The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO is undoubtedly unique among all the laptops we've tested. As a laptop compared with these others, it's terrible. But as a $188 laptop meant to bring learning and the Internet to children who would otherwise have no hope of touching a PC, it's wondrous. Originally conceived as "the $100 laptop" (additions have pushed the price to $188), the XO laptop is typically available only to qualified government ministries for distribution in developing countries. However, from November 12th through November 26th, in a special "Give 1, Get 1" program, U.S. and Canadian consumers for $399 can buy two XO laptops, one for themselves, and one that's sent to a child in a third-world country. This consumer promotion is what prompted LAPTOP to send the XO to me and my eight-year-old son to review.
As technophiles with access to the most advanced--and most expensive--notebook PCs, it would be easy to find fault with the XO. And indeed, it has its shortcomings (more on those in a moment). Our preproduction unit, along with the inability to test the mesh networking capabilities, made it even harder to foresee the end laptop that will begin being mass produced in October. But we're not the target audience, so we gave it to a second-grader, Nicholas, to get an eight-year-old's perspective. Granted, our sample child has world's more experience with technology products than the XO's target demographic would, but we could at least see the product through a child's eyes.
Straight off, Nicholas liked the look of the white-and-Kermit-green machine (view photos of the XO). The 3.2-pound unit feels solid and sturdy, and the kid-friendly integrated handle and rubber bumpers are a welcome design touch. Opening the unit is completely non-intuitive: What looks like a latch is actually the hinge. Instruction will be needed, or else a lot of these are going to wind up pried open the wrong way and broken. But once we showed Nicholas how to do it (flip up the large tabs on each side of the unit, which double as antennas, then lift the lid), he was able to open and close it without a problem.
The XO needs about 1 minute and 15 seconds to boot up, which is on a par with today's Vista notebooks. But we hope OLPC hides the scrolling lines of white code on a black background during bootup behind a splash screen of some sort; that isn't kid friendly.
Our initial reaction to the 7.5-inch screen was that it was too small, but Nicholas thought it was just fine. He didn't complain about the quality of the screen, but we will. Compared with modern notebook panels, this transmissive LCD delivers washed-out colors and isn't very bright. Its coating lends a screen-door effect, robbing crispness. And the 1200 x 900-pixel resolution on a panel this small makes for fairly tiny type on Web sites. The one bright spot: The dual-mode screen is very visible outdoors on a sunny day. When you turn down the brightness all the way, the screen switches to black-and-white mode that is readable even in direct sunlight. It's a neat trick that's great for taking the laptop to the park.
Nicholas also liked the rubbery membrane keyboard (which is designed to keep out sand, dust, and liquid). "Ooh, I like the keyboard. It feels fun," was his reaction. And the diminutive size was perfect for smaller hands. But the touchpad, which runs along the entire palm rest, is deceiving. Only the center square is active for cursor movement, but it's not differentiated enough from the squares flanking it. "It's kind of having trouble moving," Nicholas said of the cursor, not realizing his finger had moved off the active area of the pad. The side panels are intended for stylus use and will allow for free-form writing and drawing; this wasn't enabled on our preproduction unit, however. The lack of dedicated scroll areas is also unfortunate, especially because the onscreen scroll bars are razor-thin and hard to select.
Sweet and Sour Software
We should mention that the software on our tested configuration was incomplete, but we're not sure exactly which quirks will be worked out and which ones are just part of the XO experience. The user interface (called Sugar) is sparse but functional. It has a central icon for the registered user, surrounded by a segmented circle showing icons of the programs that are currently running. On top are icons to access your "neighborhood" (users and networks within range), your "group" (friends you've connected with via the mesh network), the homepage, and the last activity you were doing.
Along the bottom of the home screen are icons for the XO's built-in programs: BlockParty (a Tetris-like game), Paint (a low-end art program), a calculator, a word processor, an IM utility, Etoys (a collection of games and activities), the browser, an RSS reader, Connect (a Connect Four-like game), a media player, a memory game, TamTam (a basic music-creation program), TurtleArt (we're not sure what this is, even after using it), and the webcam utility.
The XO's 433-MHz AMD Geode CPU (married to 256MB of 166-MHz DDR333 SDRAM) opens these programs rather sluggishly, typically taking ten seconds or so. The delay had our eight-year-old thinking something was wrong. "I guess that one's not working," Nicholas said after one of the games didn't spring right open. Another annoyance: Some of these programs have no obvious way to quit out of them. Most have the familiar (to PC users) "X" icon, but others don't. So once open, they remain so until you shut down--sucking the machine's already-sparse resources. And although the screen is color, you would hardly know it from several of these programs: Icons and menu bars are generally done in black, white, and shades of gray.
The built-in Xulrunner browser is, well, awful. Web pages aren't scaled correctly, so the right side of the page is cut off; you'll need to use the thin horizontal scroll bar to see what's over there. It's also slow. CNN.com took 26 seconds to completely load over an 802.11g Wi-Fi connection (the XO has a built-in 802.11b/g chipset), versus 8 seconds for a regular PC the same distance from our router. And forget about watching video news clips: The choppy audio and video are unusable. We had no problem playing some songs off Pandora, though.
For Nicholas, the browsing experience was the biggest disappointment and soured him on the whole machine. "I think it's coming on...there it is!" he said after waiting for Noggin.com to load. Once there, he found that his favorite features--video clips and a drawing activity--didn't work. "I didn't know this would be this bad," he said. "I don't think this is a good machine."
Some of the other built-in programs are just fine. Nicholas liked the BlockParty game and music program (though a Help screen for the latter would be welcome). The large calculator was also a hit. "It's the easiest thing to use so far," he said. But we couldn't figure out how to activate colors in the Paint program.
The XO has other neat design touches. Swivel the screen and fold it flat against the keyboard, and you have a Tablet-like device. When the screen is horizontal, you can play the games using controls on the side. But without a stylus or touchscreen to help you navigate, there's really not much else you can do with it in this mode. Turn the system vertical and you can use it as an eBook. It has no hard drive or optical drive to break, but the 1GB of flash memory means you won't be loading many programs beyond what's here. Three USB ports help with external storage, and the specs claim there's an SD Card slot, but it was hidden under the screen.
In typical use, we saw 3 hours and 18 minutes of continuous runtime, which is very good considering the battery's small size. And in areas of the world where the AC adapter is just a light-green paperweight, OLPC will make available solar and pull-cord chargers. We noticed that the onscreen battery indicator didn't show the remaining charge in real time. Instead, it shows what the battery level was at the beginning of your session. To get an accurate reading, we had to reboot and check the meter again. Fortunately, the LED battery indicator below the screen glows red when the charge is low.
Also, after about two hours of continuous use, the cursor started jumping from where we were trying to position it, and the keyboard became unresponsive. Shutting the machine down and starting it back up again solved these problems (just like it used to in Windows 95). Again, these are quirks that could potentially be cured with the final software updates. We hope OLPC addresses the browser problems and application load times.
When given the choice between the XO and his current PC, Nicholas naturally chose the latter. When asked whether he would rather use the XO or his Leapster handheld learning system, he chose the Leapster. But when given the choice between the XO and nothing, he was okay with the XO. And since that's the choice facing the potential recipients of the XO, that may be enough of a victory.
Don't miss any of our coverage on the OLPC XO Laptop:
OLPC XO: We Gave 1, Got 1 to Africa
As the "$100 Laptop" is offered to the public, our African recipient of the XO laptop gives a firsthand look at what giving One Laptop Per Child can do.
Hands-On with One Laptop Per Child's XO Laptop
We visited the OLPC Labs to get our hands on the much-hyped laptop. Created with children of the developing world in mind, this notebook might just change the face of mobile computing.
Why Do The Kids Get to Have All the Fun?
After going hands-on with OLPC's XO laptop, here are five things we want in our mainstream, adult notebooks.