt that one of the major aspects of contemporary law enforcement is the ability to obtain information from the best sources, vet it thoroughly, and disseminate it quickly. The days of retrieving information from your desktop Rolodex are gone. And writing reports with pens and paper is also going the way of the dinosaurs. Computers have become an operational necessity.

The problem for most agencies is that the transition from conventional to computerized is very expensive. That’s why one of my strongest requirements for field equipment is durability. When equipment costs this much, it has to last.

Which brings me to the Panasonic Toughbook CF-29. This laptop lives up to its name. It meets or exceeds the government’s military specification known as MIL-STD-810F.

Mil-specs are a series of testing procedures created by the U.S. government that cover a variety of extreme conditions, including drop shock, vibration, dust resistance, and water resistance. In other words, mil-specs are a way of measuring if equipment can withstand the abuse that cops will surely heap upon it. And police laptops take an awful lot of abuse, which is why the Panasonic Toughbook CF-29 is so remarkable.

The CF-29 weighs in at just less than 8 pounds. When closed it stands 2.7 inches tall by 11.9 inches by 10.5 inches. That’s a little bigger and a little heavier than many laptops, but its ergonomic briefcase design makes it easy to carry.

One of the reasons that the Toughbook is so tough is its container. The outer case is constructed of a magnesium alloy, and it’s fitted with corner bumpers that are many times stronger than typical laptop case materials. Consider a situation in which you’re getting ready to complete a domestic violence report and then, in the blink of an eye, you’re in a fight. Knowing your laptop is ruggedized means you don’t have to worry about it. Just toss it aside and protect yourself.

And what about those other “accidents” that happen inside your cramped patrol car? If my car had a consumer laptop I’d never bring a cup of coffee near it for fear of spills. But the CF-29’s keyboard, screen, and ports are all sealed for your protection. Whether you spill a mammoth 44-ouncer of soda or a large non-fat mocha latté on your Toughbook CF-29, each port is protected by a hinged door with a positive latch to protect it against dust and fluids.
Furthermore, both the hard drive and battery doors have two step latches to prevent you from opening the doors accidentally and losing important data.

OK. So the Toughbook is rugged. So is a brick. The real question is, “How is it as a computer?” And my answer is that it’s a very versatile and powerful machine.

Our test-and-evaluation model came pre-loaded with Windows XP Professional on a 40GB hard drive. Let me go back to the ruggedized issue for a moment. This hard drive is a marvel of engineering. Mounted in damping polymers to help insulate it against sudden blows, the Toughbook’s hard drive is Panasonic’s toughest component designed to withstand a mil-spec fall even when it’s outside the PC.

After loading some proprietary applications via the DVD/CD-ROM drive, including Microsoft’s massive 2003 Office suite, I still had more than 30GB of free space. If you believe you’ll need more space, Panasonic has 60GB or 80GB models available in their shock mounting system.

Although I am most comfortable using a desktop computer with a faster processor, I found the CF-29 and its 1.3GHz processor very responsive. Our CF-29 came with the minimum of 256MB of RAM. That’s not much. But it can be expanded up to 1.2GB or 1.5GB of RAM depending on the model you choose. My recommendation would be that you boost the RAM to 512MB for smooth operation of Windows XP and key law enforcement applications.

The CF-29’s integrated Intel video card worked well, supporting true color and screen modes up to 1024x768 on the touch screen. Many touch screen interfaces can be a pain, but I found it very easy to use this one to perform many functions I’d usually use a mouse to complete. In fact, I discovered it was easier to use the touch screen display than the integrated touch pad, which was sluggish even after adjusting it with Window’s control panel.

If you don’t want to use your finger on the screen, you can use a stylus. Panasonic ships a stylus that resembles a ballpoint pen with the machine. Unfortunately, there’s no place to house it on the PC, meaning it will be lost within a few days.

The Toughbook CF-29 also offers a lot of options for networking. It features Intel’s Centrino mobile technology with a built-in antenna for wireless 802.11 connectivity. It also comes with Ethernet, a telephone modem, USB 2.0 port, and two PCMCIA card slots. The only connectivity option that I think it sorely needs is a FireWire port, which would be great for importing digital video.

One of the more delightful surprises that I experienced while testing the CF-29 is that it seems to have an endless lithium-ion battery life. With most laptops, I’ve found that two to three hours of battery life is the norm. But when it was properly configured, my CF-29 was lasting five, six, and even seven hours, depending on how much I was churning the hard drive. This may have been because it was new, but I think it was because I followed the manufacturer’s recommendation and drained it dry before recharging it.

As part of my evaluation process, I took my ToughBook almost everywhere I went. It even found its way into Disneyland for 2005 Spring Break. There, it survived the high-speed zigzags of the Matterhorn Bobsleds as well as repeated tours inside Indiana Jones’ Temple of the Forbidden Eye, a really wild ride. There’s no doubt in my mind that if my CF-29 can withstand the abuse of my teenage son and the intense vibration and torque produced by a series of Disney’s adventure attractions, it will survive years of punishment in a police car.

Bob Davis supervises the San Diego Police Department’s computer lab. He has 26 years of experience on the force.