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A Look at the One Laptop Per Child Computer

After months of knowing the One Laptop Per Child project's XO computer only through pictures and blog postings, I got to spend an hour or so playing with a couple of test units last Thursday -- courtesy of two D.C.-area residents involved with this effort, OLPC News editor Wayan Vota and educational-sofware developer Jonathan Blocksom.

Vota and Blocksom brought along one recent "B4" prototype, which they said was very similar to what will go into production in September, and one slightly older version.


Intel's Classmate PC looks a little bit like a toy, but the resemblance is much more pronounced with the XO. It comes in bright green-and-white plastic (with a purple and red XO logo on the back of the lid) and includes directional buttons on either side of the screen like those on a PlayStation Portable. Like a good toy, the XO is built to take abuse: Its flip-up wireless antennas are made of a rubbery plastic that shouldn't snap off easily, the keyboard consists of sealed chiclet-style keys (silent in use, though difficult to touch-type on), and the entire lower half of the laptop flexes when you stress it.


The most impressive hardware on the XO is its color screen. Not only is it sharper than the Classmate's LCD, it also could be used without a backlight. Dimming the screen completely caused it to switch into a black-and-white mode that -- like the LCD on a stopwatch -- only needed external light. You could use this machine at high noon if you wanted.

Like the Classmate, the XO runs on flash memory (1 gigabyte's worth), but it offers more expansion options, with three USB ports and, hidden awkwardly under the screen, an SD Card slot. A still/video camera is tucked into the lid.

This machine runs a version of the Fedora distribution of Linux that few Linux veterans would recognize, devoid of menus and all but a minimal set of of toolbar icons and onscreen buttons. But the kids the OLPC project aims to help haven't spent any time in Windows, Mac OS X or Linux anyway.

The real problem we had was simple reliability: We just couldn't get the two XO machines to talk to each other wirelessly for interactive applications like chat sessions, even though they did get online and browse the Web. (Weirdly enough, both XO units saw other, random computers online; Vota writes about that, and the security issues he think it raises, in his recap of the demo.)

Blocksom opined that the XO's software has a ways to go. I'd agree. But I did have fun trying out some of the non-networked progams: the gleefully cacophonous music-composition program TamTam; a simple programming game called Turtle, based on the Logo software kids have played with for years; and, of course, a version of Tetris.

Assuming the XO's software can be whipped into shape, would you consider one of these in your schools? What about in your home?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  July 25, 2007; 11:22 AM ET
Categories:  Computers  
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Comments

I would like to point out that the two prototypes I showed Rob were from different production generations; one was an older prototype unit with a slower processor board. I assume it is the differences in the prototype models that caused the problems communicating with each other.

I personally can't wait for my kids to have one!

Posted by: Jonathan Blocksom | July 25, 2007 1:04 PM | Report abuse

I would buy one today if it was available.

Posted by: john | July 25, 2007 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Lucky for you John, and the rest of us who salivate over the XO technology, OLPC is now talking about retail sales this Christmas http://www.olpcnews.com/countries/usa/olpc_xo_sales_christmas_buy.html

If it happens, I'm buying XO's for ever kid (and kid at heart) on my block!

Posted by: Wayan | July 25, 2007 2:14 PM | Report abuse

I would buy one today if it was available. Is a big push for Countries like Costa Rica.

http://hleivacr.blogspot.com

Posted by: Hugo Leiva | July 25, 2007 3:20 PM | Report abuse

I have little issue with this notebook - except that its Internet connectivity is inherently insecure - hence the Nigerian children who were busted recently surfing for porn on their OLPCs.

But I still wonder about what the benefit - and costs - there'll be to thrusting children headlong into the cyberworld. I've yet to see that introducing computers to American children has been a significant boost to their learning potential. In fact, I'm harshly critical of the practise of teaching Kindergarten kids how to use PowerPoint to do presentations.

Kids need time to learn to exist & thrive in the real, tactile, analog world before we begin acclimating them to the digital world. Kids need to learn how to fingerpaint before they learn to IM, ride a bicycle before learning to blast Nazis in FPS games.

Posted by: Rob O. | July 25, 2007 7:32 PM | Report abuse

I doubt kindergarteners (circa 5 years old) are creating powerpoint presentations without yet knowing how to read/write.

Personally, I support the program.

Posted by: JJP | July 26, 2007 12:01 AM | Report abuse

OLPC must ensure that retail sales price of these laptops in developing world should not get distorted by duties and taxes (other than 1st taking care of the target segments). I am from India, and I do see that irrespective of government support and efficiency (in effectively distributing these machines to rural schools and kids); OLPC can drive the much needed digital leapfrogging in vast rural belts of India (and other developing nations).

Posted by: Ranjit Goswami | July 26, 2007 1:42 AM | Report abuse

So, does this unleash a new wave of child sweatshops devoted to the Nigeria royalty in desparate need of U.S citizens to assist in the reclamation of assets?

Posted by: Bob Evans | July 26, 2007 9:00 AM | Report abuse

The ability to work on virtually no power and work at Hi Noon with great resolution will win it a place in outside contractors hearts. Add a flip over touch display......

Of course I might use it in sailboat electronics!

Since it is Fedora it is Hackable.

Don't mistake it. We are looking at a new appliance technology set.

Posted by: John Jeffers | July 26, 2007 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Similar Laptops should be made available to one and all, especially to the small business community and people of developing countries.

Posted by: Pandurangan K | July 26, 2007 9:29 PM | Report abuse

Please note that Mr. Vota's website, OLPC News, is not associated with the One Laptop Per Child organization or any of its participants.

Posted by: Dave | July 30, 2007 12:51 AM | Report abuse

This "One Laptop Per Child Computer" project is just talk. They has been talking about this for over ten years.

To be frank, this project is becoming irrelevant. China, Africa, South American and Russia are going through dramatic economic growth. People can afford to buy a full price PC nowadays. In the next few years, they can afford PS3 and the best PC.

If this project put into action 10 yrs ago, it would change the world and into history book. Now is just another charity smoking gun. Remind me of US2 Burno ask:"Where is the money when u needed?"

Posted by: smoothn00dle | August 3, 2007 2:04 AM | Report abuse

I have a son in 1st and Kindergarten. Both were doing powerpoints. It sounds wonderful for each student to have their own computer, but I wonder about loss of student attention while the teacher is trying to lead instruction. Is there a block or pause system teachers are able to use to stop the kids from surfing instead of listening?

Posted by: Diane | August 5, 2007 10:17 AM | Report abuse

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