It has taken more than two years, but the One Laptop Per Child initiative has finally released its much-anticipated laptop: the OLPC XO-1.
The XO-1 costs $200 each to donate, but for a limited time — until Dec. 31, 2007 — people can avail themselves of the "Give One, Get One" promotion to give a $399 donation ($200 of which is tax-deductible).
One laptop goes to a disadvantaged child in a developing nation, while OLPC gives you another one as a thank-you gift of sorts. (Think of a PBS pledge drive, where they offer a gift to you of a DVD set for a $200 donation.)
This is certainly a different business model in this "me, me, me" holiday season: Instead of buying something for yourself, you buy technology for a child who needs it, with a fringe benefit of a gift laptop for your household.
Just be advised, this limited-time offer is the only way you'll be able to get your hands on the XO-1 for the foreseeable future. After the end of the year, people can still donate the laptops, but they won't be getting one as a gift.
The OLPC XO-1 is intriguing blend of opposites.
On the one hand it contains technology that would barely be called sufficient in today's terms (sub-500-MHz processor, only 256MB of RAM, 1GB of flash storage), though that is more than enough for the ultimate recipient of the notebook, a child in a developing country who has never used a computer before.
On the other hand, it includes features found in a notebook worth $2,000 or more. It's encased in a rugged exterior that is splash-, drop-, and hot/cold-resistant.
It has an LED backlit screen; it's compatible with 802.11b/g Wi-Fi; and it also offers 802.11s "mesh networking" — a type of peer-to-peer ad hoc networking that requires zero configuration. And it uses so little power that an external hand generator or a solar panel can power the system.
That screen can pivot 180 degrees to lie flat on top of the keyboard like a tablet; in this configuration, the laptop can work in an "e-book" mode.
You can scroll text with the included game-style D-pad and function buttons, but, to save costs, the screen isn't touch-sensitive like that of a tablet PC.
It is designed so as to be usable in broad daylight. For my testing (indoors, in the labs) I used the LED backlight, which was bright enough, though it can look a bit dim when viewed from the wrong angle. The screen pivot and hinge help alleviate this problem.
If you think you're buying a full-featured laptop PC for $199 net cost, you're deluding yourself, yet for children in the target age range (6 to 12 years old), the XO-1 is as appealing as the other "most desirable object" of 2007, the Apple iPhone.
The colors are bright and friendly, the rubber-sealed keyboard is protected against splashes from beverages, and the keys are responsive.
I got the mother of all pouts when I had to take the XO-1 back from my 9-year-old tester (my daughter). I'd say that's a stirring endorsement from the target market.
The XO-1 is designed and built to work in any environment where you find children, including a one-room school with wooden desks, the dirt floor of a mud brick hut or a sunlit soybean field.
The antennas on either side of the screen double as the laptop's screen latches, so children can swing the XO-1 around its built-in handle with abandon. A drop from child height is unlikely to break the impact-resistant plastic case.
Those same antennas cover the three USB ports and headphone and microphone jacks, so all ports are protected.
The three-panel touch pad is capacitive in the center (touch-sensitive like most touch pads), while the three panels together are resistive: You can use a nonconducting stylus, even a wooden stick (the unit doesn't come with a stylus), to draw or to move the cursor.
The keyboard has a lot of new symbols on it, including a row of buttons representing the neighborhood, classroom and individual.
These buttons modify the GUI so that you see the world in general (over Wi-Fi or mesh networks), local users (if you are in a classroom environment with an OLPC XS school server) or the activities you are working on now or in the past.
So far it's up to the individual countries' respective departments of education or local organizations to get the laptops actually into students' hands.
The XO-1 really comes into its own in its intended environment, where a school's teachers and administration facilitate shared learning and communication among students.
The laptop's mesh networking helps students collaborate on music, writing and many other activities. It works rather like Bluetooth — if you can "see" the other laptops wirelessly, you can connect to them — but without all the tedious configuration that Bluetooth requires.
OLPC designed the system as a laptop because it wants students to take their computers home and engage their families in their work and play activities.
Speaking of activities, the XO-1 uses an activity metaphor instead of calling its open-source programs "applications."
The customized Fedora Linux–based interface is a more elegant implementation of Linux than the gOS we saw on the Everex gPC: Both operating systems use a taskbar at the bottom with a row of icons (à la Mac OS X), but the XO-1's interface forgoes flashy graphics with "bouncing" icons and is therefore, ultimately, more responsive and usable.
Activities like Chat, Browse (Internet), Write, Paint, and Calculate are self-explanatory.
The XO-1 has a suite of music programs called TamTam; they range from a simple beat-making and keyboard mashing toy to a fairly sophisticated music sequencer.
Applications are included to teach programming, too, ranging from the simple TurtleArt (which employs LOGO, an old-school programming language that was used to teach rudimentary programming back in the early 1980s) to the sophisticated Pippy (an interactive interpreter of Python, one of the major programming languages of the Internet, used by Google and YouTube).
There's a Record function, which can be used with the built-in camera, microphone or both to relay messages between a child's teacher and parents or to save the child's own memories.
Internet-connected children will be able to download and install additional activities from OLPC's wiki-based support site. The downloadable activities on the support site are open-source programs specifically developed for the XO-1 platform.
The XO-1's Internet Browser is a highly customized version of Mozilla Firefox. It supports Flash- and Ajax-based sites such as YouTube and Google Maps; performance is sluggish but usable.
Word-processing performance and general browsing was as fast as you'd expect on a smartphone, which is to say fast enough.
The original prototype showed an integrated hand crank to power the XO-1. Unfortunately that feature is absent from the shipping model, which comes with an AC adapter, but the XO-1 will still run off external kinetic power sources such as hand cranks or a foot-powered generators — features likely to be available on the laptops going to developing countries.
As part of its deployment for use in developing countries, the XO-1 runs on 8-to-11-volt power systems (from solar panels to hand or foot cranks to a car battery), and it does so efficiently. I measured 18 watts of power usage while the battery was charging and 6W after the battery was fully charged.
This is a far cry from the 60W to 100W usage of an energy-efficient value desktop. By comparison, the ASUS Eee PC 4G used over 23W while charging and 14W when charged.
The XO-1's LiFePO4 (lithium iron phosphate) battery is more environmentally friendly than an NiMH or an NiCd, and it will support more than 2,000 charge-recharge cycles, compared with the 800 to 1,200 you get from other battery technologies, such as lithium-ion.
Untrained personnel (older children, perhaps) can repair the XO-1 in the field: Undo four screws using just your hand, then pop open the screen bezel (all the electronics save the keyboard and the battery are in the screen).
Once the screen is open the backlight can be replaced with a $2 part, and there are extra screws in the chassis in case one is lost.
The motherboard with integrated CPU pops out in one piece and is also user-replaceable, so you can easily take two semi-working XO-1 laptops (say one with a broken screen, and another with a fried motherboard) and make one good one out of the pair.
I have to reiterate that this is a donation rather than a true-blue consumer PC, since we've come to one of the XO-1's biggest drawbacks for users: There's a 30-day replacement warranty, but once that's done, you're on your own.
You can try going to the wiki-based support site for updates and community-based help, but since OLPC isn't a consumer PC entity, you'll be expected to handle your own tech support. OLPC claims that there will be a fee-based tech support service, but that's in the future.
As part of the "Give One, Get One" promotion, donors will receive one-year subscription to T-Mobile's HotSpot Wi-Fi network, so you can use your XO-1 in Starbucks cafés and airports around the country.
Also, if you just want to donate $200 (or more) per laptop and not receive the gift XO-1, OLPC will put the entire sum toward the $200 cost per unit to supply laptops to children.
Your entire contribution in this case is 100 percent tax-deductible — depending of course on your local and federal tax laws.
Compared with its rivals, the XO-1 has the advantage of actually being available.
Intel's Classmate PC has two strikes against it: It's only a reference design (original equipment manufacturers like ASUS or Dell will still have to brand and build it), and so far it is vaporware.
The Classmate PC will have the benefit of being x86-compatible, so it will run Windows XP or various versions of Linux (the XO-1 can run only its custom version of Fedora Linux).
The $400 ASUS Eee PC is a vastly better choice for adult users because it's available now from public sources like NewEgg, and it will still be available to the public after Dec. 31, 2007; furthermore, it comes with a suite of programs that includes Google Docs and a full version of Firefox.
The philanthropic aspect of the XO-1, however, can't be denied, and the Eee PC isn't ruggedized like the XO-1.
If what you're after is an inexpensive system, there's also the option of buying a used PC on eBay or low-powered new desktop like the Everex gPC, but the XO-1 is compelling considering the target market.
Probably the biggest strike against the OLPC XO-1 (from an admittedly selfish perspective) as a consumer PC is that OLPC isn't a consumer PC company, so all over its Web site are disclaimers stating that while it will strive to get the gift PCs to you by the holidays, delivery isn't guaranteed.
What is guaranteed is that your contribution will result in a new XO-1 PC for a needy child somewhere in the world.
If this were a full-blown comparison review, I'd probably give the nod to the Eee PC for adults and the OLPC XO-1 for children, but the XO-1 isn't a consumer PC in the strict definition of the term.
For a $399 donation (50 percent tax-deductible), you'll be contributing to a charity whose goal is to get laptops into the hands of children around the world, and as a fringe benefit, you'll get the same laptop for your child as a gift.
After Jan. 1, 2008, you'll still be able to contribute to the OLPC effort monetarily, but you won't get the XO-1 as a gift for yourself or your kids.
In either case, you don't get to choose what country your charitable laptop goes to if you buy an individual unit, but if you donate 100 to 10,000 units or more, you get to choose where they go.
The OLPC XO-1 is already a game changer; that much is certain, with other laptop manufacturers and chip giants like Intel (with its Classmate PC), developing competing products.
What remains to be seen is whether either OLPC itself or its competitors can get the laptops into the hands of students worldwide. Like other game changers and version 1.0 products, mass adoption will be the key to the success of the "cheap educational laptop."
While the XO-1 is attractive and totally kid-friendly, it's ultimately up to the bureaucrats in the target countries to choose which platform to use.
Unfortunately for OLPC, lobbyists, marketing and PR agents cost money, and Intel has deep pockets. So Intel can still gain the edge, if it can get the Classmate PC laptop past the reference design and prototype stages.
I'd say this gives OLPC about 6 to 12 months to get the traction it needs to become established before the Classmate PC and its ubiquitous x86 technology catches up.
No matter who "wins" this phase of the computer wars, ultimately children in developing countries will start to be familiar and comfortable with the technology that industrialized countries enjoy.
Maybe then communication will become a dialogue, instead of a monologue directed from the rich nations to the poor. That will be something to see.
BOTTOM LINE: The XO-1 laptop by the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative is a game-changer for disadvantaged children in developing countries. For a limited time you can benefit as well.
PROS: Uses very little energy to run. Preloaded with educational software. Wireless, with mesh networking. Flash-compatible browser preinstalled. Long-cycle LiFePO4 battery. Rugged construction. Easy to service.
CONS: Not compatible with store-bought Windows or Mac OS programs. Sluggish flash performance. Much less compelling for adults. Business model isn't consumer-oriented (shipping, customer support). You can't specify where your donated computer goes, unless you donate a lot. For experienced computer users, requires learning a new way of doing things. You must act before Dec. 31, 2007 if you want one for yourself.
COMPANY: One Laptop Per Child
Type: Ultraportable, Value
Operating System: Fedora Core 7 Linux
Processor Name: AMD Geode LX700
Processor Speed: 433 MHz
RAM: 256 MB
Weight: 3.2 lb
Screen Size: 7.5 inches
Screen Size Type: standard
Graphics Card: Integrated
Storage Capacity: 1 GB
Networking Options: 802.11s
EDITOR RATING: Four out of five stars
Copyright © 2007 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.
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