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Honey, I shrunk the laptop: New miniature portable drawing big attention

June 19, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ It looks like someone put the laptop computer through the wrong wash cycle.

At 1.8 pounds, the machine is about half the weight and size of other portables. The entire computer is smaller than Michael Crichton’s ``Jurassic Park″ hardcover.

Yet like larger laptops, the 6.1-inch display of the new Libretto ``ultra-ultra portable″ from Toshiba is brimming with color and fancy graphics. The Microsoft Windows 95 icon dances across the screen _ the same operating program that runs most box-like computers on desks in workplaces and homes.

Many people by now have seen or heard of the new class of hand-held computer gadgets that run simple, single-color programs _ more or less souped-up personal organizers that fit in your pocket.

Toshiba Corp. of Japan has another idea: Use the fancy operating program most computer users are accustomed to for a machine only slightly heftier than rivals’ hand-held devices.

In short: A shrunken laptop.

As the first notebook weighing less than 2 pounds, the Libretto 50CT is the latest step in the high-tech industry’s relentless push to make fancy computers ever lighter. While hand-held ``palm-top″ computers tend to weigh less, most run on Microsoft’s more basic Windows CE operating system use a smaller keyboard and are limited in what they can do.

The resulting feat of miniaturization caught people’s eyes amid the hundreds of companies displaying their most innovative products at the annual PC Expo trade show that ended here Thursday.

The small crowd gathered at the Toshiba booth seemed impressed by the product’s engineering, though several analysts said the $2,000 Libretto may have a tough time competing against simple organizers costing about one-fourth the price.

``It’s a whole lot easier than my Casio″ hand-held computer, said Mark Kallin, marketing manager for the computer components group of Panasonic Industrial Co., based near San Jose, Calif.

``With my Casio, I have to put my glasses on,″ he said, referring to the gadget’s smaller and duller screen.

Kallin and several other nearby strollers said they plan to buy a Libretto when it goes on sale in a few weeks to use for reviewing business documents, composing e-mail and writing reports for meetings.

Those functions are handled by simple hand-held gadgets. But the advantage of the Libretto is that documents downloaded onto the computer look the same as they do on the desktop. That way, business people are able to review the same mix of text and graphics as their colleagues in the home office.

One caveat: Don’t try any heavy-duty typing on the cramped keyboard. The Libretto’s keys are about 20 percent closer together than a conventional laptop’s keys.

``How do you write on a keyboard so tiny?″ one person trying the computer wrote on the screen, with most of the words badly misspelled.

Another drawback is the price _ $2,000 is roughly what a low-end laptop costs. Hand-held computers operating on Microsoft’s Windows CE software cost $500 to $700 apiece, while the Palm Pilot by U.S. Robotics sells for less than $300.

``The engineers did a really cool job. But the question is, What do real humans want to do? Just shrinking down things smaller and smaller doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful,″ said Tom Rhinelander, an industry analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.

But Mike Stinson, Toshiba’s senior director for product marketing, said the company believes it has found a new niche among business executives who need liberation from their desktops.

``We obviously think it’s an exciting product,″ he said. ``If we didn’t think we couldn’t do some big numbers with this, we obviously wouldn’t do it.″