Toshiba Libretto U100-S213 Review: Size Does Matter

If your priorities are compactness, low weight, long battery life and high performance you should definitely take a look at a great compact solution from Toshiba. This notebook will be most useful on trips, or can be easily turned into a compact portable office station.

by Vasily Melnik
09/10/2005 | 12:58 PM

I think many users would want to have a high-performance, ergonomic and functional computer of a small size and low weight, but each attempt to combine all these characteristics in one product faces numerous limitations. First, it is the trivial necessity of space to put system components in. Second, it is the problem of a quiet and small cooling system with acceptable efficiency. And third, ergonomic issues arise due to the reduced size of the screen and of the keyboard keys.

 

At one time 12” notebooks used to be considered as having the most optimal size/performance ratio, but today more manufacturers of portable computers are offering super-compact sub-notebooks with a screen diagonal of 7-9 inches.

One device like that is going to be reviewed right here and now.


Design and Ergonomics

The small width and depth of this model contrast with its rather big height (30mm and 50mm with and without the docking station, respectively). The impression created may be that of a bulky thing, the straight lines of the contour and the overall “squareness” of the case deepening that feeling further. Yet this is just a psychological trick of our visual perception because the absolute dimensions of this notebook are really very, very small.

The Libretto U100-S213 has a plastic case with a metallic insert on the lid that serves aesthetical purposes only. The color scheme accentuates the austerity of the outline – everything is deep blue save for the top panel and the battery. The lid doesn’t have a special lock, but you can fix it firmly in any position by means of a stiff hinge.

A row of LED indicators is located on the right of the front panel:

The slanting position of the indicators makes them visible irrespective of the position of the lid. The front panel also has a card-reader’s slit of the SD format, a lever to extract PCMCIA cards (the PCMCIA slot is located on the left side of the case), and a 4-pin FireWire port.

The notebook’s peripheral ports are mostly located on the right panel:

The left panel carries the following: a PCMCIA slot, a mechanical two-position switch for wireless interfaces (many modern notebooks can only disable their wireless interfaces through software), a vent opening, and a power connector.

The rear panel has no connectors just because there is no place left to put them in – the battery module occupies most of the available space.

The Power On button is placed under the screen and in the center, so you can’t press it accidentally.

A mini-joystick is this notebook’s default pointing device and I should confess it takes some time to get used to it and to find the most suitable sensitivity settings. It is a specific device, so many users will prefer to connect an external mouse (the hot air from the cooling system is exhausted to the left, so right-handed people won’t feel any discomfort).

A fingerprint scanner is located next to the mini-joystick. You may have already met such authentication gadgets. If not, be aware that the scanner may get your fingerprint wrong if your fingers are moist or dirty. Such mistakes occur seldom, but are quite irritating nonetheless, so you may want to disable this protection system altogether unless you do fear your sub-notebook can be stolen.

The screen has 7.2 inches in diagonal which is rather strange as the size of the lid is full 9 inches. And the native resolution of the screen is a whopping 1280x768! No wonder everything looks tiny on it until you enable the large icons/large fonts mode.

The image quality is high. Darkest or lightest colors don’t merge into one, so you can always discern details on dark or light areas of the onscreen image. There are no blatant errors in color reproduction; the skin color looks natural. Smooth color gradients are reproduced with hardly noticeable gradations, but without color or brightness noise. The maximum and minimum brightness of white is 194cd/sq.m and 5cd/sq.m, respectively. The uniformity of the screen backlighting as measured by the ANSI/IEC methodology is no worse than 86% which is a very good result for a notebook. The screen brightness can be set to one of 8 levels you can choose with appropriate hot keys. The viewing angles are rather wide (except when you’re looking at the screen from below), so there’s more than one appropriate position for your head before the screen. The matrix is quite fast subjectively – the “ghosting” effect isn’t conspicuous and doesn’t lead to loss of detail or distortion of color in a moving object. The screen has a special mirror coating that makes the colors lush and saturated, but the reflection of your own face on the screen may be distracting at times.

The keys are smaller than on ordinary keyboards. So even if you have the blind typing skill, you won’t be able to type in text quickly and easily on this notebook. Part of this review was written on the Libretto U100-S213 itself and I personally found the non-standard placement of the auxiliary keys (like Del, Home and End) inconvenient.

Features and Accessories

The accessories are quite typical: a universal external power adapter (100-240V, 50/60Hz), a Li-Ion battery (10.8V x 3400mAh), documentation, a registration card, a docking station with a DVD-recorder, and various cables and adapters. You don’t get any bag or pouch, but this sub-notebook can be easily put into a knapsack or even a handbag.

The compact power adapter is rated for a wide range of input voltages and for both frequency standards (European – 50Hz and American – 60Hz). So you’ll only have to take care about adapters with appropriate plugs on your foreign voyages.

There’s a curious thing included with the power adapter:

When put on the power cable, it increases its inductance and thus slows down the transition process that occurs as you plug the cord into the wall outlet and is often accompanied with a spark. In other words, this small detail reduces the risk of electrical damage to the power circuit. It’s strange they didn’t put it on the cable right at the factory.

The included battery is rather large, both in dimensions and in capacity. The most annoying thing is that part of the battery protrudes from the rear panel of the notebook spoiling the appearance of the product somewhat and making it less portable. On the other hand, this battery can ensure a long time of autonomous work even at high computational loads and the maximum screen brightness (as you will see in the tests section below).

A curious feature that distinguishes the Libretto U100-S213 from other similar models is its docking station with a universal DVD-recorder. Besides being an optical disc drive, this station also provides the Instant On feature.

The docking station is connected via Toshiba’s exclusive connector. It’s quite handy – you can even disconnect the station “on the fly”, i.e. without powering the notebook down. To do so, you should use a special lever and look at the indicator – when it goes out, the station can be undocked.

Burning discs is done with the help of appropriate buttons on the front panel of the dock station. There’s a special lever that locks these buttons to avoid accidental presses.

I consider the lack of S-Video or RCA connectors as a drawback of this notebook. One video output is available, but it is non-standard and you have to use the enclosed adapter for the ordinary D-Sub output (another accessory you may want to take with you on your trips).

The two-mode cooling system deserves my praises, however. The centrifugal blower is halted at low loads. When there’s high load on the computer (which seldom occurs at everyday office work), the noise is audible, but not very discomforting. The exhaust opening is located on the left, so as I said above, the hot air won’t be blowing at your hand if you attach a right-handed mouse to the notebook.

The Libretto U100-S213 is configured no worse than larger devices: a Pentium M 753 processor (Ultra Low Voltage, 1.2GHz, 2MB L2 cache, 400MHz FSB), an 855GME chipset, 512MB DDR333 SDRAM, and a 60GB 4200rpm hard drive. Like all mobile processors from Intel, the 753 model can dynamically adjust its own frequency depending on the load. Work at a lower frequency means a longer battery life time and less noise from the cooling system. The memory module is removable, so you can replace it with a higher-capacity one. The external optical drive has good characteristics, too. It has the following maximum speeds:

Intel’s Extreme Graphics 2 core integrated into the chipset cannot deliver a high performance in modern 3D shooters, but it is sufficiently powerful to reproduce video and to run not very demanding games (for example, strategies). Using the Unified Memory Architecture technology, you can allot from 16 to 64 megabytes of system memory for the graphics core’s needs.

The audio subsystem of this notebook consists of Analog Devices’ AD1981B codec and built-in stereo speakers. The exclusive SRS TruSurround XT technology is employed here to add the third dimension to the sound. I won’t talk about the audio quality since the speakers of that size cannot physically sound like even an average speaker system. You will probably want to use good headphones to watch movies and listen to music.

Wireless interfaces have become an important feature of today’s mobile devices. The Libretto U100-S213 is equipped with two: Wi-Fi 802.11b/g (an Atheros chip supporting SuperG technology) and Bluetooth 2.0 Extended Data Range. This will allow the user to connect to various gadgets like PDAs and cell phones and to access wireless networks. Traditional wired networks are not forgotten, either. The notebook has an Intel PRO/100 VE 10/100 Base-TX Ethernet adapter and an integrated V.92 modem.

This model comes with a lot of programs (of varying usefulness) already installed. The preinstalled operating system is Microsoft Windows XP Professional.

Exclusive utilities from Toshiba:

And third-party software:

A technology for protecting the notebook against shock and vibration should also be mentioned. The system includes an accelerometer that reports to a monitoring utility which then can halt the hard drive or park its heads. This feature should be most helpful, but you can disable it, if you have doubts about its efficiency.

Operating conditions:

The temperature condition is typical for devices of that class. The notebook has no special protection against water and moisture. The permissible shock levels are quite high, indicating a high quality of assembly (see the non-operating shock value) and an efficient protection system (not all notebooks can boast an operating shock of 7G). The special requirements to the temperature difference are set to prevent water to condense inside the computer. That’s why you shouldn’t take the notebook out of your pocket/bag right after you have come into a warm room from a winter street.

Performance Analysis

I performed the tests in the notebook’s preinstalled Microsoft Windows XP SP2 operating system. DirectX 9.0c was also installed. All resident programs, including the anti-virus and firewall, were stopped. Network services and screensavers were disabled. I also prohibited error messages to appear, the screen to turn off and the hard drive to stop for the time of the tests. The screen brightness was set at 130cd/sq.m.

The following benchmarks were used:

Each test was performed five times and the results of the five runs were averaged.

I didn’t use such popular benchmarks as 3DMark 2003/2005, Unreal Tournament 2004 and Far Cry because the integrated core Extreme Graphics 2 doesn’t have enough performance and doesn’t support technologies necessary for those programs to run normally.

The notebook was tested in two power modes: 1) with its battery as the power source and 2) connected to the power grid. The screen brightness was set identically for both modes.

And here are first results:

No surprises. The numbers aren’t anything exceptional, but don’t forget the size of the thing!

You can note that the results of the notebook in both test modes are almost the same. It means that irrespective of the power source the processor reaches its maximum frequency at high loads, while other notebook models will clock their CPU at a frequency lower than the maximum even at full load if they work on the battery.

The access time and the average sequential read speed of the hard drive are typical for the device employed.

PCMark 2004 exposes the low performance of the notebook’s graphics subsystem thus confirming that the Libretto can’t be used for processing 3D graphics. Yet let’s try to check it with last-generation games that don’t require support of modern 3D technologies:

As you see, the performance goes up in lower resolutions. It means that the bottleneck is really the notebook’s integrated graphics core. The frame rate is, however, high enough in games comparable to Quake 3 Arena in their system requirements.

Battery life time is one of the most important parameters of a notebook, especially for such an ultra-compact model as the Libretto U100-S213. I checked this parameter in two modes of the Battery Eater Pro 2.60 utility: classic and reader’s test. In the first mode the utility actively loads the central processor, memory, graphics subsystem and hard drive with work. The second mode emulates the user’s reading an electronic text. The docking station was disconnected and the screen brightness set to 130cd/sq.m.

Such tests are often performed at the maximum screen brightness, but may differ in different notebook models (so you can’t compare the results correctly) and may also be too high (the user is likely to use lower settings at work), yet negative for the total time of autonomous work. Another typical task – DVD playback – is also represented in the next table:

The results are expectable: the battery lasts 87% longer in the reader’s test than in the classic mode. This is a sign of high efficiency of the power management system. The notebook yields its maximum performance at high load, but dynamically reduces the CPU frequency and saves power when idle (reading electronic books is a very small load). And this economy is achieved only with hardware means without such tricks as to reduce the brightness reduction or to stop the hard drive.

Playing DVDs doesn’t create a high load on the CPU and doesn’t heat it up much (as in the classic mode) – the result is somewhere in-between.

Conclusion

Putting it briefly, the Toshiba Libretto U100-S213 is a good compromise between compactness and functionality. It is not free from typical drawbacks of super-compact notebooks like small keys on the keyboard, a small screen with a big resolution, and a not very convenient mini-joystick. So, the main purpose of this cutie is to replace a full-size notebook when the latter is too big. The Libretto doesn’t even require a bag – you can easily put it into your suit pocket. Don’t also undervalue the opportunity to use this notebook as a portable system case: if you attach an external monitor and a keyboard with mouse, the Libretto U100-S213 will become a typical office computer (it has enough memory and disk space and a powerful enough processor to perform everyday office tasks).

Our tests showed that the graphics subsystem is the only low-performance component of this notebook, so you won’t be able to use it as a portable gaming station.

The Libretto U100-S213 can’t boast stunning looks (Toshiba’s designers must have been on vacation when this model was prepared for release), so you’d better consider other models if you just need to impress your friends. But if your priorities are compactness, low weight, long battery life and high performance (and you don’t care much about the not very robust plastic case), the Libretto U100-S213 may suit you ideally.

This notebook will be most useful on trips, for example, as you can copy the snapshots you’ve made with your digital camera to it and edit them right on the spot and then burn them to optical discs or send via the Internet (the Libretto U100-S213 offers good networking opportunities for that).