First Look: OLPC's XO Laptop

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To say the $188 XO laptop produced by the One Laptop Per Child organization is not your typical laptop is an understatement. For one, the XO is a tech triumph for its low price and rugged design, and will amaze any child in a developing nation (the laptop's intended recipient) lucky enough to get one.  On the other hand, anyone familiar with a Windows-based notebook and who expects a similar experience with the XO will be sorely disappointed.

The production notebook supplied by the OLPC group is chock full of impressive technological firsts. It has a power-saving display that can be viewed in direct sunlight, a laptop chassis that can withstand a monsoon or sandstorm, and innards with no moving parts (fans or disk drives) which in turn reduces potential parts failure.


Technological innovations aside, I found some harsh tradeoffs with the XO compared to today's Windows-based notebooks. First, don't expect to touch-type on the XO -- the rubberized keyboard is too small for most adults and geared toward child-sized hands. My fat fingers couldn't cope and I had to resort to hunt-and-peck typing. But anyone comparing the XO to a Windows laptop is missing the point. It's the tradeoffs that help keep the XO inexpensive, durable, and kid-friendly.

Windows it Ain't 

The XO runs the Fedora Linux operating system and has a minimalist interface called Sugar. Forget familiar Windows icons or a recognizable file management system. Instead of launching a Windows-like desktop, the XO greets you with one central icon representing the notebook's registered user. Surrounding the icon is a circle that shows any programs running. 

Smaller icons are located in the upper left corner and link to your Wi-Fi "neighborhood," your "group" (XO notebooks in a mesh network), and to your last activity.

More icons run along the bottom of the XO's 7.5-inch display. These icons are the heart of XO, with each representing one of the laptop's various applications. Many icons link to educational games such as TamTamJam (a basic music-creation program) and Paint (a crude art program). Other programs such as a Record icon link the laptop's built-in still and video camera. New applications designed for the XO are also easily added from the OLPC site. I added several, which took about as much time and trouble as loading a extension to my Firefox Web browser.

What you won't find with the XO is access to tools for tweaking the system's settings such as a firewall, user profiles, and printer preferences. Granted, giving access to these types of things is foolish for a laptop geared exclusively for kids, except that adults will ultimately be managing the notebooks.

More Things Not to Like

I'm not sure I should be too impressed by what's under the hood of this notebook, but perhaps the OLPC isn't trying. The organization's goal is to make a durable, affordable notebook, not one with beefy speeds and feeds. For the record, the XO packs a 433-MHz AMD Geode CPU, 256MB of 166-MHz DDR333, and 1GB of flash memory for storage.  I bring this up because my entire browser experience was clumsy and I'm not sure whether to blame the hardware or software.

Using the XO even on a broadband wireless network is as slow as thawing ice outdoors in a Boston winter, and in my test the browser did not render the pages correctly. Making matters worse, when using the touchpad it's nearly impossible to hover your cursor over the browser's scroll bar because it's razor-thin. Pages didn't load correctly, so the right side of many Web pages continued off the screen. When I tried to watch a news video on or selected a "low quality" YouTube video, the sound was choppy and video was more like a slideshow.

Just the Right Amount of Notebook

Again, to compare the OLPC to today's notebook is missing the point of the XO. It's intended as a sturdy, self-contained introduction to technology (and to the Web) for children in developing nations.  They haven't played with Nintendo Wiis or an Apple Macintosh, much less a Windows or Linux system. Without the OLPC effort, they may not have a laptop at all--and this one at least provides a durable start.

Tech Spec Highlights:

  • Three USB 2.0 ports for external storage and that can also connect the device to a printer or wired Ethernet network.
  • One secure digital card slot hidden (oddly) under the XO's swivel screen.
  • Two rabbit-ear-like 802.11 b/g ear antennas, capable of "seeing" twice as many Wi-Fi hotspots as my IBM Thinkpad. OLPC says the XO's Wi-Fi range is at least double that of most notebooks.
  • Swivel screen folds flat against the keyboard, making the XO a tablet-like device.  But a lack of navigation buttons to manipulate the display or scroll to the next screen makes the XO in tablet-mode difficult to use as an e-book reader.
  • 7.5-inch screen display capable of 1200-by-900-pixel resolution.
  • Battery life average of 3.5 hours of continuous use during my tests.
  • Built-in video camera (640-by-480, 30fps) produced very low-quality videos but stills comparable to cell phone quality.
  • Touchpad input is very sensitive, with no identifiable utility to reduce tactile feedback.
  • Built-in microphone
  • Weight is 3.2 pounds and size is about that of a textbook
  • Browser desperately needs an upgrade. OLPC says automatic software upgrades will improve Web browsing and video playback.
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