Toshiba's Tiny Tech

Toshiba's Libretto line has always tried to be the smallest laptops out there, but the latest revision, the Libretto U105, takes it to a whole new level. I may be an infrastructure kinda guy, but when I saw this laptop at a CompUSA in Honolulu, I had to take a closer look.My 4 month old is intrigued by Fedora Core 4 on the Libretto U105 I've been playing with the U105 for about a week now, and I still don't kno

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I've been playing with the U105 for about a week now, and I still don't know whether it's the coolest tool ever or the coolest toy ever. It's certainly packed with features --

That's a lot of options in a laptop the size of a VHS tape and weighing 2.2lbs. It's certainly usable from a performance perspective, and I actually like the 1280x768 resolution on that 7.2" screen. It's tiny, but the desktop real estate makes up for it. If you need reading glasses though, it's not for you.

It's also not for you if you have the proverbial fat fingers. The keyboard is 70% regular size, which makes for many a typo. It certainly takes some skill to type, and the placement of certain keys, like the ~ key and the really small left tab make for interesting hunt and peck sessions -- it's like learning vi all over again. I'd like to say that I'm typing this entry on it, but I'm on my 12" PowerBook, which seems like the 17" PowerBook by comparison.

The pointing device is a trackpoint with buttons on the side. It might have been nice to have the buttons on the front bezel rather than on the sides, as it would be easier to drive the mouse with the index finger and click with the thumb. As it is, driving with the middle finger and clicking with the index and ring fingers works once you get used to it. The fingerprint scanner doubles as a scrolling device, which is just a swell idea. Of course, a mouse is preferable whenever possible.

It's just relentlessly small. I brought it out on a plane over the weekend and the guy next to me looked up from his PSP playing I, Robot to gawk at it. He (like the TSA) thought it was a portable DVD player. It's actually smaller than most of those. Over lunch at a local diner, it dominated the conversation of a neighboring table of octogenarians, prompting one to ask me if it had wireless, and how big the hard drive was. That was worth it.

The screen is very, very bright, which makes the resolution palatable. The built-in Bluetooth can make up for the pointing device and keyboard size, since adding a BT mouse and keyboard is easy and wireless, but also bulks up the package.

The embedded biometric device can take some of the sting out of the keyboard by way of eliminating most passwords once you've logged in and trained a few fingers. My standard passwords were a challenge to get right, and this largely eliminated that problem.

The default install is Windows XP Pro with OneNote and a pile of Toshiba utilities. Their application set is very extensive and includes WiFi/Bluetooth connection tools, system management utilities and BIOS-level controls. There are lots of power control options, WiFi network finders, and good-looking visuals here. The problem is that these utilities have a large footprint and are required to modify many common options, such as screen brightness, BIOS settings, and so forth. Just booted, 300MB of RAM was spoken for. That's too much.

I couldn't find a way to access the BIOS at boot, and had to use their Windows utilities to change the boot sequence -- which included only pre-set options, none of which was CDROM->HDD->Net, which was really what I wanted. It does PXEBoot with aplomb though. The reliance on software controls is a bit puzzling when juxtaposed against the hardware WiFi enable switch. That should be mandatory on all laptops.

In the default install was a directory that contained every single Windows driver required for the laptop and all associated control software in an easily referenced directory structure. Big kudos there. This should also be mandatory on all laptops. As for reinstall/recovery, there's a utility on the desktop to create system restore CDs or DVDs that can drop a fresh installation on the U105 should there be a problem. I created the two DVDs on the DVD-RAM dock in about 40 minutes.

The DVD dock is a multidrive that can burn DVDs and CDs, but DVD playback is software, not hardware, and requires the laptop to be booted to Windows. It would have been slick to implement hardware DVD playback without the need to boot the OS. The battery life savings and ease of use would be worth it. Playing a DVD via InterVideo runs the CPU at 50-60% and uses significant RAM resources, but the playback is flawless and definitely watchable.

But does it run Linux? Like a champ. A quick boot of Knoppix, a run through parted to shrink the NTFS partition, and a PXEBoot installation of Fedora Core 4 went flawlessly. Everything was detected and worked with the exception of the somewhat odd screen resolution and the Atheros wireless card. I grabbed a FC4 RPM of madwifi and had the wireless running in a minute or two. I mucked about with a suitable modeline for the 1280x768 native resolution and came up with these xorg.conf snippets that do the trick


Section "Monitor"
Identifier "Monitor1"
VendorName "Toshiba Libretto U105"
ModelName "LCD Panel 1280x768"
HorizSync 20 - 90
VertRefresh 50 - 100
DisplaySize 230 138
ModeLine "1280x768" 81.59 1280 1280 1384 1688 768 769 774 791
EndSection

...

Section "Screen"
Identifier "Screen0"
Device "Videocard0"
Monitor "Monitor1"
DefaultDepth 24
SubSection "Display"
Viewport 0 0
Depth 16
Modes "800x600" "640x480"
EndSubSection
SubSection "Display"
Viewport 0 0
Depth 24
Modes "1280x768" "1024x768" "800x600" "640x480"
EndSubSection
EndSection

Unfortunately, the fingerprint scanner has eluded me so far, and the software-controlled screen brightness adjustments work by tickling /proc/acpi/video/VGA/LCD/brightness, but won't bump to the highest setting when in Linux. The brightness level will be maintained if it's been configured in Windows prior, however.

It's just a sexy little computer, guaranteed to draw attention on the subway or the coffee shop, and with the external monitor dongle it makes for a great presentation piece. If you're interested, try one out at a store first; if you can handle the keyboard, the rest is cake.

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