A Teensy Laptop With A Big Flaw

Toshiba's Libretto has appeal but can't link with your desktop

When I first saw Toshiba's newest notebook computer, I thought: "This isn't for real." Not much bigger than a paperback book and weighing less than two pounds, it looks like a conventional laptop that was left out in the rain. The diminutive size belies the fact that the Libretto 50CT is every inch a Windows 95 computer, with serious features and a small but usable keyboard and display.

The Libretto has won a place for itself in Japan, where space--in offices, homes, and even trains--is at a premium. Toshiba is betting that Americans will like the $2,000 unit enough to put up with the compromises forced by its design.

POKEY. Unlike the not-much-smaller palmtops, such as the new Philips Velo1 running the Windows CE operating system, the Libretto can use regular versions of your favorite applications. Controlling the power demand and heat buildup in such a small device limits the processor to a relatively pokey 75 Mhz Pentium. But the speed is adequate for the E-mail and word processing programs that will likely form the bulk of the Libretto's work. The bright, crisp color display is tiny by laptop standards but far superior to any palmtop. I managed to pound out this column on the cramped keyboard, though it's hardly something I'd want to do regularly.

On the minus side, being the functional equivalent of a laptop demands a lot of electricity. I got just a bit over an hour's use from the lithium ion battery, and the unit then had to be shut down to recharge. An optional, larger battery adds 6.5 ounces, but doubles the time between charges and still leaves the Libretto weighing a bit more than half as much as Toshiba's newly slimmed-down Portege 300CT.

Libretto's biggest problem, however, is that its designers failed to figure out exactly what this machine is supposed to be. Most palmtops are designed as computer accessories and offer a simple way to transfer data from the mother computer. Pop a Windows CE palmtop into its cradle and it instantly begins synchronizing files, contacts, and calendar information with the desktop. The same link is used to download software.

The Libretto lacks this ability. It does come with an external floppy drive, but there's no straightforward way to hook up a CD-ROM. I loaded software by attaching to the office network using a PC card interface. A cable hookup and Traveling Software's LapLink, or a wireless infrared link using Puma Technology's TranXit software, are alternatives.

BUT NO CIGAR. In contrast to the idiot-proof Windows CE desktop link, these arrangements require a fair amount of skill to set up. They are a nuisance each time you want to download an updated contact list. And Libretto lacks the software needed to reconcile your calendar if you make changes on both the desktop and the palmtop.

I've long been looking for a tiny, highly portable computer that I could use to handle my E-mail, keep my calendar and contact list, and perform some light-duty word processing. Windows CE machines are fine at handling contacts, but come with miserable E-mail software.

The Libretto, which is part of an admirable slimming down of Toshiba's entire notebook line, comes closer to being the minilaptop of my dreams. But to become truly practical, it needs a much better way of exchanging data with desktop computers. The answer might be a computer with Libretto's hardware but running an enhanced version of Windows CE that Microsoft plans to release late this year. Now that could be a palmtop to be reckoned with.