Remember when we were all so excited about some of those modular smartphone projects like Project Ara? The Moto Z series seems to be the only one that has stuck around, and that’s really only expansion packs like the Compaq iPaq had in 2000.  Well, how about a modular laptop instead? That’s right, the Panasonic Toughbook FZ-55 is a new partially ruggedized laptop made with many interchangeable parts. Some parts can be swapped out with just a switch on the bottom while some parts can be changed with a simple screwdriver.

Don’t get too excited though. This is still a rugged niche laptop meant for getting real work done in slightly more hostile environments. This probably isn’t something that you’d want to carry to school or sit around a coffee shop using, though you certainly could.  It’s more of a military/police computer that you might mount in a vehicle.

Hardware

The first thing you’ll notice about the Panasonic Toughbook FZ-55 is that it does not look like a Macbook like all of the other laptop makers are trying to copy. The Toughbook looks like the kind of computer you’d need for an industrial job and it is.  It’s not thin and dainty. It’s thick, heavy, and tough… like a good pick up truck.

There’s a big metal latch holding the laptop closed. It doesn’t seem necessary since the hinge is stiff enough to hold the computer closed on its own, but the latch ensures that it’s not going to be opened accidentally.

Oh, and there’s a handle!  It’s a serious handle too…. all metal with arms that fold and snap down for when you need less of a handle. Carrying this around like a briefcase is actually pretty great. There’s no need to worry about it slipping out like all of those other glossy thin laptops.

Of course we have logos on the back and this silver matte metal finish doesn’t get messy with fingerprints at all.

Underneath the latch we’ve got a camera plus some infrared sensors that enable the Windows Hello bio-metric face recognition log-in feature.  You can also see a nice big sliding door here that will let you completely cover up these sensors for security.

There are rubber bumpers around the edges of the bezel to keep things protected.

The hinges for the screen are very beefy and strong.

The power button is a rectangular rubber button instead of plastic.  This nicely makes for a completely different texture and feel to the button thus making it easy to find and press. There are 5 informative LED status icons next to it as well.

The keys on the keyboard have plenty of travel, but they’re flat as opposed to the concave shape that better desktop keyboards have. Actually they feel a little convex. It’s kind of strange that they’re not rectangular either with two corners rounded off, but that doesn’t have any affect on typing.

Yes the keyboard is backlit and you can set it to change colors based on different times of day.

In the left and right sides next to the keyboard are speaker grills. The speakers are pretty loud, but the audio quality isn’t amazing.  Plus they’re pointing upwards instead of towards you so the sound may get lost in rooms with high ceilings.

There are some more informative LED lights on the outside near the handle too.

Since the Toughbook FZ-55 is so thick, there is plenty of room for ports.  Here’s a USB port and HDMI port hidden under this flap on the back.

The cooling grill for air-flow on the back is pretty big too!

On the right side we’ve got another set of flaps covering the power/charging port, some more USB ports, a MicroSD slot, and a 3.5mm headset jack.  There’s also an actual silo for an included capacitive stylus.  The stylus clicks into that hole to keep it secure too.  We haven’t seen one of those in a long time! You’ll also see one of the smaller module bays on this edge.

On the left side there are two module bays. Obviously we have two different sizes.  The shorter size bay is the same as the one on the other side of the computer, so those are interchangable while there’s only one bay for the larger CD-sized modules.

On the bottom you can see lots of panels and screws that you can use to remove or replace hardware. You can see the release switches for the module bays here as well.

Even the SSD drive can be popped out and replaced from the bottom.

You’ve also got a docking station connector for vehicle mounts or other peripherals.

Expansion Modules

Do you want to see hardware expansion modules?  Because we’ve got hardware expansion modules!

We’ve got a huge pile of modules that can be added to the Toughbook FZ-55. It’s all about customization ability!

You can actually get an I/O pack that replaces some of the modern USB ports with serial ports. You might be surprised by this, but the market for this kind of computer is often using computers with other types of military/industrial/police hardware that has been in use for over 30 years.

Windows Hello’s infrared facial scanning log-in may not be trust-worthy enough for your business, so there’s also a smart card reader module.

A fingerprint reader module is available too.

You can insert two battery pack modules if you want to double the battery life from 20 hours to 40 hours.

If you continuously need to access data on Blu-Ray disks, of course there’s a Blu-Ray drive module.

There’s a DVD multi-drive too if you need to use DVDs and CDs a lot.

Another version of the smart card reader module fits in the wide module bay slot in case you want to use the two smaller bays for something else like two batteries or a battery and fingerprint reader.

The graphics processing unit inside the computer is just a regular Intel integrated chip, but if you want more GPU power, there’s a module for that too! This module will give you an AMD Radeon Pro WX 4150 GPU.

Inside the computer, there’s only 256Gb of SSD storage.  You can add another Terabyte with this module.  UPDATE: This is a pre-release model. The release versions include 512Gb SSD drives by default.

Okay, above shows the actual amount of disk space that you’ll get from the included SSD module inside the computer along with the extra side-bay module.  UPDATE: This is a pre-release model. The release versions include 512Gb SSD drives by default.

Software

The Panasonic Toughbook FZ-55 comes with Windows 10 Pro. Yes, that includes all of the silly bloatware games and junk that normally comes with Windows 10. Panasonic does include a few custom programs that help control some of the features of the Toughbook though.

 

It does ship with an older version of Windows 10 Pro, but updating to the latest version isn’t a problem.

 

You can install and enable emergency notifications via some of Panasonic’s included software.

 

Another utility lets you customize screen brightness, keyboard backlight brightness, and colors depending on the ambient light sensor or time of day.

 

In this PC Settings utility, you can customize some of the function keys on the keyboard.

 

You can customize some touch screen options as well and even make it so it works while you’re wearing gloves.

Overall the software works quite well, but I did run into a blue screen of death a couple of times. However, this is a pre-release unit, so there must be some bugs to still work out.

Battery Life

If battery life is important, you’ve got some excellent options with a modular PC such as the Panasonic Toughbook FZ-55. A single battery gives you 6500 mAh which lasts about 20 hours. You can add a second battery right within the case using the modular bays in order to double that to 40 hours.  Then if you want to get a 3rd battery and keep it charged externally, you can swap out dead batteries to keep rolling indefinitely.

Pricing and Availability

Such a highly specialized semi-rugged super modular laptop computer doesn’t come cheap. The pricing starts at $2,099 and each module you choose to add obviously increases that price. Panasonic doesn’t even list the prices on their website and points you to a list of 3rd party re-sellers for purchasing… and most of those don’t list prices either. So you’re probably going to have to be part of a police, EMS, fire, military, government, or industrial company to get any of these types of computers.

Conclusion

If you’re a normal consumer, you probably won’t be able to get one of these Panasonic Toughbooks. It’s really the type of laptop that will probably be issued to you by an employer. Due to the modular nature of the FZ-55, you’re also losing some of the ruggedness that other Panasonic Toughbooks can boast, but naturally that’s a compromise you’ll have to consider.  Does it need to be totally waterproof or does it need to be flexible enough to swap out hardware components at a moment’s notice?  If you need to swap out hardware components on a mobile computer as easily as you could with a desktop tower or server, there’s really nothing else on the market that will let you do that as easily as the Panasonic Toughbook FZ-55.

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