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India's '$10 Laptop' Revealed as Nearly Useless Brick

When is a laptop not a laptop?

When it's introduced by Indian education officials, apparently.

The buzz and hype surrounding the Indian Education Ministry's breathless announcement last week that it would be unveiling a $10 laptop aimed at the poor fizzled out like a wet firecracker Tuesday evening when officials finally debuted the device.

A photo displayed at the press conference in the southern city of Tirupati showed it to be nothing more than an external storage brick, the sort of thing you'd plug into a real laptop to hold your MP3 files.

"There are a lot of things you can do for $10," said PCMag.com Editor-in-Chief Lance Ulanoff. "Buy 10 cups of coffee. ... Get a cheap T-shirt or two. What you can't do, however, is build a PC."

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Some reports said the Indian device was called the Sakshat or "before your eyes", but that turns out to be the name of the Education Ministry Web site the thing's meant to link up to.

"We intend to provide high-speed Internet access to schools and colleges to download e-books, e-journals and relevant educative material through the state-run Sakshat portal," Education Joint Secretary S.K. Sinha said at the unveiling, according to the India Times.

The photo showed a white brick-like device, purportedly measuring 10 inches by 5 inches, with various wires running out of it and what appeared to be a small monochrome LCD screen on the top. There was no keyboard and no usable display.

What does it do? It holds educational material for students to access — presumably while they're using a real computer.

"A place to put your stuff does not add up to a PC," explained Ulanoff. "A cheap motherboard, 2 GB of super-cheap RAM, integrated graphics and an external power supply would cost more than $10. Maybe you could build all that for under $100, but then you still need a keyboard and display."

Foreign media had earlier reasoned that the country that says it's built a $2,500 car and a $15 cell phone might in fact be able to use its demonstrated technical skills to put together a low-cost computer, variously quoted as priced at $10, $20 or $100.

Yet Indian officials were vague about the specifications both before and after the unveiling, saying only that the machine would have 2 gigabytes of memory and Wi-Fi connectivity, run the Linux operating system and consume merely 2 watts of power.

Tech-industry experts shook their heads, doubting that any kind of computer could be built that cheaply using standard parts, and wondering whether it was a classic example of "vaporware" — promised technology that never materializes.

Nicholas Negroponte, head of the floundering One Laptop Per Child project, which saw its own $100 laptop double in price, pointed out that you can't even get an LCD display for less than $20.

Some India news media were predictably upbeat about the device, seeing it as another chance to show the world that India can compete on a global scale.

"The mission was launched at a huge gathering of academicians and the officials from across the country," puffed Rediff.com, a Web site for Indians abroad. "Many players are curious to know the details of the costing and how Indians managed to keep the cost so low."

The Times of India saw the story more clearly, calling the whole project a "damp squib" and noting that Sinha "refused to comment as to why was it being projected as a laptop when it was not."

"In short," said Ulanoff, "India's Education Ministry has stepped off the platform of smart technology innovation and dropped head first in the abyss known as irreconcilable hype."