Toshiba Gets Small. Really Small.

By Eric Grevstad | Posted November 18, 2005

Reducing a notebook PC's weight is always a good thing. Reducing its size is not.

Toshiba's Portege series helped define the thin-and-light laptop category, especially the super-slim kind with just a hard disk built in and CD/DVD or floppy drives relegated to snap-on docking stations or plug-in accessories. But the Libretto U100 stands apart from executive-status-symbol or conversation-starter laptops: It's no bigger than a trade paperback book, 6.5 by 8.3 by 1.3 inches, weighing 2.2 pounds.

Don't mistake the Libretto for a PDA, however — it's a fully functional Win XP Professional portable with Intel Pentium M processor, 512MB of memory, a 60GB hard disk and 802.11b/g wireless networking as well as 10/100Mbps Ethernet and a modem. One FireWire and two USB 2.0 ports, analog monitor output (albeit by a supplied adapter cable rather than the usual VGA port) and SD flash and Type II PC Card slots accommodate desktop peripherals.

And while the U100 doesn't have an internal optical drive, it comes with a dock that attaches beneath the system to provide a DVD±RW drive. Even with the dock in place, the Libretto's barely larger (just 0.7 inches thicker), and the computer, dock and AC adapter together total less than four pounds of briefcase ballast.

Does it add up to an irresistibly cute, compact computer? Well, you'll wince at the price: In this age of well-under-$1,000 notebooks, the U100 (like its retail sibling the U105) costs $1,999.

Still, a look at the Sony and Lenovo prices reminds you that ultra-light portables invariably cost more than full-sized ones, and at least Toshiba doesn't charge extra for the DVD dock. So you might still be tempted by the Libretto — until you discover that, while an undeniable feat of engineering, it's a frustrating failure as a practical PC. The thing is simply too small to get work done.

Squint, Hunt and Peck
How small is too small? We can't help comparing the Toshiba to the slightly larger, but still ultra-compact, Fujitsu LifeBook P1510D we tested a couple of weeks ago. The latter's wide-aspect-ratio screen is small — 8.9 inches diagonally — but Fujitsu wisely limited its resolution to a tight but readable 1,024 by 600 pixels.

The Libretto is also a widescreen design, but even smaller — 7.2 inches. Yet Toshiba decided to show off by cramming 1,280 by 800 resolution into the thing. The result, while bright and sharp, makes application menus and Windows desktop icons almost invisible: We wear reading glasses (Ok, Ok, bifocals), yet with the Libretto at normal lap distance, we couldn't quite read the Taskbar clock.

Toshiba provides a zooming utility that lets you press keyboard hotkeys to get a magnified view of Windows icons, Internet Explorer, Microsoft Office, Windows Media Player and Adobe Reader, but for all other applications, you're on your own, and the LCD will get smudges from pressing your nose against it.

Similarly, when we took a ruler to the LifeBook's downsized keyboard, we found the home-row span was roughly 85 percent as wide as our desktop machine's. The Libretto's is just under 75 percent desktop size, but the difference makes all the difference in the world.

With, admittedly, a little practice, you can touch-type on the Fujitsu in a way you simply can't on the Toshiba's tiny keys. You may never get past two-finger tapping, and even if you do — using four or maybe six fingers max — you'll need to keep your eyes on the keyboard instead of the screen. A non-typist might use the U100 to answer an occasional e-mail or change a few cells of a spreadsheet, but like its display, the Libretto's keyboard is barely better than unusable.

That's not to say the Toshiba's bad across the board. Its pointing-stick mouse, for instance, is smoother and surer than the Fujitsu's (though we'd probably pick a touchpad over either). Like a growing number of larger laptops, it includes a biometric fingerprint reader for speedy, secure access to password-protected folders or Web sites. And the bottom dock lets you attach or detach the DVD±RW drive with the twist of a couple of latches.

Under the hood, the low-voltage Pentium M 753 processor, 512MB of memory and 60GB, 4,200-rpm Toshiba hard drive make the Libretto a thoroughly competent performer when kept to the office applications for which it was designed. You'd be nuts to use it for heavy-duty desktop publishing or video editing.

Battery Included
It's not the longest-lived of the sub-notebooks we've sampled, but the Libretto's lithium-ion battery pack provides nearly-transcontinental-flight stamina: Dividing our time more or less evenly between DVD or CD use and undocked, low-voltage word processing, we averaged three and a half hours on a charge. With a less disk-intensive workload, the U100 would probably top the four-hour mark.

Toshiba's software bundle is as ample as always, with a swarm of power-, configuration-, and network-management utilities accompanied by Microsoft Works 8 and Office OneNote 2003; InterVideo's WinDVD and WinDVD Creator 2; Sonic RecordNow; ArcSoft's imaging suite and the trial version of McAfee VirusScan.

When all is said and done, we admire the Libretto U100's sensational space utilization — rivaled only by palmtops like the OQO 01+ or Sony U Series with PDA-sized screens and BlackBerry-style thumb or plug-in keyboards. But though the Toshiba's screen and keyboard top those products, they're just too puny to live with for long.

Pros:

  • Even with its detachable DVD dock, it's smaller and lighter than almost every notebook on the market
  • Performance, input/output connections and battery life are all better than you'd expect

Cons:

  • High-resolution screen means horrible eyestrain; keyboard sized for fingertip tapping, not typing

Adapted from hardwarecentral.com.

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