Reviewing the XO “$100” Laptop

One Laptop Per Child

Since 2005, when the One Laptop Per Child ("OLPC") project began, geeks and non-geeks alike have been fascinated with the idea of the "$100 laptop." What can you do with a computer built at this extraordinarily low price point? How crippling are the design compromises inherent in such a machine? How reliable is open source software that has been written entirely by volunteers? Even as news reports and press releases described the evolution of the computer that is now called the XO Model 1 ("XO"), few people, whether governments or private individuals, had much sense of how these devices would actually perform. That changed dramatically in November 2007, when the OLPC Foundation made XO computers available to U.S. residents through a limited-time "Give One Get One" ("GOGO") donation program. OLPC estimates that it sold over 170,000 XO computers during the 7-week program, creating an instant wave of user groups and greatly increasing general awareness of what had been somewhat of a niche product.

The success of the Give One Get One program also came in the midst of increased controversy about the project. Critics of the project allege that the GOGO program, a reversal of OLPC's long-standing policy that it would not sell XO computers to the general public, was required to keep factory production lines occupied because potential government customers found the XO unappealing and were stepping back from their earlier commitments to buy millions of XOs. Other critics, writing in high profile publications like the Wall Street Journal [link for subscribers], noted that the attraction of OLPC's goal of low-cost, environmentally friendly computers may contribute to the organization's ultimate failure, as other companies, such as Asus, Everex, and Intel bring newer and more powerful competing products to market. The recent departure of OLPC's CTO, Mary Lou Jepson to found her own company is seen by some as further evidence of OLPC's precarious position.

News commentators and business critics aside, one neutral way to assess the current success of the OLPC project is to take a hard look at the XO computer itself. What do you get for a computer that has an official sales price of $188 for governments and aid organizations? Does it fulfill its mission? Should adult road warriors try to snag one for themselves? The answer, not surprisingly, depends greatly on how you would use the computer.

I. Basic Specifications

The compact XO Model 1 computer weighs in at a surprisingly solid 3.2 pounds (including battery) and features a 7.5" display that pivots 180 degrees like more expensive Tablet PCs. Each XO also includes a built-in camera/webcam, an SD-card slot for additional memory or peripherals, three USB ports, and standard microphone and headphone jacks. Networking is provided through built-in 802.11b/g connectivity, as well as 802.11s mesh connectivity that permits XOs to daisy-chain and extend internet connections for miles past the initial signal. The XO is powered by an AMD Geode x86-compatible processor, and its operating system is a custom build of Red Hat's Fedora Core 6 version of Linux, overlaid with the XO's custom "Sugar" user interface. The computer case is white and lime green high-impact plastic with an integrated handle and brightly colored X and O inserts. Over 400 different color combinations of Xs and Os are possible, making it easy to distinguish one XO from another.

II. Form Follows Function

The XO computer is designed for use by children in sub-optimal physical environments, including high dust, high humidity, and both extreme hot and cold conditions. It's a profoundly sturdy device. The XO uses a sealed silicone membrane keyboard similar to the "virtually indestructible" keyboards available at many electronics stores; the keyboard is liquid and grease-resistant and can be wiped clean. The rest of the XO's body, including the computer's USB and SD port bays, has been sealed to protect against accidental liquid spills and sand or dust accumulation. The absence of a cooling fan is made possible through aggressive power management on the motherboard and an underclocked CPU; during my testing, the monitor housing, which holds both the LCD screen and the motherboard, heated noticeably but not unpleasantly, even after extended use.

In addition to comprehensive dust and moisture resistance, the XO body is ruggedized to survive repeated accidental drops. The exterior surface is textured to reduce the possibility of large scratches or cuts into the housing. Other than the keyboard and gamepad buttons, the latches holding the battery, and the combination case latches/wireless antennae, the XO contains no moving parts that can wear out. Independent lab tests suggest that the XO matches or surpasses Panasonic Toughbook® laptop computers for durability. OLPC states that it has designed the XO for a useful life of five years, with hopes that the main computer would last longer (the innovative and replaceable battery is rated for 2,000 recharge/discharge cycles, far more than a typical lithium-ion or nickel hydride notebook computer battery).

The fortress-like design of the XO hardware, however, also requires some compromises. Because of the case's sealed design, the XO's memory cannot be upgraded past its very modest 256 megabytes of memory. Perhaps more immediately for adult users, the 65%-scale membrane keyboard is sized for a child's hands and has an unusual response and "feel"; many experienced computer users (like me) have found it difficult to type with any speed or accuracy, and the keyboard has been described as "downright impossible to use for extended typing sessions" by one unhappy reviewer. Dissatisfaction with both the keyboard and touchpad can easily be resolved by attaching a more conventional external keyboard and mouse though the XO's USB ports, but this increases the amount of gear required to use the computer and decreases its portability. It's also a difficult trade-off because USB peripherals also sap power from the otherwise miserly XO system, reducing battery life below its 3.5 hour average time. That said, my greatest frustration with the XO disappeared when I abandoned its membrane keyboard for a more comfortable (and full-sized) keyboard.

II. The User Interface Defines the XO Experience

The XO computer is intended to be an educational and exploration tool for children, and its software reflects this deliberate design as much as its hardware. In particular, the XO's Sugar graphic user interface provides a powerfully different experience from a Microsoft Windows or Apple MacOS-powered computer. Depending on the user, Sugar is either a delight or a frustration.

Viewed by a newcomer to computers, the Sugar interface is a model of simplicity. From the "home" screen (equivalent to the Windows desktop), it's immediately possible to see the name of the user who has logged into the computer, the programs that are running, and all the programs that are available. Switching from one program to another is as simple as clicking on the appropriate icon; multi-threading in the underlying Linux operating system neatly juggles each application. Pop-up tool tips make it easier to identify the function of most icons. I personally observed five children, ages five through nine, pick up the Sugar fundamentals - and independently discover advanced features - in minutes, rather than hours.

For whatever reason, though, seasoned computer users (including me) seem to have more difficulty initially working in the Sugar environment. For example, moving between applications in Sugar involves passing through the home screen. For users who are used to working in Windows or MacOS, this seems less efficient than clicking on program tiles at the bottom of a screen or using the keyboard shortcut to toggle between applications. Similarly, a wayward cursor sometimes pops up certain functions unexpectedly, and I wasn't always able to find an elegant way to cancel these functions (my sons, on the other hand, typically encountered such problems once, but then deduced their cause and solution). Ultimately, it took me less than an hour of hands-on time to become comfortable with the Sugar interface, but this is the first computer I've used in over a decade that has a significant learning curve.

Out of the box, the XO contains a healthy array of productivity and educational software, including a word processor, a web browser, a calculator, music composition software, and a few games. For the hard-core, the XO includes a shortcut that opens a standard terminal session and lets users work directly in a bash shell. Additional "activities," all of which are open source projects, are being released on a daily basis and are easily downloaded and installed through the browser, subject only to the XO's somewhat cramped file storage capacity. Applications are optimized for size; installing eight additional XO activities took up less than a quarter of its available internal file space. Additional file storage can be added through SD memory cards, though applications stored there will run more slowly than applications stored on internal memory.

As an educational device, the built-in applications are magnificent. The built-in browser (Opera, with a more conventional interface, can also be installed) contains shortcuts and bookmarks to online libraries and research sites. However, though it is based on the same Gecko engine that powers the Firefox browser, the standard XO browser is unexpectedly clumsy at storing new bookmarks and showing Internet-based multi-media. Flash and YouTube videos, for example, are jerky with noticeable frame drops. On the other hand, it's easy to lose hours of time reading online books through the International Children's Digital Library and exploring the other educational web sites already bookmarked within the XO browser.

Power users may also be somewhat frustrated by the XO's built-in word processor (a custom port of Abiword), even though it provides a surprising amount of functionality, including the ability to create custom tables and insert graphics. Users with substantial computer experience may be confused by the absence of certain commands (there is no "save" command or icon because content is automatically saved as it is created), but much of the functionality typically used when writing even complex documents is present. One glaring shortcoming is that the XO Write program cannot save documents in Microsoft .DOC format, only in text (.TXT), rich text (.RTF) and hypertext (.HTML) formats. However, as other versions of Abiword support this data format, it is likely that this critical feature will be available on the XO relatively soon.

Power users may also miss spreadsheet and presentation software. For the time being, OLPC recommends using the XO Browser to run GoogleDocs as primary spreadsheet software and as an alternate word processor. It has been reported that Apple Web Apps, though designed for the iPhone, also work well when accessed through the XO browser. OpenOffice, which provides a full suite of productivity software, is too bulky to run comfortably on the XO Model 1. It is likely that future XO models will have more memory and storage, perhaps permitting this excellent software to run on the XO.

Finally, even though the XO's wireless network hardware has approximately twice the range of most wifi devices currently on the market and the computer detects and connects easily to open or WPA-encryped networks, the device currently has some difficulty connecting to WEP-encrypted networks, which are commonly used in many corporate or secure settings. Some users have been able to establish specific WEP connections, but success appears dependant on a combination of hardware and network password variables. This problem is not unique to the XO—the Asus eee PC, which uses a different (Xandros) Linux distribution, also has some difficulty connecting to WEP-encrypted networks. It is expected that software developers will continue to work on this issue, since the XO hardware is capable of supporting these connections.

III. Grow-Your-Own Technical Support

One area in which the XO stumbles is technical support. Put bluntly, OLPC does not provide technical support for the XO—or any written documentation beyond a three-page "getting started" pamphlet that does little more than show how to charge and turn on the computer. Users are expected to learn how to use the computer by exploring its features and by teaching each other.

Mercifully, a large crew of volunteers has compiled extensive wikipedia-based resources that answer many questions and that provide a forum for both new and experienced users to discuss their experiences with the XO. Local and virtual user groups also provide a forum for discussing more complex questions about the XO, including ways to customize existing software for use in the XO / Sugar environment. However, because all these resources are supported by volunteers, not all content is available in a single location, nor is all information verified for accuracy.

OLPC also provides a cruelly brief 30-day warranty; users should turn on the XO for an extended "burn-in" to make sure that anything that is likely to fail will do so during the warranty period. On the other hand, the XO is designed for reliability, so the odds of component failure should be relatively modest. The screen, for example, is backlit with LEDs, not the fluorescent tubes used in most laptops. The resulting screen is both more environmentally friendly and more durable, as LEDs have an average life cycle in excess of 10,000 hours, and multiple LEDs must fail before the screen becomes too dark to read outside of daylight. Even with absolute failure of the LED backlighting, the XO's reflective screen will still be highly usable in daylight, unlike virtually all other computers using LCD displays.

Conclusion

The XO computer is a focused attempt to create a computer that support and encourages learning in children between the ages of six and twelve. Few people who have seen children use the XO believe that it is anything other than an unqualified success in that mission. Individuals interested in stretching the XO beyond its target audience must accept that the device has certain limitations that are more apparent when trying to use the XO as a full-fledged laptop replacement. That said, the XO is powerful and flexible enough to support a surprising amount of high-level use. Particularly when coupled with a more usable external keyboard, this little computer offers an intriguing alternative to much bigger and more powerful notebook computers. One can only hope that some—or much—or the XO's innovative screen and energy management technology will emerge in other portable computing devices intended for a more general audience.