The Panasonic Toughbook FZ-N1mk2 is targeted toward industrial use cases, and offers functionality beyond what is possible with a smartphone and ruggedized case.
Panasonic’s Toughbook brand of ruggedized devices is strongly associated with notebook computers running Windows, rather than Android-powered devices. Despite the handheld size—and ostensible phone capability, given that it supports LTE—the Panasonic Toughbook FZ-N1 is marketed as a handheld, with great emphasis on the angled rear-facing barcode reader. It’s a much more purpose-built device—and it does feel purposeful, in contrast to well-intentioned experiments like the Galaxy Beam or Galaxy Fold.
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Generally speaking, the Toughbook FZ-N1mk2 would not be out of place among package couriers, a position that—for obvious reasons—requires the ability to scan a high number of barcodes quickly and accurately. Calling the device a glorified package scanner, however, would undersell the capabilities of the system significantly. The N1 is well-equipped to serve the needs of the people who don’t sit at a desk for eight hours a day market it aims for, though a head-to-head comparison with premium flagships like the Galaxy Note 10 would be a less than equitable comparison.
CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 (SDM660-2) 2.2 GHz x 4 + 1.8 GHz x 4
RAM: 3 GB
Storage: 16 GB
Display: 4.7″ 1280 x 720 sunlight-viewable display; 10-point capacitive multi-touch with rain sensing and glove touch mode; optional active or passive stylus
Battery: Quick charging 3200 mAh Li-Ion (standard, as tested) 6400 mAh Li-Ion (optional); warm-swap capability
Ports & Expansions: Angled 1D/2D barcode reader; microSDXC; micro-USB 2.0 (with option for host/client mode control); user definable buttons (x5); integrated microphones (x3) with noise suppression and echo cancellation; dual loudspeakers (up to 100 db); 5MP HD front-facing webcam; 8MP HD rear camera with LED light
Wireless: Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/r/d/h/i/k/v/w; 4G LTE, HSPA+, UMTS; (AT&T and Verizon: Voice and 4G LTE data certified); P.180 Network (data-only); dual NanoSIM; GPS; Bluetooth and NFC
Operating System: Android 8.1 (Oreo)
Weight: Approx. 0.60 lbs.
Certification: MIL-STD-810G, IP66 (high-pressure jet spray) and IP68 (submersible up to 5ft. for 30 minutes), Android Enterprise Recommended
Warranty: 3-year limited warranty, parts and labor
Design and hardware
The Toughbook N1 is a relatively large device. In reality, the N1 is likely to be thinner than consumer-targeted smartphones with an OtterBox Defender case, with the N1 rated for IP66, IP68, and MIL-STD-810G resilience. The camera bump is unparalleled, though Panasonic touts the angled camera and barcode reader as a feature. For users scanning hundreds of barcodes a day, the positioning is likely to be helpful—likewise, it prevents the user from inadvertently covering the scanner with their hand.
Physically, the Toughbook FZ-N1mk2 looks completely identical to the original version, reviewed by ZDNet’s Charles McLellan in 2016.
The N1 retains a great deal of expandability—there are two SIM slots and one dedicated microSD card slot, eliminating the need to sacrifice expandable storage when adding a second SIM. Rather than side-loaded, the SIM and microSD are positioned behind the battery. These readers use a complex ZIF-like assembly—at first glance, they appear more durable than slot-loading readers found on consumer-targeted electronics. Depending on the use case, the microSD is potentially vital, as the N1 is equipped with a relatively paltry 16 GB storage.
The screen is bright, and was clearly intended for use outdoors. Colors are slightly washed out, though this is not a screen intended for content consumption. For a 4.7-inch screen at 315 PPI, it is difficult to fault Panasonic for not going for 1080p—you are still not likely to see individual pixels, at this resolution. Likewise, the front-facing speakers are rated for up to 100 dB, though distortion is inevitable if you play it loud. At noisy worksites, it provides a clear benefit.
There are five user-definable buttons, with the button action configuration tool allowing combinations (A1+A2, A2+A3, and A1+A3) to trigger unique events, including application launches, screenshots, swapping between input profiles (glove touch, rain-sensing touch, and stylus input), invoking silent mode, flashlight, or KeyEvents. A dedicated camera button is on the bottom right, giving it the same modality as an average point-and-shoot camera.
The microUSB port is hidden behind a slider, as is the 3.5mm jack—both of these are field-replaceable port covers, There’s a space behind the microUSB port to attach a strap to the device, as well. Nine contact pins cover the bottom for docked charging, with metal sliders on either side, again, for docking purposes.
Software, performance, and battery
Panasonic makes few visible changes to the Android 8.1 experience on the Toughbook N1, there’s no visible custom theming, with configuration apps added for custom button mapping, and SDK-provided demo apps for barcode scanner. There’s a Dashboard app that serves no discernable purpose, as it fully duplicates the icon drawer, and visually appears to date back to the Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) days. Unfortunately, it cannot be deleted.
Panasonic ships Microsoft’s SwiftKey as the default keyboard.
The Snapdragon 660 is a mid-tier system-on-a-chip (SoC). It’s not a transparently bargain-bin chip, but it also does not deliver particular flagship-level specs. It garners a Geekbench 4 single-core score of 1,642 and multi-core score of 5,764, a modest decrease from the Snapdragon 845-powered Pixel 3, which received a 2,240 and 7,729, respectively. For lack of bloatware, there’s no noticeable lag when using the system from day to day.
The review model shipped with Android 8.1 on the November 2018 security level. Panasonic promised a revised firmware in July that brings it up to the March 2019 security level, though this is not—as of press time—available via OTA updates, or on Panasonic’s website.
Panasonic rates the battery for two years (730 charging cycles) of wear. Considering the battery is field-replaceable, this lifespan is standard. Optionally, a 6,000 mAh battery is available, as well. The battery is warm-swappable.
Camera and barcode scanner
The barcode reader is quick and capable—the device comes with a demonstration app, and an SDK is available to create your own integrations. In testing, the scanner successfully read a (relatively small) barcode from three feet away. The flash LEDs activate when the reader is active, to make scanning easier. The dedicated barcode reader is noticeably faster than camera-based solutions such as Scandit, which work on consumer smartphones.
The camera is underwhelming—the relatively weak 8MP camera turns out average, pointillism-inspired snapshots. It gets the job done, but it’s nothing worth framing.
The Panasonic Toughbook FZ-N1mk2 undoubtedly is fit-for-purpose, though the custom API required for using the barcode reader practically requires mass enterprise deployment of these handsets to recoup the development costs of integrating the device features into your organization’s workflow. This would be true of any Android-powered barcode reader, however, and the extensibility and relative ease of development on Android is likely to make this type of integration less costly compared to custom, bespoke hardware solutions.
Panasonic’s delivery of—and messaging for—Android security updates needs work. Six months behind for an Android security level should be unacceptable for an enterprise device, particularly when mainstream consumer smartphones receive security updates at a faster cadence.
Undoubtedly, this is also going to cause a trifle of sticker shock. Panasonic is quiet about the official price, though cursory searches put the street price at about $1,600—the potential for bulk discounts may exist, depending on the VAR your organization works with. That price point is quite a premium over the bill of materials, though the creeping price increases of flagship smartphones make it less of a disparity. The N1, however, does not use flagship parts.
Ultimately, if you work in an industry that needs these features, it’s a solid solution and will serve your needs far better than a consumer smartphone in a ruggedized case.