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Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro
Squeezing a Lot Into a Little, Lightweight Package


Rob Pegoraro notes that Panasonic's ToughBook CF-W2 comes with a combination unit that burns CDs and plays DVD movies and still manages to weigh in at less than pounds. (Courtesy Panasonic)

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Monday, 2 p.m. ET: Rob Pegoraro will be online to talk about his latest columns on Verizon Wireless's BroadbandAccess service and e-mail technology.
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By Rob Pegoraro
The Washington Post
Sunday, March 7, 2004; Page F06

Finding a laptop that weighs less than three pounds has never been particularly hard -- just remove enough parts from the thing. The usual remedy is to take the CD-ROM drive out, making it an ejectable module, an "expansion slice" that latches onto the bottom of the laptop or an external drive that plugs into an expansion port.

A laptop that weighs less than three pounds with a CD-ROM drive, let alone a combination unit that burns CDs and plays DVD movies, is much more unusual.

Panasonic's ToughBook CF-W2 is the first machine I've tried that accomplishes that trick -- while delivering far better battery life than computers weighing twice as much. A few dubious details and a weak software bundle aside, this 2.8-pound, $2,200 machine is a remarkable piece of work.

The only problem is that the W2 is so hard to find, and not just when this diminutive device (about 11/4 inches thick, 101/2 inches wide and 81/4 inches deep) has gotten lost under a sheet of paper on a desk.

Panasonic, which has traditionally focused on building rugged laptops for business and government markets, has yet to put this model into wider circulation since its debut late last year -- only a handful of name-brand online retailers carry it.

The designers managed to get that CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive onboard by slipping it underneath the keyboard. To open it, flip a switch on the side of the laptop -- not the one directly underneath the drive's lid, which turns the laptop on and off -- and half of the palm rest flips up to expose the drive.

This unusual design does expose the drive's lens when the lid is open, so you need to take care not to spill any crumbs. It also doesn't do much to quiet this mechanism -- it whined like a miniature circular saw while I was copying an audio CD to the hard drive.

And it leaves room for only one speaker, not two (as if anybody would listen to their MP3s on this laptop without headphones anyway). Those are all fair prices to pay to get this hardware built in.

Keyboards are usually the bane of small laptops, but Panasonic avoided most of its competitors' mistakes. The W2 packs its keys in tight, but the letter keys are as wide as on a normal keyboard and both shift keys are sized and spaced appropriately. The tab key and space bar could be wider, and the bumps on the home-row F and J keys should be larger, but touch-typing was no problem.

The touch pad in front is round, not square, and hides another interesting departure from the usual. The outer perimeter of its touch-sensitive area doubles as an iPod-esque scrolling control: Spin a fingertip clockwise or counterclockwise around that edge and you'll scroll up or down in the current window.

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