The name Libretto might ring a few bells. Toshiba introduced a miniature range of portable computers with this name back in 1996, initially in Japan. The Libretto arrived in Europe in 1997, but was subsequently dropped from Toshiba's product line-up. Now it has returned as an ultra-ultraportable that packs in a remarkably full set of features. However, the Libretto U100 is expensive at around £1,300, so for the money it needs to be a fully functional notebook. Does it deliver?
The Libretto U100 looks very impressive, with the main system unit styled in black, and the lid half white, half silver-magnesium. This provides very solid protection for the screen, as well as giving the U100 a distinctive and appealing look. Clearly the Libretto U100 is small, but just how small has to be seen to be believed. It actually comes in two parts: the computer itself and a docking unit called the SuperMulti Dock, which houses the optical drive (a multi-format DVD burner, no less).
The main unit measures 210mm wide by 165mm deep by 29.8-33.4mm high, the variance due to a tapering of the lid towards the front. Without the docking unit, the U100 weighs just 0.98kg. The SuperMulti Dock adds about 14mm to the height and about 10mm to the depth with a protrusion at the front. With this unit attached, the Libretto U100 weighs 1.43kg.
Not surprisingly, both the keyboard and the screen are smaller than usual. The screen measures just 7.2 inches across the diagonal, yet has a native resolution of 1,280x768 pixels (WXGA). It has a backlight comprised of 32 LEDs and has a slightly reflective surface. Even so, it's bright, very clear and absolutely pin-sharp. Delivering a high resolution in such a small space makes it quite difficult to read text on the screen if you sit the usual distance away from it. When writing this review, we found it necessary to hunch over the system in order to get close enough to the display.
On the other hand, watching DVDs on the Libretto is extremely rewarding. We had different issues with the keyboard, which is a challenge even for the small of finger. We measured its QWERTY keys at 12mm wide and 9mm deep with 2mm spacing, and although it's possible to touch-type if you reduce your typing speed, working at normal pace produces far too many typos. Hunt-and-peck one-finger typists may find this less of an issue, though. The U100's tiny wrist-rest area houses a two-button AccuPoint joypad that's used for cursor manipulation, plus a fingerprint reader to the right of the right mouse button. The 3,400mAh Li-ion battery, which is removable, sits on the back of the system, protruding slightly from a flush position.
The Libretto uses the 1.2GHz ultra low-voltage Pentium M 753 processor, which has 2MB of Level 2 cache and a 400MHz frontside bus. The Atheros AR5005GS wireless networking module supports the 802.11b and g standards, while the integrated graphics are handled not by Intel's most recent 915GM chipset with the Graphics Media Accelerator 900, but by the previous-generation 855GME, which can dynamically use up to 64MB of main system memory.
Our review model came with 512MB of system memory (expandable to 1GB) and a 60GB, 4,200rpm hard drive. A hard drive protection module detects vibration or sudden movement and can put the drive head into a safe position. An on-screen message lets you know when this occurs -- you can set the 'detection level' at which this protection kicks in, or turn it off completely.
Connectors and ports pepper the front, left and right edges of the system. On the left-hand side there's a switch for the 802.11b/g and Bluetooth modules, a single PC Card slot and a mini VGA-out port (Toshiba bundles a converter to a standard VGA connector). The front houses an SD card slot, a FireWire (IEEE 1394) connector and a range of status LEDs, plus a hefty slider for ejecting PC cards. The right-hand side accommodates a volume control wheel, headphone and microphone jacks, a pair of USB 2.0 ports and connectors for the integrated 56Kbps modem and 10/100 Ethernet module.
The SuperMulti Dock could have boosted the connectivity options -- in particular by providing more USB ports and perhaps further flash card support, as well as legacy connectors such as PS/2 or parallel. But it doesn't: its sole job is to house the multi-format DVD burner and provide a range of media control buttons (fast-forward, rewind, play, pause) on the front protrusion. For convenience, and to conserve battery life, you can play DVDs and CDs without booting the system into Windows.
Ultraportable computers are rarely stellar performers, although Acer's recent TravelMate 3004WTMi is an honourable exception. However, the TravelMate 3004WTMi is built on Intel's latest Sonoma platform and has a 2GHz/533MHz FSB Pentium M processor, unlike the Libretto U100, which uses the older 855GME chipset and has a 1.2GHz/400MHz FSB version of the Pentium M. As result, the Libretto's MobileMark 2002 productivity score of 146 is solid rather than spectacular. It's way behind the TravelMate 3004WTMi's remarkable score of 256 -- although to put this in slightly better perspective, it did beat the IBM ThinkPad X40's score of 134.
What this means is that the Libretto will handle mainstream office applications quite happily, although it could struggle with anything too computationally or graphically demanding. That said, DVD playback was fine on this system. Battery life, as measured by MobileMark 2002 with the system running in desktop (full power) mode, came in at 3 hours and 16 minutes, which is pretty good. If you were to tighten up the power management settings and carry a spare battery, you could easily get a full day's mains-free work from this system.
The Libretto's tiny size gives it immediate appeal, but soon the inevitable trade-offs come to the fore. The high-resolution screen, although of brilliant quality, has such small pixels that text and icons are hard to make out unless you almost press your nose against the display. The keyboard is also likely to cause trouble for all but the most nimble-fingered. Our other niggle is the dearth of extra connectors on the docking base.
Overall, the U100, which comes with a generous three-year international warranty, is a great piece of design and engineering, and it makes a superb portable DVD player that also runs Windows XP and office applications should you need to do some work when on the road.
Edited by Charles McLellan
Additional editing by Nick Hide