A „new“ old portable computer in the collection – this time on the small side of things: the Libretto line was introduced in 1996 by Toshiba as the smallest, fully functional, mobile Windows PC at the size of a book – libretto actually is italian for booklet – measuring only 210 x 115 x 34 mm.
The 50ct was 4th in the series, released in 1997 with features that were considered relatively high end: 75MHz Pentium processor, 16MB Ram, 815MB IDE Harddisk, Yamaha OPL3-SA2 SoundBlaster Pro compatible soundchip, Chips&Technologies Super VGA chipset with built in active matrix color TFT display and a PC-Card expansion slot.
An external 3.5″ floppy disk drive was included in the package, docking stations – small and large – were optional accessories as well as a higher capacity battery.
The base machine cost 3.799 DM in 1997 which is 3.009 EUR in 2023, so this was not really aimed at the consumer market.
The machine in this case had been upgraded with additional 16MB Ram – giving a total of 32MB – a Xircom ethernet card and the high capacity battery pack. I got it second hand from a person who used it in a car workshop for making measurements and adjustments by connecting it to the cars data connector. For this usecase, of course the Libretto was perfectly sized, fitting in even the tightest spaces.
Unfortunately, it was missing the power brick, the hard-drive made noises indicating near end-of-life and the display was cracked when I got it. So the restoration work was a three step thing which was quite straight-forward with the help of the maintenance manual:
Ordered a 15v 3A power brick from Amazon with the proper 5.5 x 3.1mm connector that was advertised as fitting several Toshiba models including the Libretto. I ended up with some chinese thing that outputs 16.7V idle which is just 0.2V above tolerances making the power LED on the Libretto blink out a 0x01 error code. Why 16.7V when the nominal value should be 15? To get around that, I installed a diode in line with the positive wire to drop 0.5V thereby getting to 16.2V.
Replacing the hard-disk is really easy with the Libretto – loosen two screws from the underside on the left, flip open the drive door and pull the hdd out by the handle. It’s a standard 2.5″ IDE drive, so it’s easily replaced with a Compact-Flash card + IDE adapter, a 64GB 133x one works just fine.
I imaged the original drive immediately to a file in order to safeguard the original software. It turned out to be a pretty basic Windows 95 install, so apparently the previous owner had removed any special software. It however included a folder with the original Toshiba drivers which is great since the original Libretto software is quite hard to find.
The screen had to be replaced, it at some point must have had contact with something hard that broke the display glass and the electronics underneath since the left and bottom of the screen were all white lines. In the area of the crack, the liquid probably leaked creating a big black splotch.
I ordered a compatible screen (Sharp LQ61D133) from a chinese website and was surprised to have it delivered only a few days later. I’m not sure if it was a NOS one – it still had a protective film on top but some marks on the back suggesting it might have been harvested from a recycled device.
Swapping the display out is relatively easy compared to the T3200 which requires total disassembly of the whole machine. It is essentially just undoing two screws under the gray tapes bottom left and right of the screen and then pulling the bezel and the backside apart being careful not to break the plastic hooks. A guitar pluck works nicely for that job.
Using the Libretto
With the machine restored close to factory condition, only one thing was left to do: Install an operating system on it. The Librettos of the period came both with Windows 95 and Windows 98 – depending on when purchased, so Win98 it should be. But how? No floppy drive, no CDROM and the CF card was blank….
Getting an OS loaded without access to removable media drives
The problem is booting some installation media to prepare the CF card and kick off the Windows 98 installation. The Libretto is too old to support external USB devices and the built in PC-Card slot is not bootable – without the PCMCIA based 3.5″ floppy this means the CF card has to be initialized by another machine to the point from where the Libretto can take over.
As I’m doing this on a Mac, I decided to give Oracle’s VirtualBox a try. With some trickery it is possible to mount a physical storage device as a hard-disk in VirtualBox, then add some OS disk images and we should be able to install Windows from the VM onto the CF card.
Spoiler: This totally works and avoids messing with physical disks and CDs 🙂
Format CF to FAT32, then mount in VM as a hard-disk and start from Win98 boot disk, choose the „Install Windows 98 from CDROM“ option. Let the installer format the CF card once more and click „OK“ and „Next“ buttons until it starts copying files to the disk.
When the installer wants to reboot for the FIRST time, shutdown the VM instead of rebooting. This way, it has already made the CF card bootable but not configured any hardware (which wouldn’t work on the target machine anyway).
Then, mount the CF card on the host computer (not the VM, not the Libretto) and copy all the files from the Windows98 CD to the root of the CF card. If you don’t the next step won’t work which is:
Boot the Libretto off the CF card, this will bring up the installer where it left off earlier to reboot and it will ask some question on the desired configuration, whether to create a emergency disk (no thanks – remember we don’t have a fdd?). Then, it will start to identify hardware, copy and configure drivers etc. From this point on, it’s straight forward, just let it complete.
Enjoying (?) Windows 98 on the Libretto
Technically, Win98 is actually a good match for the Libretto, everything works already out of the box, no „question mark hardware“ on the system control panel. The Toshiba provided Yamaha sound driver might be a slight bit newer and there’s an additional energy setting „Toshiba Power mode“ available – both not strictly needed.
After adding the MS Plus pack, a contemporary MS Office and a few tools we have a nice, tiny but fully functional and relatively quick Pentium based Windows 98 computer. I would totally like it if:
1) it had a decent pointing device – the mouse nub („AccuPoint“) is either too stubborn („down? naah, not now“) or too quick („look, I’m up here already“), driving me nuts. Using the buttons on the display backside looks like a clever idea at first but is difficult in practice – pushing a button inevitable moves the mouse, leading to surprising results, thus requiring a two hand action to stabilize things. Also, there is no way to connect an external mouse without the docking station.
2) the keyboard was more usable. Toshiba just overdid it with the miniaturization, the keys are too small to type on without hitting are least two simultaneously and they feel really terrible – mushy and totally not tactile. There are good mini keyboards out there – the HP Jornada 720 has a great one and the PSION 5’s is legend – why did they add a crap one to a 4k EUR machine?
DOS (Gaming) on the Libretto
This works. And it works nicely! After all, it’s a Pentium 75 with 32M ram, a SoundBlaster pro chip and vast amounts of storage in a ultraportable package – now we’re talking 🙂
All the key mid 90s DOS software packages do run fine – Doom, Quake, Duke 3D, Wolf 3D and all of the Sierra / Lucasfilm point and click adventures that I tested performed nicely. For the latter, even the built in AccuPoint thing is acceptable, for anything faster paced an external mouse via the small docking station is needed. The above mentioned keyboard shortcomings can be worked around in most games by re-configuring WASD to WRYF or something the like so that thing get useable even with fatfingers.
The Yamaha soundchip is a genuine OPL-3 synth + SoundBlaster Pro compatible 16bit PCM at the default IO port locations; no TSRs or configuration programs are needed for use in DOS. All the settings can be done from the BIOS setup screen that can be called up with „tsetup“ from the commandline. The only downside in this area is that Toshi decided to install a 2mm headphone jack instead of the regular 3.5mm one, requiring an adapter.
Update: the YAMAHA sound-chip has one more trick to offer: it provides a MPU401 compatible General MIDI wavetable synth even to DOS games when starting them from inside Windows. All that’s needed is to install the most recent YAMAHA OPL3-SAx sound system drivers and setting MPU-401 DOS to GM Synth in the Yamaha control panel.
Also nothing to complain on the graphics side of things, the C&T chip is connected via VLB to the processor so it definitely is speedy enough in DOS and the active matrix LCD is crisp, it shows no smearing or ghosting neither in Windows nor in key DOS softwares.
All in all, the Libretto is a nice DOS retro gaming machine for 2D titles of around the mid 90s that work with VGA on the built in LCD or even Super-VGA on a external display. The P75 w/o MMX and 2nd level cache is not powerful enough for 3D titles above Quake or Duke3D. For mobile office use, it’s however totally unsuitable due to the maldesigned input devices.
It could have been a nice, pocketable word processor hadn’t Toshi screwed up the keyboard, especially since it’s totally silent – no fan, no hard-disk after the CF upgrade and the larger battery give it about 4 hours of continous use.
Technical Specs Libretto 50ct
|C&T SVGA w. 6.1″ Active Matrix LCD
|PC Card Slot, on-board SBPro chip
|+ Small Docking Station
|1996 / 1997
(~3.009 EUR in March 2023)