Panasonic CF-01

Mobile Windows 95 doesn't get much better (or more compact) than this (February 1998 issue)

The world of pen technology is very different from that of mainstream computing. Every now and then we come across a terrific new product, but when we try to track it down no one knows where it came from or if it even exists. Perhaps a distributor received the unit from Japan, or it's part of a pilot program, or it's a rebadged trial balloon. In any case, don't expect the folks at 1-800-CALL-US to know anything about it.

Enter the Panasonic CF-01. When faithful Pen Computing Magazine reader Tom Stopyra emailed us a description and a picture of the CF-01 we were intrigued and wanted to know more. We couldn't find a reference to the CF-01 in any of the dozens of Panasonic sites on the WWW. But then we saw the unit at the ScanTech show in Chicago and knew we had to introduce it to our readers. It happens to be a product that may just be the answer to the prayers of project managers with mobile computing assignments.

What Newton could have been

When you first look at the Panasonic CF-01 you're reminded of what a Newton MessagePad might look like today had the powers that be at Apple not stunted its growth. Yes, this could be a color Newton with a bright, large screen, cool design, and the kind of fit and finish that seems to come easy to some of the world's great consumer electronics companies, yet remains elusive to most.

But the CF-01 is not a PDA. Despite its small size—just 8.3 x 5.8 x 1.3 inches; as long as and perhaps an inch wider than a MessagePad—the CF-01 is a full-fledged Windows 95 computer using the by now almost ubiquitous (in mobile designs anyway) Am5x86 running at 133Mhz. And unlike Windows CE devices, the CF-01 has a huge internal 1.6 GB hard disk in addition to its 24 MB of RAM.

Where does this leave Windows CE?

In many respects, the CF-01 actually brings up questions about the future of computing, and of Windows CE in particular:

If you can get a bright 640 x 480 DSTN color screen measuring 7.6 inches diagonally and capable of displaying 65,536 colors, why would you want to put up with a dim 640 x 320 screen such as found in current CE devices?

If you can run any old Windows program in the world, why would you want to limit yourself to a couple of severely limited "pocket" apps and the promise of easy transportability of Win-32 code?

If you can have two PC Card slots, a serial port with a standard connector, access to a real keyboard, and an industrial strength docking station, why would you want to limit yourself to one of those wimpy CE-docks?

And if you can have an honest-to-goodness 1.6GB hard disk, why limit yourself to a few meg of RAM? Especially since the CF-01's expected battery life of two or three hours from its Lithium Ion battery pack isn't all that much worse than the four to six hours industry representatives say we can expect from the first generation of color CE handheld devices.

There's the cost issue, of course (a well-equipped CF-01 goes for about xxx versus a few hundred dollars for a CE device), but the point is that size is not the issue when you decide how much computing power you need in the field.

Well-balanced package

There are other mobile systems as powerful, or more so, than the Panasonic CF-01, but none offer the same compelling combination of features, performance, and compact packaging.

This is a computer that can easily double up as a desktop system, thanks to its most impressive expansion stand. Here again, Panasonic took a lesson from Mitsubishi's AMiTY SP. The expansion unit is far more than just a port replicator. Instead, it provides docking for the system unit at one of two convenient angles, and a whole complement of ports. There is a parallel port, a second serial port, an external VGA port, PS/2-style keyboard and mouse ports (I hate combined ports!), an additional PC Card slot, and even an internal 3.5" floppy drive. About the only thing that's missing is a CD-ROM drive, no big deal—external CD-ROM units with PC Card interfaces are easy to find these days. About the only drawback here is that the expansion stand's tilt mechanism is needlessly clumsy.

Panasonic even took Windows 95's notorious sensitivity to unexpected shutdowns into consideration and included an "Eject PC" icon into the Start menu. If you use this before removing the CF-01 from its dock, all will be fine at the next reboot.

The Panasonic What?

That leaves the issue of the name: CF-01. Panasonic's notebooks of all sorts have long been saddled with the anonymous sounding CF moniker (remember the CF-21 pen convertible?). So while other notebooks carry noble, descriptive designations like "ThinkPad" or "PowerBook," and even CE devices have names such as "MobilePro" or "Mobile Companion," for Panasonic it's all CF. In the case of the review unit it's "CF-01XSDAPM" to be exact.

Superb performer

Whatever the name, this is one impressive unit. The AMD 586/133 processor has enough power to run Windows 95 smartly. The 1.6MB hard disk offers all the space and convenience of your average notebook. The DSTN screen is bright and its ability to display 16-bit color puts it miles ahead of 256 color screens for many graphics applications. Remember, of course, that DSTN color screens are hard to read outdoors and not readable in direct sunlight. The touch-sensitive digitizer is responsive and works well. Icons for brightness/contrast, sound, left and right mouseclicks, and hibernation and suspend are silk-screened to the left of the screen. The unit's overall design is both attractive and functional, and every detail shows Panasonic's production competence and experience. Though the CF-01's basic shape is that of a simple rectangular box rather than an ergonomically shaped unit designed to fit into the palm of your hand, it's actually quite handy and easy to hold. A sturdy rubber handstrap helps you hold on to the computer, but it's one of the weaker aspects of the CF-01. vNo need to compromise Everything else works just like on any other Windows 95 computer. All the familiar programs and functions are there, plus—since this is a pen-enabled computer—Microsoft's Pen Services 2.0. There is a handwriting trainer, a writing palette, and the oft-maligned and incomplete Microsoft onscreen keyboard. The stylus, by the way, looks not unlike that of a CE device, but its body is made of metal. It recedes into a compartment at the lower right of the unit. The polished 77 page manual is informative, covers all the basics, and even has cut-out reference guides for pen gestures and touch panel keys. Though there is no CD-ROM drive, the large hard disk allowed Panasonic to store almost every part of Windows 95 that you'll ever need right on the disk. Very convenient.

Who needs the Panasonic CF-01?

Who should look at the Panasonic CF-01? Those who need a truly mobile, ultra-compact computer that still offers the full power of Windows 95. Those who appreciate the largest and brightest color screen that fits into such a small computer, but don't need ruggedness or direct sunlight readability. Those who appreciate great design and the production fit and finish a large company such as Panasonic can offer. And those who intend to use their mobile computer on the desktop for extended periods of time.

Until Windows CE devices mature and Microsoft decides which way CE will go, it's hard to beat the overall power and functionality of a compact Windows 95 computer, especially one as terrific as the Panasonic CF-01.

This said, please realize that Panasonic isn't out to conquer the desktop or the consumer market with the CF-01. This is clearly a vertical market computer, geared towards areas such as healthcare, distribution, warehousing, or government applications. The ideal customer is a Fortune 1000 company seeking the kind of support and expertise a global giant such as Matsushita/Panasonic can provide. While consumers generally think of Panasonic as a company that makes audio equipment and electronics appliances, Matsushita actually has a large presence in vertical computing application markets. There are indications that the CF-01 will soon be joined by additional, and perhaps ruggedized, products geared towards the increasingly lucrative mobile vertical market. If the CF-01 is an indication, Panasonic has a real chance to be a contender. - —Conrad H. Blickenstorfer -

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

Processor AMD Am5X86/133MHz MMX
OS Windows 95
Memory 8-24MB RAM
Display 7.6" DSTN VGA Color LCD
Digitizer Pressure-sensitive panel
Storage 1.6GB HDD
Size 8.3 x 5.8 x 1.3 inches
Weight 2.2 lbs (base unit including battery pack)
Power Li-Ion 1,200mAh
Interface Serial, 2 Type II P Card, IR, PS/2, extension
Options Expansion stand with floppy, parallel, serial, mouse, VGA
Price US$2,879 (dock $585
Contact Panasonic PC Company, Two Panasonic Way, Secaucus, NJ 07094, www.panasonic.com


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