Toshiba Libretto U100 Review (pics, specs)

by Reads (73,093)

by Perry Longinotti, Alberta Canada

Sometimes I think that Japanese and Korean companies get a perverse satisfaction from seeing us lust after their gadgets. There are English language sites dedicated to showing us the shop windows of stores in Tokyo’s electronic fantasy-land Akihabara district or the latest Korean press events showcasing awesome but unobtainable cell phones. Heck, the demand for cool Asian technology is so high that niche retailers like Dynamism have popped up to satisfy the western appetite. They do a brisk business and understandably so. These devices are well-engineered and unique (on our side of the planet).

Toshiba Libretto U100 (view larger image)

Most of these devices stick to a common formula. Simply put; create a powerful device within the confines of a seemingly impossibly small form factor and get a really good designer to give it decent looks. Well, it was simple to type anyway.

Unlike most of the incredibly-advanced-Far-Eastern-technology-that-we-will-never-see-over-here (IAFETTWWNSOH), Toshiba is bringing its latest Lilliputian Libretto, the U100, to America. The Libretto ultra portable notebook line has been marketed in North America sporadically in the past, but it is a strong brand in Asia.

Toshiba bills the Libretto U100 as the ultimate pint-sized travel mate, and they might just be right. The U100 adheres to the formula listed above – the spec sheet on this little guy is quite long. Is the U100 the answer to the IAFETTWWNSOH syndrome?

Toshiba U100 top view (view larger image)

Specifications and Performance

Toshiba spec’d the U100 with Intel’s Pentium M Ultra Low Voltage (ULV) 733 CPU running at 1.1 GHz. It has 2 MB of Level 2 cache and runs on a 400 FSB. Don’t let the slow clock speed fool you, the U100 is acceptably snappy. I once owned a 900 MHz Pentium M ULV notebook and it felt faster than the P4M 1.6 GHz machine that preceded it. That 1.1 GHz is a lot of power for a device in this class, and it should easily double the performance of a similar speed VIA or Transmeta based notebook (common processors used in really small notebooks).

The popular SuperPi program finished a run to two million places in just under three minutes (2:54). This is just better than 50% as fast as the newest 2+ GHz Pentium M notebooks with the latest bus and memory technologies. Given the architectural differences, the U100 scores pretty well here.

Memory

Half a gig of RAM is acceptable, but I really believe manufacturers should spec 1 GB of RAM in their premium products. This is exacerbated by the Intel Extreme Graphics 2 video system which shares the system RAM (16-64 MB). You won’t be playing any demanding games on the U100.

Like many small notebooks, the U100 has a single SODIMM RAM slot. It supports up to 1 GB of PC2700 RAM.

Hard Drive

Although it only spins at 4200 RPM, the U100’s 60 GB HDD performs well. I don’t think you would want to dump digital video onto the U100 unless it was an emergency, but for Office applications it works well. This drive will store a lot of media, this makes the U100 attractive for folks that will be needing to dump images from a digital camera (photographers, travelers).

You will notice that the PCMark and HDtach benchmarks are missing here  – if you need the fastest machine then you are reading the wrong article.

Battery Life

For an ultra portable notebook, battery life trumps performance measurements. The battery life is fantastic. Toshiba was smart enough to spec an extended battery with the U100. It is funny what constitutes an extended battery on such a small notebook. In this case it is a tiny 6-cell Lithium Ion 10.8V x 3400mAh capacity battery as an “extended battery”.  The U100 is incredibly frugal. This frugality with power results in a great Battery Eater score of 167 minutes. When a notebook can get almost three hours on a battery stress test you know it has stamina. Toshiba claims 4.9 hours and this is pretty realistic in mixed testing (wireless surfing, text editing, email, installing applications onto a PocketPC).

Display

The U100 uses a 7.2″ WXGA (1280×768) Trubrite display. It is a good quality screen, but the dot pitch is pushing the limits of what is legible with the normal Windows fonts. The U100 has a dongle that allows you to connect a standard external monitor. In the past I haven’t been a huge fan of the glossy style displays, and perhaps I am becoming soft in my old age, but these Trubrite screens are starting to grow on me. Or maybe the small screen size makes the glare less noticeable.

I think this is the right screen resolution – it gives a decent approximation of what you would see on a desktop computer’s monitor, just truncated a bit at the bottom. Given the choice between squinting and horizontal scrolling I will take squinting every time. If you carry the dock around you can watch DVDs on the U100 (an alternative would be to fill the 60 GB HDD with ripped movies). DVD playback was pretty good.

Optical Drive

In the past I have criticized companies for selling ultra-small notebooks without optical drives. So let’s give credit where it is due. I don’t know how realistic it is to think that people will carry the dock around with them all the time (it adds about half an inch to the thickness, but the inclusion of an optical drive – and a DVD burner at that – is a really nice touch.

Toshiba U100 docking station (view larger image)

Security

Toshiba includes biometric security on the U100 in the form of Fingerprint Security (supporting Quick Log ON, Quick password, and File encryption). This is a great feature – especially for folks with sensitive files on their notebooks. Using the biometric software’s setup wizard, it was very easy to setup and worked perfectly thereafter.

Finger scanner on U100 (view larger image)

Wireless

A really smart product manager chose the Atheros 802.11b/g wireless-LAN chip to couple with Toshiba’s Diversity Antenna. The wireless chip supports Atheros SuperG technology for 108 Mbps wireless speed (you need a matching SuperG router). Until 802.11n arrives, this is the best technology to have.

What is a ‘Diversity Antenna?’ It is Toshiba’s integrated 2.4 GHz, Bluetooth and 5GHz antenna design. The goal of this design is to improve wireless signal strength. In my tests I found the U100’s ability to hold wireless signal strength to be quite good. The U100 antenna supports 802.11a (5 GHz) and Atheros makes an A/B/G chip but for some reason this standard is not supported. In areas crowded by 802.11b and 802.11g, the 802.11a standard makes a nice alternative. I guess we can’t have everything.

Bluetooth 2.0 with Extended Data Range (EDR) is included in the U100 spec. This new version of Bluetooth is faster and fully backwards compatible with the original Bluetooth. The U100 is just begging for a 3G data plan and a good Bluetooth phone (or cellular data PC card).

Audio

Audio on the U100 is better than what I expected, but as with most laptop reviews I had low expectations. Toshiba uses SRS TruSurround XT technology which is a virtualized surround sound soft-audio solution. The addition of TruSurround does not magically result in audiophile calibre sound, but playback from the built-in speakers is OK and the headphone output sounds pretty good (through a pair of decent in-channel Panasonic buds). Toshiba also includes the SRS WOW plugin for Windows Media Player – I have often wondered what kind of person buys these media player enhancements. Are these products just dot-com snake-oil remnants? I would rather have just the plain audio output without the ‘enhancement’ – especially if it meant getting a full year of NAV.

Software

Moving on to software, Windows XP Home edition is the U100’s operating system. I don’t know that any features missing in Home are the types of features that the average U100 user would need. Being able to log into the U100 remotely (something XP Pro supports) might be a nice feature, but I envision remote connections operating in the opposite direction (the U100 as client and another machine acting as a server). Home edition supports this scenario just fine using the built in Remote Desktop Connection client application.

Toshiba includes some very useful utilities with the U100 like ConfigFree, which handles the discovery and setup of all your network connections. Many manufacturers consider freeware junk like AOL installers and Real Player ‘useful utilities’ so it is nice to see a company invest some time on programs that make operation a little easier. I think ConfigFree is starting to get a little fat/bloated – but it is worth having around. You can elect to remove the Toshiba value added software, but I would leave it on.

Other handy applications include the ubiquitous WinDVD, Sonic Record Now!, InterVideo WinDVD Creator 2 Platinum, InterVideo WinDVR Version 5, Norton Antivirus 2005 (90 Day Subscription) and the Express Media Player Instant On Software (have not seen this one before). Again, I will state that for the average user a full year of Norton Antivirus would offer greater value than some of the InterVideo stuff.

Toshiba also includes Microsoft Office OneNote 2003, an application that is geared more towards Tablet PCs than notebooks (at least in my opinion).sp.gif I have never found much use for it – even when I owned a Tablet. Although I have to admit it was neat to play around with when I first got it.

Input and Output Ports

For such a small notebook, the U100 has a good array of ports: 1 PC Card slot (Type II/Cardbus), Secure Digital Card slot, 2 USB 2.0, IEEE1394, headphone port, and the mini RGB.

The RJ11 and RJ45 ports are for the 56K Data/Fax Modem and 10/100 integrated Ethernet LAN.

Right side view of Toshiba U100 (view larger image)

Left side view of Toshiba U100 (view larger image)

Toshiba U100 in docking station (view larger image)

Construction

Case construction is of plastic. Materials snob that I am, this would normally be a problem for me. But I have to admit the U100 is quite solid and squeak free. Perhaps when a device is this small it is less susceptible to torsion/flex. It feels well-constructed.

Toshiba’s EasyGuard Design features prominently on the U100 and includes the security and connectivity of features already mentioned plus ‘Protect & Fix.’ To paraphrase, ‘Protect & Fix incorporates protective design features and diagnostics utilities.’ Some of the highlights:

  • Shock protection – like the crumple zones in a car, Toshiba has designed fragile parts away from the corners. Also, fragile components like the screen are mounted on rubber bumpers.
  • Spill protection – the keyboard has a water resistant tray.
  • HDD protection – the drive will sense sudden movements and part the read/write heads to avoid contact with the surface and damage. This is becoming standard in decent laptops

I would like to test these features to determine if they are more than just marketing bullet points – or brochure filler – but I don’t know where to draw the line. This is a review unit and I think Toshiba wants their gear back in working condition.

You only get a one year international warranty with the U100 – surprising given its solid build quality. Extended warranties are available.

Keyboard and Ergonomics

Toshiba Libretto U100 keyboard (view larger image)

Toshiba Libretto U100 keyboard with hand as size comparison (view larger image)

This is tricky. How do you rate a design that is a study in compromises?

Weighing in at 2.24lbs, and just over an inch think the U100 is an easy winner in this category – it is really easy to take with you. But this small size does not leave a lot of room accouterments.

The standard PC input methods are tough to accommodate in such a small form factor. The keyboard is small and includes 84 keys (12 function and dedicated Windows keys). Touch typing is out of the questions unless you have shrew sized digits. Even the pointer takes some getting used to. I happen to be a terrible touch typist, and a few years of using a PSION taught me to type reasonably fast with one hand, so I found the U100 keyboard tolerable. Overall, this is an OK compromise.

I am not sure how it works, but it seems as though Toshiba has designed a keyboard that resists accidental key presses. When typing fast, I often hit keys accidentally on such a small keyboard. On the U100 I did not get a lot of accidental key presses registering.

Trackpoints are great, and the U100 has a good one, but the mouse buttons are in a non-standard configuration (flanking either side of the pointer). I got used to it, but if I was designing the U100 I would have included a standard mouse button layout.

Fan noise was never intrusive during testing, but it is audible when it kicks in. I really only noticed the Libretto heating up, and the fan spinning, when running benchmarks. The U100 is cool compared to some recent test models we have seen.

We can’t forget the power brick when evaluating the portability of the U100. The AC adapter is a compact standard 65 watt model – no funky plugs like Dells.

Conclusion

I had a hard time reconciling what would be the best way to review the Toshiba Libretto U100: is this a personal computer or a business machine? I can think of many reasons to own one. 

If you are a business traveller – especially if you are the type of road warrior that blasts through airport check-ins with just a carry-on bag – the U100 makes a lot of sense. It is so small that you can almost slip the U100 into a jacket pocket, and it is good for 4-5 hours of use away from a wall outlet. But get to the office and plug in a Monitor, Keyboard and Mouse and you have a nice workstation. A top of the line PDA is half the price, but can do way less than half as much.

The U100 would be great to have around during a personal trip. Hotels offer high speed internet in their rooms and it would be great to upload images to a distant home file server, or just burn them onto CD or DVD.

It’s equally appealing for a gadget geek. Take a feature packed laptop and cross it with a Micro Machine and this is what you get. The U100 is the sort of laptop that we don’t often get to see over here in North America. It is the sort of thing you would probably see a lot of if you were riding a Bullet Train from Yokohama to Tokyo everyday. When geeks lament about all the really cool toys being saved for the Japanese market, it is usually devices like the Libretto that are at the root.

Overall, the U100 is targeted at a very specific market. An important part of picking the right PC is making sure you get the right tools for the job. If you are a member of this target market you will already be sold on buying one of these by now. To you I can whole heartedly recommend the U100. The security and durability enhancements make a great choice when compared to more consumer oriented ultra portables.

At $2000 USD or $2600 CDN it is a good value for this type of computer. I have seen similar devices cost more even without the optical drive. Remember, the smaller a computer the more expensive it is – you can’t compare this to a $999 Dell.

For the fence-sitters out there who are not sure if they would use such a small device but are intrigued by the possibilities, I would try and find a deal on an old Libretto, Fujitsu Biblo or Sony PictureBook. Get a feel for whether the keys, pointer and screen suit you. If you skip this step jump right in and buy the U100 but later decide that it is not for you, some consolation comes in the fact the these little notebooks tend to hold their value well. There are fewer for sale at any given time and there is a healthy market for this type of gear. A quick scan of eBay should bare this out.

A product designed for a niche market has a lower chance of scoring mass appeal and high sales volumes. It goes with the territory. Having said that, if you come across a U100 in a store you should definitely check it out. Its combination of quality and features – not to mention coolness – might just win you over.

In the past we have seen some really cool machines kept from our reach due to perceived tastes in America. If grey market importers can thrive by bringing really small, and undeniably cool, notebooks like the U100 to America then there must be a market. Hopefully the U100 finds its audience – it is a winner in my book.

Pricing and Availability

Other Reviews by This Author


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