Toshiba Libretto & Franklin RexPro

April 30, 1999

David Thorpe is General Manager of Elite Information Systems International, the European subsidiary of Elite Information Systems Inc. Elite is a world wide supplier of practice management systems to law firms and today has over 600 firms using its software.

I was sat on an Air Canada flight travelling from Vancouver to Heathrow. The 21-year-old Canadian girl sat to my left stared into my lap and said ‘that has to be the smallest one I’ve ever seen’. I beamed with satisfaction.

What she was referring to was my Toshiba Libretto 110CT which, I believe, is the world’s smallest (and lightest) fully functioning laptop – well sub-notebook to give it its correct industry classification.

Gizmos and the Holy Grail

Over the years I must have tried more electronic organisers/gizmos than any other human being, in search of the ‘road warrior’ Holy Grail. I have very exact requirements. I need:

  • access to my dairy
  • to be able to add appointments in addition to reviewing existing ones
  • access to my contacts database so that I can find telephone numbers quickly and easily
  • access to receive and send e-mail from wherever I am in the UK and overseas
  • to be able to compose ‘real’ documents (eg word processed documents, spreadsheets, etc) whilst travelling and also receive the same e-mail attachments
  • Internet access whilst travelling – useful to check flight arrangements, etc
  • to synchronise data with a desktop computer when I am back at base
  • and finally I need something extremely light (I am a wimp with bad shoulders) and portable.

I’ve tried them all.

The early Psions (Series 3, 3A, 3C – yes, I had tried the lot) were great in many respects. I still think their applications are the most usable yet. But they lacked simple and effective e-mail, had no Internet capability and required additional and bulky modems for e-mail and fax capability. Synchronisation to a desktop computer, from what I recall, required third-party software which was cumbersome to use. I believe the Series 5 is a huge step forward (I reluctantly bowed out of Psions after the 3C), but still has some quirky limitations due to its proprietary nature.

Next stop was Windows CE (or WINCE as early pioneers quickly christened it!). Here we had applications similar in ‘look and feel’ to their desktop equivalents (provided the desktop was based on Microsoft Outlook and Office applications),’out of the box’ two-way synchronisation with desktop applications, an Internet browser, e-mail capability and an ability to use standard PC Card modems. Perfect. At least until you used it. Slow. Painfully slow in fact. Unreliable synchronisation that regularly hung both the desktop PC and the WINCE machine. An e-mail systemthat couldn’t retrieve (or send) e-mail attachments. An Internet browser incapable of dealing with frames or sending secure pages. And ‘pocket’ versions of Word and Excel which lacked the power to do anything sensible.

No matter. WINCE v 2.0 systems arrived. Now we had colour screens. They were a little quicker. The browser could deal with frames and send secure data. Pocket Word and Excel were still the applications, but I guess you could almost live without full functionality. And yes – e-mail attachments now fully supported. Until you try this. Now it may be that I am missing the plot, but what is the point in retrieving attachments and then being unable to read them? The only way to read a Word or Excel attachment received on a WINCE machine is to connect the WINCE machine to a desktop computer and run file conversion software. Now if I had access to a desktop computer why would I have messed around with the WINCE thing in the first place? Talk to Microsoft – this is a’design feature’ which they have no immediate plans to change.

All this led me full circle to sitting down and thinking about what I really needed when travelling. And when I looked at this, the answer was obvious. I needed a proper PC. With proper applications. With a proper operating system. But with as little weight and size as I could find. And the Libretto – with one exception (more of that later) fits the bill.

Toshiba Libretto

The 110CT sports a 233MHz Pentium, 32Mb of RAM (expansible to 64Mb), a 4Gb hard disk, an amazingly clear colour TFT with a 800 x 400 native resolution (you can run at 1024 x 768 with ‘panning’ but to date I haven’t found this necessary) and two PC Card slots. Floppy drives and CD-ROMs are external devices which can be left at home unless their use is anticipated. And because it is a full computer, I can run whatever OS and applications I need.

The machine is the size of a sheet of A5 and light enough to spare my shoulders. If you leave the OS in suspend mode, the ‘boot-up’ from opening the lid is a matter of seconds. Battery life is adequate at around five hours with the power management features activated, but in any event, the AC adapter is relatively light and portable. The keyboard is ‘interesting’. Concert pianists and delicate thin-fingered users will have no problem – bricklayers might. Still, the keys are larger than any I used on the Psions and WINCE machines.

My only disappointment is the lack of synchronisation with other computers. By the time WINCE 2.0 arrived, Microsoft had this pretty well figures. I could add a new, or adjust an existing, contact or appointment on either the WINCE machine, or the desktop computer and ‘viola’ the two would sort themselves out and get back in step. BowI don’t have that luxury. All I am able to do is copy an entire Outlook file from one system to the other, so I have to be really careful about making changes in only one place.

Franklin RexPro

So, much to my wife’s relief, gadget buying stopped. Well, almost. See, if all you are wanting in any particular day is access to your contacts and calendar, what a shame to have to carry around a full computer – however small. Enter the Franklin RexPro. This is a PC Card device – and therefore the size of a credit card – which maintains a full contact database, calendar and ‘to do’ list. This has full synchronisation with Outlook. Plug it into a spare PC card slot on the Libretto and all changes are loaded in seconds. And the RexPro also has input capabilities. So if I am visiting a client and need to schedule a new appointment, or enter a new contact’s details, I can. Beware though. Input is tedious, and basically requires each letter to be selected separately from a ‘tabbed list’. I have found the best approach is to enter only a short abbreviation and once synchronised to Outlook, provide full details there. The full entry is then synchronised back to the RexPro.

Chasing Rainbows is Fun

Right now I don’t think I can find a better overall solution to my ‘road warrior’ requirements – a small but fully functioning PC for extended trips, and a credit card sized solution for local meetings.

My advice to any potential ‘gadget’ buyer is to think long and hard in advance about what you want to be able to achieve on the portable, before making the purchase. You’ll save a whole load of money. But what fun you’ll miss out on . . .