When Japanese industrial giant Nippon Steel Corp. decided to get into the U.S. computer market, it chose to make a laptop rather than a desktop model.
The result is Librex Computer Systems Inc. of San Jose, (408) 441-8500, Nippon Steel's subsidiary with a line of 80286 and 80386SX laptop computers.
What differentiates the various models in the lineup are the microprocessor and capacity of the hard disk.
They share in common a small gray case weighing about six pounds including floppy and hard drive and battery, and a large, well-illuminated VGA screen displaying 16 shades of gray.
The keyboard has 82 keys, some of which have to be used simultaneously to invoke all of the functions of a standard 101-key keyboard of a desktop IBM-compatible computer. It is similar to most such keyboards, with the cursor keys arranged in an inverted "T" pattern at the lower right and 12 function keys lined up across the top.
At about 11 inches by 8 inches by 2 inches, it is slightly smaller and slightly lighter than most competing laptops.
Librex has just reduced its prices for the second time this year. The unit I tested, a 386SX laptop that runs at 20 megahertz, has four megabytes of random access memory (RAM) and a 20-megabyte hard disk, now has a suggested retail price of $2,999. That is about $1,700 below its introductory price early this year.
Other models in the Librex family are priced from $1,999 for an 80286 unit with 1 megabyte of RAM and a 20-megabyte hard disk, to $3,599 for a 60-megabyte hard disk equipped 386SX model. Actual street prices are lower.
One thing you get with the Librex is an unusual warranty that promises free replacement within 24 hours if the machines fails within the first 100 days of ownership. After that, a standard warranty is in place for the remainder of the first year.
A hard disk, bright screen and fast microprocessor all take their toll on battery life. The user manual predicts 1.5 to 3 hours, but my test yielded a bit less, an hour and 20 minutes. It takes about 5 hours to recharge the NiCad battery. You can also run the computer with the recharger transformer if the battery dies.
The transformer is small and light, so it is not much of a burden to carry along. But it won't fit in the snug vinyl and nylon carrying case, which has room for just a few diskettes or a thin report in addition to the computer.
At least you are not likely to waste battery power by accidentally turning on the Librex laptop. You must hold the power button in for three seconds before it will start up. The same is true for turning it off, so if the passenger in the airline seat next to you squirms, you won't loose the spreadsheet you've been building while you travel.
The best feature of the Librex is the large, crisp character set on its white, back-lit display. It is created by UltraFont software licensed by Librex from Personics Inc.
The 16 shades of gray, which the screen is capable of displaying, are supposed to render color programs in legible tones, but it doesn't always work. This problem is endemic in laptop screens and not unique to Librex.
I found that the best thing to do was to install programs to operate in monochrome mode, rather than color.
But if you do run software in color mode, there is a utility program included with the computer that allows you to alter the gray scale of the screen to attempt to increase legibility.
If you already own a laptop with EGA- or VGA-compatible screen, you can give your screen all the advantages of the Librex model and more by purchasing Laptop UltraVision, $70, from Personics, 63 Great Rd., Maynard, Mass. 01754, (508) 897-1575.
It does a number of things to improve flat screen legibility. There is a choice of 20 different fonts to replace the character set that came with the computer.
It can make the screen effectively larger by using the border area of the screen that normally cannot display anything. Additional lines of text or rows of spreadsheets can be viewed, with several choices up to 60 lines available.
Control over the gray-scale palette using a utility program that pops up on the screen on top of other applications allows you to make adjustments and instantly see the results.
And it even speeds the scrolling of text up and down the screen.
A detailed manual is included with the software, containing instructions for use with most popular programs. It even reveals the inner coding of UltraVision if you want to write your own programs to take advantage of its features.