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Business in Vancouver

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Laudable Libretto too expensive, too awkward to be a contender

by  Alan Zisman (c) 2011 First published in Business in Vancouver February 8-14, 2011 issue #1111 High Tech Office column

Last week’s column looked at Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, smaller (at seven inches) than Apple’s 10-inch iPad tablet, but nearly as capable – and nearly as expensive.

Imagine taking two seven-inch touch-screen tablets and connecting them with hinges. You could type on a virtual keyboard on one of the tablets when you needed to, making the keyboard disappear at other times. Imagine running Windows 7 on it, in place of the Galaxy Tab’s Android operating system – displaying it on one of the displays or across both of them.

The result would be a lot like the latest generation of Toshiba’s Libretto ultra-portable notebooks. Since 1996, the company has attached the Libretto name to a series of purse and pocket-sized computers – the current W100 model – much smaller than a netbook – folds up to something about the size of a trade paperback book and weighs in under two pounds (819 grams).

The design will seem familiar to any parent whose child owns a similarly dual-screen Nintendo DS. Instead of a game system aimed at sub-teens, the Libretto W100 is the world’s first dual-display touchscreen Windows notebook. No physical keyboard, but tap the keyboard button beside the second display and one of six virtual keyboards appears. Tap again and again to cycle through the range of keyboards. Double-tap to pop up a virtual trackpad.

It’s easy to find a usable keyboard, but there’s not enough room on the second display for both a keyboard and a trackpad; displaying them both at once cuts into space on the primary display. Because both display panels work as touchscreens, the theory is that you won’t need the trackpad much, but because Windows is not particularly touch friendly (too many tiny buttons to click), that’s more theory than reality. I suppose you could always keep a mouse plugged in.

Like today’s tablets, the screen(s) rotate depending whether the Libretto is being held in landscape (like a typical notebook) or portrait orientation. Two screens in portrait orientation would seem like a perfect fit for reading e-books, displaying two pages at a time just like a physical book.

Typical e-book software like Adobe Reader, Amazon Kindle, etc., won’t do that. For example, you could get one page across both screens, but the hinges down the middle are distracting.

Having two screens available has a lot of potential, however. For example, you could have your web browser running on one screen and your email software on the other.

And unlike, say, an iPad or Galaxy Tab but like Apple’s MacBook Air, which was featured in this column two weeks ago, this is a full-fledged, if tiny, computer. You can install standard applications, print without problem and store and access documents, photos and more on its hardware, on an external USB flash drive or on a micro-SD memory card. With a full-fledged (if slow – 1.2 GHz) Pentium processor aided by a fast solid-state drive (SSD), it out-performs any netbook.

But it has some limitations compared with netbooks.

Battery life is not very good, lasting about two hours. And there’s no way to connect to an external monitor or projector though, which is a pity, because the small size would otherwise make this a nice way to tote around PowerPoint presentations.

And finally, there’s price. Like Apple’s MacBook Air, you could buy two or three netbooks for the price of one of these (about $1,100).
Kudos to Toshiba for innovation. It pushes the envelope of portable systems and was fun to try out, but I found it too awkward in too many ways.

If Toshiba could add more dual-screen friendly software, a port for connecting a projector and get the price under $700, it might sell a lot of them. But as it is, it’s an innovative curiosity piece.

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