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Panasonic Toughpad FZ-A2

2017 redux of Panasonic's first-ever rugged Android tablet has Toughbook roots
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)

It seems like only yesterday that Panasonic introduced their original Toughpad on Monday, November 7, 2011 at a major media event at Dallas Cowboy Stadium in Arlington, Texas (read our historic coverage). Then Panasonic Solutions Company president Rance Poehler, who is now at Dell, introduced the Toughpad A1 as the first of an impending series of "professional-grade Android-powered tablets." Fast-forward 5+ years to the present, January 2016, and we know that rugged Android tablets didn't catch on as quickly as once expected. But they are certainly here now, and so Panasonic, which at this point has a whole lineup of Android and Windows tablets, introduced the Toughpad FZ-A2 on January 12, 2017.

It's interesting how times have changed. When the original Toughpad A1 was introduced, Panasonic essentially only had the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet and the Motorola ET1 as competition. The Apple iPad was the undisputed overall ruler of tablets, and so Panasonic adopted its 4:3 aspect ratio 1024 x 768 pixel portrait layout. But the world just wasn't quite ready for Android business tablets, even one as reasonably priced as that original Toughpad.

It's a different world now. Windows has made a somewhat unexpected comeback in tablets, and there are dozens of rugged Android tablets. Panasonic itself has nine tablets and phablets, five Windows and four Android. Both OS platforms have established themselves as suitable for useful, productive tablet work. So it made perfect sense for Panasonic to reintroduce a 10-inch class Android tablet, updated to current tech, layout and customer expectations.

Below you can see what's old, what's new, what's changed and what hasn't.

Toughpad FZ-A2 vs original Toughpad FZ-A1
Model Toughpad FZ-A2 Toughpad FZ-A1
Introduced January 2016 November 2011
OS Android 6.0 Android 3.2
Processor 1.44GHz Intel Atom x5-Z8550 1.20GHz Marvell PXA2128
CPU cores/threads 4/4 2/2
Mass storage 32GB eMMC 16GB
Expansion slots microSD Card microSD Card
Display 10.1"/1920 x 1200 (224 ppi) 10.1"/1024 x 768 (127 ppi)
Display nits 800 nits 500 nits
Touch 10-point capacitive Capacitive
Pen Passive Active
Battery Life "9 hours" "10 hours"
Size (inches) 10.7 x 7.7 x 0.65 10.5 x 8.4 x 0.7
Weight (lbs.) 1.94 lbs 2.1 lbs
Sealing IP65 IP65
Drop 5 feet 4 feet
Temp. range Unknown -4° to 122°F
Altitude Unknown 15,000 feet
Camera 2mp front + 8mp rear 2mp front + 5mp rear
USB USB 3.0 + USB C microUSB 2.0
Bluetooth v4.2 Class 1 v2.1 Class 2
WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac 802.11a/b/g/n
WWAN opt. 4G LTE opt. 4G LTE
Price starting at US$2,189 starting at US$1,299

So what do we make of this new 10-inch Toughpad and where does it fit in?

In terms of looks it's instantly recognizable as a Toughpad, with the Toughbook-pioneered heavy use of contoured magnesium. It's a handsome design and one that undeniably has a look and character of its own, not an easy thing in today's tablet market of often nearly indistinguishable products. The new A-Series Toughpad is also remarkably light and slender (without its optional snap-on "configuration area" options) for a rugged tablet.

What's changed is the display. While the iPad continues to carry the portrait orientation torch, almost all other tablets on the market are now primarily configured for landscape orientation. The aspect ratio also changed from the iPad-like 4:3 to a wider 16:10. Resolution is 1920 x 1200 pixel, which is gratifyingly sharp and in what Apple calls the "retina" range. At 800 nits it's quite bright, too, significantly brighter than the original FZ-A1. There's, of course, capacitive multi-touch with a special rain-sensing mode. The active pen of the original A1 has been replaced with a passive stylus, but we don't know if it is of the same technology that works so well on the Toughpad FZ-M1.

The FZ-A2 is powered by a 1.44GHz quad-core Intel Atom x5-Z8550, a somewhat surprising choice since the vast majority of Android tablets are powered by ARM chips. There's 4GB of SDRAM and a soldered 32GB of eMMC mass storage. That can be augmented with up to 32GB via the tablet's microSD card slot. There's dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Class 1 (long distance) Bluetooth version 4.2, and optional integrated 4G LTE wireless broadband. There are dual cameras (2GB front, 8GB rear). The user-accessible battery packs 31 watt-hours, good for up to 9 hours. For wired connectivity there's a standard USB 3.0 port, a USB Type-C port, audio and HDMI.

This being a tablet for work, Panasonic wanted to offer popular options such as 1D/2D barcode scanning or a SmartCard reader, but without bulking up the slender profile of the basic tablet. So those options come as bolt-on modules for special "configuration areas." The image below shows the bare FZ-A2 with its battery and back cover on the left, and with configuration area options installed on the right.

Now if much of this is starting to sound a bit familiar, it's because it is. Yes, the FZ-A2 is really an Android-based, Atom-powered, lower-end tablet half of the Toughbook 20. Does that mean the functionality-adding keyboard half of the Toughbook 20 is also available for the FZ-A2? We don't think it is.

Panasonic calls the Toughpad FZ-A2 "fully-rugged" and states that it is a "MIL-STD-810G design." Unfortunately, the only hard data supplied in the specs is a 5-foot drop rating and IP65 ingress protection, where the "6" stands for totally dustproof and the "5" that the device is protected against low-pressure jets of water from all directions. Panasonic's Toughbooks and Toughpads have been around, Toughbooks are market leaders, and we have no doubt about their great quality and ruggedness (we've seen the ruggedness testing in Japan firsthand). However, Panasonic really ought to supply more detailed ruggedness information, especially since the Toughpad FZ-A2 starts at a rather considerable US$2,189, and it's the very ruggedness of the product that justifies the price.

And price, unfortunately, is an issue here. The original Toughpad FZ-A1 started at just US$1,299, so we're seeing an almost 70% price increase for the FZ-A2. To put that further in perspective, Panasonic's own Windows 10-based Toughbook 20 with a full Intel Core processor and detachable keyboard with plenty of extra connectivity starts at US$3,099. And the FZ-A2's most direct competitor, the Xplore XSlate D10 begins at US$1,649. So what we have here is an interesting rugged tablet with impressive Panasonic pedigree, but at a rather lofty price.

Specifications Panasonic Toughpad FZ-A2
Added/updated Added January 2017
Processor Intel Atom x5-Z8550 with 2MB Intel Smart Cache
CPU Speed 1.44 GHz (2.4GHz Turbo Boost)
CPU SDP 2 watts
OS Android 6.0.1 (Marshmallow)
Fan (yes/no) No
Standard/Max RAM 4GB SDRAM
Disk/drive 32GB eMMC
Card slots 1 x microSD (up to 32GB), optional 1 x SIM
Display type Daylight-readable LCD with direct bonding and anti-reflective treatment
Display size/res 10.1" widescreen (16:10) 1920 x 1200 pixel WUXGA, 800 nits
Digitizer/pens Projected capacitive 10-point multi-touch (2-point in rain-sensing mode) and passive stylus pen
Keyboard/scale Onscreen or optional external
Housing Magnesium alloy chassis, ABS corner guards
Operating Temp "MIL-STD-810G design"
Sealing IP65
Shock 5-foot drop
Crush Unknown
Size (WxHxD) 10.7 x 7.7 x 0.65 inches (271 x 196 x 17 mm)
Weight 1.94 lbs. (880 grams)
Power User-replaceable 11.4V, 2,720mAH, 31 watt-hour Li-Ion battery ("9 hours"), 60-second bridge battery
Cameras Front: 2mp; rear: 8mp AF + LED
Sensors Ambient light, digital compass, acceleration, gyro
Interface 1 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB 3.1 Type-C, 1 x HDMI, 1 x mini-jack audio, dock; optional SmartCard reader, optional 1D/2D barcode reader
Wireless Intel Dual Band Wireless AC8260 Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Class 1 Bluetooth v4.2 + EDR, optional integrated 4G LTE mobile broadband with satellite GPS
List price Starting at US$2,899
Web page Toughpad FZ-A2 web page
Brochure Toughpad FZ-A2 spec sheet (PDF)
Warranty 3-year limited warranty