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Exclusive Hands-On With OLPC's XO Running Windows XP

Windows Microsoft officially announced that it was going to port over Windows XP to One Laptop Per Child's XO laptop in May. Along with the announcement they put up a video of how XP performs on the machine that was originally built to support Sugar, the Linux OS that was designed to promote learning by doing. Come September, XOs with a dual boot Windows XP and Linux Sugar OS will be shipping to developing countries. LAPTOP Magazine headed up to Cambridge to get an exclusive, and the first unbiased glimpse at the tweaked Windows XP running on the OLPC XO. Back in May we wondered how the XO with its 256 MB of RAM and 1GB SSD would handle Windows XP. Could the bare bones system run smoothly? Would it support features, like mesh networking, that we found so compelling in the original Sugar OS? Could it really boot in 50 seconds like Bohdan in the Microsoft video promised? We got the answers to all those questions and also learned that using the XO with Windows XP is a completely different experience than using the original Sugar interface. Sure, that much is obvious, but we are prefacing this mini-review by saying that the following is not a column on which operating system we prefer, it is a look at the performance of XP on the current XO hardware. Updated Editor's Note: It has been brought to our attention that the XO we saw yesterday at OLPC's offices was not the final release of the XP software. In fact, OLPC showed us a prototype XO that should significantly differ from the final release to Microsoft manufacturing (RTM) version. Michael Gartenberg of Jupiter Research has actually had the RTM version of the XO with XP for a few weeks and is reporting that his experience has NOT been the same as ours. The XO with XP that we saw did not have the correct commercial BIOS slated to ship in Phase-1 devices nor the final 2GB SD card. Gartenberg reports that his system boots in less than a minute. OLPC and Microsoft have told us that application boot time is much quicker. We are planning to see the final RTM version from Microsoft in the next few weeks. We will then do a second review and update our impressions. An SD Card Boot The XO hardware has gone unchanged; it is still configured with 256 MB of RAM, a 1GB flash hard drive and an AMD Geode LX-700 processor. Because the onboard storage is too small to accommodate XP, the system boots a slimmed down version of XP off the SD card slot (that is hidden under the screen). When the 4GB SanDisk Extreme SD card was inserted into our test unit it booted right to XP (as you will see in the video below).The 4GB card was about half full (1.81GB) with Windows XP and other Microsoft applications and Firefox. There was about 1.97GB of free space left on the card. The embedded 1GB flash drive in the XO goes untouched and you do not have access to that drive from XP. The system took a sluggish 1 minute and 24 seconds to boot; that is about three times the 30 second boot up we have seen on Sugar and 34 seconds longer than the claimed time of 50 seconds. Children who get the XO might want to go watch a cartoon or two while they're waiting for the system to start. OLPC is still working on the dual boot start screen that lets you choose between the Sugar and XP OS, so to boot the system into Sugar we simply pulled the SD card out. Included Software The system comes with Microsoft's $3 version of Windows XP Starter Edition (which we checked was supporting Service Pack 2) as well as Office 2003. The $3 license is available only in developing countries as part of the Microsoft Unlimited Potential Program. See the Microsoft Web site for more information on what is included in the $3 package. Since we've grown accustomed to using Sugar on the XO, it is a bit surreal to hear the XP chime when you arrive at the desktop. Displayed on it are the standard Microsoft shortcuts, including the Recycling Bin, Windows Media Player, Internet Explorer 6, Microsoft Powerpoint, etc. Also downloaded was FireFox 2. While Microsoft puts its Learning Essentials on the XO, which include preloaded presentation and report templates, missing are the specialized education programs central to Sugar. There are no learning games preloaded. Application Launching Launching Internet Explorer took only 5 seconds, but the Office suite took longer to open. When we opened PowerPoint, it took close to 15 seconds and, as you will see in the video, Word 2003 took a lengthy 42 seconds. Launch times were quicker when we closed all other programs. Because of its 256 MB of RAM, the XO is not a multitasker. Running Word and Internet Explorer was fine, but when we went to install Skype, we had a hard time installing the program while other applications were running in the background. We similarly had a problem when playing a video while other programs were open. More RAM certainly help in XP and in fact OLPC is talking about releasing another XO with the same hardware but with more RAM and perhaps a new AMD chip. No word on whether this would add to the cost. Smooth Surfing, No Mesh Spending time in the Cloud is a great bet on the the XP running XO, but we found out very quickly that you won't get the same mesh networking capability that you get in Sugar. Connecting to OLPC's wireless router was smooth as was firing up Firefox 2 and navigating to our favorite pages in a number of different tabs. We were able to check e-mail in Gmail while simultaneously looking at pictures on Facebook. Streaming video and music was a bit more of a challenge, though we were able to install Flash in no time (which is much harder to do in the Linux-based Sugar OS). A Rick Ashley video on YouTube once fully loaded sounded quite good, without any audio skips. However the video was a bit choppy. The same went for a video of Family Guy on Hulu.com. Better than Expected Video A video we opened in Windows Media Player played smoothly without any skips or pixelation. Similarly, a preloaded Windows video played well with no pauses. While a video call over Skype failed (most likely due to limited system requirements) the webcam's video looked clear and smooth in the Skype settings window and the preloaded Windows Movie Maker. We like that you can record video in Windows Movie Maker, just like you can in the Sugar camera program. It looked like you could edit movies in Movie Maker but we cannot imagine that works well with the allotted hardware. Hardware Compatablity Most of the hardware works as promised in XP. While we couldn't get the screen to rotate in tablet/e-reader mode, OLPC says that it will work in the final build. Keyboard shortcuts like ALT +TAB worked to switch between windows, and the sound controls on the green keyboard worked to control volume. We assume the screen resolution buttons on the keyboard will work but we didn't test them. Verdict On paper, a dual boot XO gives kids the best of both worlds: the somewhat boring, but ubiquitous Microsoft OS and its giant universe of software together with Sugar, which is packed with learning tools for kids. However, our early peek suggests that the XP portion is not ready for primetime, as evidenced by the slow boot time, slow application load time, and trouble with multitasking and streaming media. We hope OLPC can fine tune the performance without increasing the cost. Boot Up Video: [flv:/flvs/olpc-xp-boot.flv 480 360] Hands-On With XP on the XO: [flv:/flvs/olpc-xp.flv 480 360]