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

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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.
_____Recent Columns_____
It's Fury Before Sound With Wireless Media Receivers (The Washington Post, Jun 20, 2004)
A Processor's Clock Speed Is Just One Measure of Performance (The Washington Post, Jun 13, 2004)
Mac Users Get Posh Office; Rival Suite Pales in Comparison (The Washington Post, Jun 6, 2004)
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This may annoy people at first, though, since there's no advance notice that the touch pad works this way.

Ten-inch screens are standard for ultralight machines -- for instance, Sony's TR-series Vaio, barely over three pounds itself, includes a 10.6-inch LCD. But the W2 makes room for a bright, clear, 12.1-inch display.

The rest of the hardware is fairly unsurprising -- about 37 gigabytes of hard drive, an inadequate 256 megabytes of memory (some of which is lost to the graphics circuitry) and a 900 MHz Intel Pentium M processor. An Intel Centrino WiFi receiver, Ethernet port and modem can get the laptop online, and two USB 2. 0 connectors and a PC Card socket accept add-on peripherals. An SD Card slot accommodates the memory cards used in handheld organizers and digital cameras.

That processor speed looks slow these days. So what? This isn't a machine anybody will buy to play games or edit video. It's a second computer to take on the road for such basic tasks as Web browsing and e-mail, and the processor is right for that job.

The proof is in the W2's absurdly protracted battery life. In a worst-case-scenario test, with a DVD playing, the screen at maximum brightness and the WiFi receiver left on, this machine ran for almost 31/2 hours. It cycled through an MP3 playlist under the same conditions for just under four hours; with the screen at half its normal brightness (but still eminently readable), it lasted 41/2 hours.

I also did a best-case test, with WiFi off, the LCD's brightness dimmed as low as possible and only a screen-saver running -- and the W2 soldiered on for eight hours.

Those kinds of numbers mean that, on most days, you can leave the W2's hefty power brick at home and spare yourself the three-fourths of a pound it adds to the laptop's travel weight.

That sloppy design isn't the only missed opportunity here. The ugly latch that keeps the screen closed doesn't retract out of sight when the screen's open, and the keyboard could use some sort of illumination -- either a small light such as what IBM puts in the lids of ThinkPads, or backlighting like an Apple PowerBook's.

Meanwhile, the LED indicators for the caps lock, num lock and scroll lock keys, banished to the front of the laptop, are impossible to see while typing.

Finally, Panasonic's software bundle is thoroughly inept. The installed copy of Windows XP Professional needed security patches from as far back as fall 2002. Intel's grotesquely complicated WiFi software turned the simple task of connecting to a WiFi access point into a five-minute ordeal. The CD-writing features built into Windows XP are disabled in favor of a clumsy, slow, third-party program. There's no productivity software at all, not even Microsoft Works.

But those software defects can be fixed with some tinkering, while there's little buyers can do to fix an overweight laptop once they've left the house with it.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at rob@twp.com.

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