Hands On with the Panasonic Toughpad A1 Android Tablet
I’ve been given an opportunity to demo a Panasonic Toughpad A1 (The Android edition of the Toughpad) over the last week, as my full-time job is looking into buying a few of these to support our emergency operations center and trainings. Here are some of the pros and cons of my evaluation…
The Toughpad is a formidable device, sporting a 10″ screen, a heavy-duty casing, reminiscent of the good old CF-18 and CF-19 Toughbooks so many of us in public safety have come to love. First off, if you are expecting to have the same experience as you would from a consumer-grade device, like the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 or an ASUS Transformer, you might be disappointed. This is a professional-grade device, with robust security features (something distinctly lacking in iOS devices like the iPad), weather and shock tolerance, and due to it’s rugged casing, considerably more weight. It also costs about as much as 2 or 3 of a comparable consumer device.
Here is a link to an article I wrote previously about the Toughpad A1 when it was making its debut in September of 2012, but I hadn’t gotten to do extensive play on it… Toughpad – The Armored Android
The Toughpad comes pretty stripped down, without bloatware constantly pestering you to buy this, trial that, upgrade this, etc. Hey, you’re paying a bundle for this system, so the manufacturer should be willing to give you the closest thing to stock they reasonably can. That being the case, I logged in with my own GMail account and added a large chuck of the apps I own, and added the Amazon Appstore app, where you get a free Android app daily. I added a few GPS tools and widgets to make use of the A1′s built-in GPS receiver, a boatload of public safety apps, a few calendars, and QuickOffice (my favorite of all the Android office productivity suites). It handled the majority of them remarkably. A few of my apps didn’t run so well, but they were designed for a smartphone, not a tablet, so that is definitely not Panasonic’s fault. Some of the smartphone apps are rendered on a tablet screen, so they can be a little difficult to work with and appear fuzzy. Others were the same size as a smartphone screen, but centrally located in the tablet’s screen. The Kindle app worked beautifully, and I read about 5 books on the A1 this last week with no trouble at all.
There is a user programmable button next to the power button. It lacks volume control buttons, so you have to jump into the settings to adjust volume if the app doesn’t have it’s own soft buttons (usually media players include a volume slider). I set a long-press on the user customizable button to open the Panasonic “Dashboard”, which controls screen brightness and volume, among other handy features. The physical buttons adorning the bottom of the unit require a firm press and I’m happy to have them as opposed to the soft buttons you get at the bottom of the display. Front and rear cameras are adequate. They’re not as highly spec’ed as those on teh iPad, but they do the job more than sufficiently. I can capture a snapshot and upload it to the app of my choice with little difficulty.
Screen and HDMI Out:
With a 10″ screen, you can fit icons and widgets to your heart’s content, and since it operates Ice Cream Sandwich (Android v4.0), you can add pages to your homescreen. The screen has some off-axis deficiencies, which obscure your ability to read it easily if you are not looking close to straight-on. Well, deficiencies isn’t necessarily the best word. If you are using this device for work, you probably don’t always want people looking over your shoulder at what you are working on. That makes the off-axis limited viewing more of a perk. I had a couple occasions where I was trying to have someone view the Toughpad to my side, but needed them to move closer to over my shoulder. This demo unit came with a non-glare screen protector directly from Panasonic, so I am unsure whether this is a feature of the provided screen cover, or if it is inherent with the display. Having used the 3M privacy screen protector on my iPhone in the past, the off-axis screen obscurity was not as good as the 3M.
If you are suitably equipped where you might want to share the screen with many people at a time, the Toughpad A1 does feature an HDMI out port. This comes in very handy if you want to run a PowerPoint presentation or post a document up on a bigger screen. In the case of my emergency operations center, I would definitely like this feature to show status boards on WebEOC, a Crisis Information Management System (CIMS) used by FEMA and thousands of government and private entity operations centers daily around the world. I am my agency’s system administrator for WebEOC, so it is a big part of my computer usage.
I managed to get caught in a bit of rain while walking between buildings last week. I treated the rain like I would with any Toughbook tabletPC or laptop. I simply ignored it and continued working on my document and web page. I arrived into the next building and wiped off the screen with no detriment in user experience. You simply won’t get that from an iPad or Samsung without a LifeProof or Otterbox case. I did not push my luck and try any submersion tests. I simply ensured all the port covers were closed before walking outside into the light rainstorm.
Battery life on a device seems to never be what the manufacturers of any device claim, and this was no exception. I didn’t activate the Gobi aircard built in, but tethered the tablet to my Verizon iPhone, and it worked quite well. I attached to WiFi only a couple times, and that also worked just as easy as any other Android device. I did not have Bluetooth active. This is pretty consistent with how I would use the device in a public health emergency. I averaged between 4-6 hours of overall usage before needing to recharge. During that time, I spent approximately half of it surfing the web or working on webapps with one of four browsers I was testing with, and the other half, I was streaming YouTube and Netflix videos or reading with the Kindle App or QuickOffice. I’m not overly happy with this, but it isn’t a real problem for me. Several of the tablets my agency is considering buying, I will expect to disable GPS entirely and only use WiFi and maybe a Bluetooth keyboard.
Touchscreen performance is a bit underwhelming to me. The physics scrolling of the device (where you quickly swipe up with your finger and the page continues to scroll down until slowing to a stop) needs some serious revision. It was essentially useless, forcing me to swipe about 5x as much as I would have on a normal Android smartphone or tablet. My measurement of 5x as much is precision guesswork, by the way. Some interaction with the touchscreen was a pain due to it not scrolling with the expected behavior and when I would reapply finger pressure to scroll more, it would inadvertently open the app I was touching over (such as when flipping between homescreens) or activate a link or pop-up selection feature, and I don’t recommend using Facebook without the stylus until the responsiveness to finger-touch is improved, but this is a work computer, so you probably won’t use Facebook much anyway. The Toughpad does feature a stylus, and the physics scrolling feature works admirably with that.
In addition to the physics scrolling feature working nicely with the stylus, the included stylus also features a button that I cannot seem to deduce its purpose. On my Lenovo TabletPC, it serves as a right-click, but Android has no analog to the Windows right-click. I assume it’s a one-size fits all stylus that would also be equipped on the Windows version of the Toughpad, the G1. I expect to be demo’ing that model in the next two weeks, so keep an eye out for that article.
The Panasonic Toughpad A1 has a platform specific charging port and 2Amp AC charging adapter, much to my chagrin. I really cannot see a reason that they couldn’t come up with a standardized USB charging port like most other tablets and smartphones. The AC charging adapter was not equipped with a DC adapter, so I could not charge the Toughpad in my car without bringing along an DC/AC auto inverter. Charging takes several hours, but I suppose no longer than any other tablet on the market.
The stock Android on-screen keyboard leaves almost as much to be desired as the iPad’s or Windows Phone’s completely non-customizable, unimaginative keyboards do. I was done with it in a few seconds. I installed SwiftKey’s keyboard and was met with mixed results. I bumped key size up to the largest size and that helped, but the new swipe to type feature only worked about twice for the whole week. I don’t know if this is because it is a newer feature, or if the keyboard didn’t know what to do with a stylus interaction, or what. I don’t fault Panasonic for this. I’d rather they leave the operating system as stock as possible so I can customize it the way that suits me. I’m going to load Swype and one or two other keyboard apps today and play with those. Heck, I might even load Graffiti Pro on it and see if the old Palm O/S input method gives me good results. It’s worked on my previous Android phones just fine. I’ll leave this one as inconclusive.
There are good and bad features. It isn’t a consumer-grade device. It is pricey, but you are paying for durability and resilience. If you liked working with the old Panasonic Toughbooks (CF-18 and CF-19), then you’ll be right at home with the Toughpad A1. The only red flag I found is the physics scrolling by finger-touch, and I bet that is simply a settings tweak I haven’t come across or a simple update from Panasonic. The pen does a fine job with replacing that. I ran over a hundred different apps including four different browsers with nary a problem. No apps crashed on me. GPS worked like a charm. Screen was bright and viewable outdoors, and tolerated a little rain exposure with no problem. It’s heavier than a consumer tablet, but a bit less weight than a laptop. I would have liked to demo the optional Bluetooth keyboard with it. Overall, I’d give the Toughpad A1 an 8 out of 10.
Read my pre-release review of the Toughpad – The Armored Android here.