Panasonic Taps the Intel Atom

Panasonic will use Intel's Atom to build an ultramobile, rugged PC that offers up to 9 hours of battery life and a 16GB solid state drive.

Panasonic is taking Intel's Atom processor into unexplored PC territory.

The Panasonic Toughbook CF-U1, which the company announced June 25, will carry the Intel Atom Z520-1.33GHz, 533MHz FSB and 512KB L2 cache-along with a 16GB solid state drive, a 5.6-inch-wide screen and the promise of 9 hours of battery life.

What makes the Toughbook CF-U1 intriguing is that Panasonic decided to use Atom for its decent performance capabilities and ability to push the envelope in terms of battery life to create an ultramobile PC for vertical enterprise markets. Typically, the Atom has been used to provide Internet access at a low price without the capabilities of a full laptop such as the Intel's "netbook" design or some options from OEMs built mostly for consumers.

"It's very much a vertical computer," said John Spooner, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "This use of the Atom processors fits the profile of what [Panasonic] needed. What Atom offered is a CPU with the right power envelope that fitted in the form factor that Panasonic decided to use and it gave them the battery life they needed. Panasonic looked at the capabilities of the processor rather than its brand."

The question that this latest Panasonic Toughbook CF-U1 raises is whether other vendors will use Atom exclusively for low-cost PCs-Intel's original intention-or try Atom in a variety of different form factors for various vertical markets instead of using the older Celeron or even Pentium processors.

Other vendors, such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Asustek, which has been on the forefront of the low-cost PC push, have signaled that they will use Atom in much more conventional notebook designs, although ones that will appeal to those seeking less expensive Internet access in a traditional form factor.

However, most of the major PC vendors have not released specific laptops based on Atom, so how the market around Atom will begin to form is still a guessing game at this point. IDC has predicted that the market for low-cost PCs, such as the Asus Eee PC, will be worth about $3 billion by 2012.

In this case, Panasonic is looking to sell Toughbook CF-U1 ultramobile PCs into markets such as health care, real estate and retail that require durable PCs with enough battery life to last through an 8-hour shift and the ability to access the Internet for basic applications needed for business.

The other interesting part of the announcement is that Panasonic kept the CF-1U fairly small-it weighs about 2.3 pounds-but added some of the rugged features that are the hallmarks of its Toughbook line, including a magnesium alloy chassis and a specialized seal that keeps dust, dirt and water away from critical components.

The fact that Panasonic offered a 16GB SSD-there's also a 32GB option-means that this Toughbook will sell at a premium but also conserve battery life and cut down on the weight without a traditional hard disk drive.

Other features in the CF-U1 ultramobile include 1GB of RAM, 802.11 a/b/g and draft-n wireless technology, a 3G wireless option and Microsoft Windows Vista with a downgrade option to Windows XP.

The ultramobile PC will go on sale in August with a starting price of $2,499.