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?
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