Hands-on with the Toshiba Libretto W105-L251

For a largely experimental showpiece that Toshiba says was not intended for wide-scale consumption, the dual-touch-screen Libretto W105 delivers on a good deal of its promises, and is--more importantly--frequently fun to use.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
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Dan Ackerman
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There's been plenty of buzz for the high-concept Toshiba Libretto W105 since it was first announced in June of 2010. This dual-touch-screen minilaptop is a limited-release showpiece designed by Toshiba to celebrate the company's 25th anniversary in the mobile computing business, and is certainly an experiment that pushes the boundaries between laptops, tablets, and portable media players.

Despite the far-out thinking behind it, and the underpowered components, the Libretto W105 worked in practice far better than we expected in some areas, including certain kinds of media playback and general Web surfing. That was especially surprising, as the system is running Windows 7 Home Premium over two simultaneous displays, all from a 1.2GHz Intel Pentium U5400 CPU and 2GB of RAM. Our configuration (the only one currently available, according to Toshiba's Web site) is called the W105-L251 and sells for $1,099.

Hands-on with the Toshiba Libretto W100 (photos)

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Looking a little like an oversize Nintendo DS, the libretto has two 7-inch multitouch displays, with the second taking the place of the traditional keyboard one would expect to find in this kind of clamshell design. By tapping a button on the side of the chassis, a virtual keyboard (similar to what you'd find on an iPhone or iPad) pops up to fill the bottom screen. Tap the same button twice and you get a virtual onscreen touch pad instead.

Our first struggle came with figuring out how to juggle these two virtual input devices, as the bottom screen isn't large enough to display both the keyboard and the touch pad fully at once (and, in our tests, the onscreen keyboard and touch pad couldn't register inputs simultaneously). Eventually, we got into a nice rhythm of single- and double-tapping to switch from keyboard to touch pad on the fly, although it's a little counterintuitive.

Watch this: Toshiba libretto W105-L251

Pressing the button on the right side of the bottom display switches between the standard Windows OS desktop and a series of Toshiba's proprietary Bulletin Board screens, which allow you to arrange photos and notes on a touch-friendly surface. It looks snazzy, but we can't say it's particularly useful, especially as it (like almost any proprietary app) has its own learning curve.

Actually navigating around the Windows interface was mostly lag-free, which is something even many Netbooks can't say. At the same time, a 7-inch touch screen, no matter how many navigational tricks you include, simply isn't optimal for touch, and we spent plenty of time hunting and pecking, trying to center the tiny cursor on buttons and tabs.

One of the most important navigational shortcuts is called the Easy Menu Utility. Behind this generic name is an onscreen overlay that appears when the title bar of a window is tapped. A nine-square grid overlays the display, and gives you large tap-friendly buttons for maximizing and minimizing the active window, toggling the window to the other display, or even stretching the active window to cover both displays. It's handy, but having to hide whatever you're looking at behind an overlay, even for a few seconds, suggests that some form of gesture control system might be more useful.

Unlike Apple's iPad, you can't simply use your finger to flick-scroll through Web pages or documents, and working tiny buttons and tabs was frustrating, even when using the onscreen touch pad instead of a finger. That said, the touch controls on the Libretto are easily among the most responsive we've encountered on a Windows-based tablet. Unlike some of the other WinOS tablets we've tried, you won't spend most of your time staring at the spinning Windows wait icon, and we'd compare the overall experience to a decent Intel Atom Netbook.

Video playback of local 720p video files was flawless, but online streaming video was trickier. On YouTube, 480p videos played smoothly, whereas 720p ones stuttered. On Hulu, 480p video was choppy, but the lower-res options worked well, and still looked decent on the small 7-inch 1,024x600-pixel screen. Gaming, as one might imagine, is largely out of the question, although the handful of Facebook games we tried worked fine and animated smoothly.

The Easy Menu Utility is an onscreen overlay for easier touch control.

Ports and connectivity options are predictably limited, but no more so than we've seen on other UMPC systems. There's a single USB port (handy for plugging in an external mouse in a pinch) and a microSD slot, plus a basic Webcam sits next to the top screen. There's no Ethernet jack, but you do get 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Despite the promise of a 62GB solid-state hard drive, the Libretto W105 is surprisingly noisy. An internal fan kicks in frequently, sounding as loud as a spinning platter-based hard drive. Despite the hardworking fan, the system gets very hot, especially around the vents on the top half, and throughout much of the heat-conducting metal top lid.

Though it certainly can't compete against full-size laptops in raw performance, the system's capability to run basic Windows tasks was impressive (given our low initial expectations). For a largely experimental showpiece that Toshiba says was not intended for wide-scale consumption, the Libretto W105 delivers on a good deal of its promises, and is--more importantly--frequently fun to use. At the end of the day, given its high price and limited availability, this is really more of an executive toy than anything else, especially as it doesn't fully replace any other gadget in your tech arsenal.

We're currently running the Toshiba Libretto W105-L251 through our CNET Labs benchmarks and will report those results, including battery life, in our upcoming full review.