OLPC XO Laptop: First Impressions

OLPC XO Laptop: First Impressions

XO Laptop I was pleasantly surprised to receive my XO Laptop, formally known as the $100 Laptop for the One Laptop Per Child non-profit, and I just spent a couple hours playing with it. It is the cutest, coolest piece of gear I have in the house. I would venture to say that it’s WAY cooler than my MacBook Pro 17″ which is, basically, a production workstation. Sure, the XO is not very fast, is made of the type of plastic that’s used for toddler toys, and the “keyboard” is a chicklet-style membrane that is not designed for touch-typing. There isn’t a hard drive, and it doesn’t run Windows or a window system for that matter. So what good is it you ask? It’s good for getting education and computing into the great outdoors, that’s what. It is the most exciting thing I’ve seen in quite some time. Yes, I even think it’s cooler than the iPhone.

XO Laptop Admittedly, it is designed for smaller hands than mine, and in terms of speed you can practically feel the tiny processor grunting to itself like a jogger huffing I CAN!!! toward the top of a mountain as tourists stare curiously at him from their air-conditioned rental cars. Fast, it isn’t. It reminds me a lot of one of the microcomputers I wanted when I was 12, the Sinclair ZX80. Like the Sinclair, the XO makes thrifty use of its limited memory. And like microcomputers of the early 80s, the XO is open. Open Source, in fact. The guts of the software are accessible, so this is a machine that people just getting introduced to computers will be able to learn on. What’s really exciting, though, is the quality of the I/O. There’s a camera, microphone, speakers, a high-res sunlight-readable display, and self-organizing mesh networking all built in. For expansion, there are USB ports and a memory card slot. You can take this computer on outdoor adventures with you, take pictures and notes, and share your findings with your peers around you. I find this incredibly exciting.

XO Laptop I haven’t really played with the software at all yet, but I’m looking forward to trying to use this machine quite a bit as my primary “on the go” laptop to see what it’s like. When I’m traveling around I usually just take notes anyway in my reporter-style Moleskine. The wireless networking capabilities of the XO should make this a good coffeehouse companion, though the keyboard is not suitable for touch typing at all.

XO Laptop Fortunately for me, the XO recognized my treasured IBM Model M 84-Key Space Saver Keyboard, which I plugged through a PS2-to-USB adapter. Seemed to work fine with the machine. When you put the XO into tablet mode, you end up with a very compact word processing station that is high-resolution and usable in direct sunlight. While the XO is supposed to run for quite a while on batteries (especially with the backlight off), the additional current drain of the Model M keyboard might reduce battery life further…I have no idea.

Anyway, it’s here in time for Christmas, so I’m looking forward to spending a bit of time looking at the development environment. It might be neat to develop some portable tracking tools for the machine, if only for my own amusement.

10 Comments

  1. Dave Seah 12 years ago

    So here I am attempting to peck in a comment using the tiny tiny XO keyboard while watching Craig Fergusen on late night tv.

    the keyboard isn’t so bad if you peck. Wish it made a noise when a keypress was detected…would go a long way. Trackpad uses acceleration, which makes it a little touchy, especially when trying to use one of the Activity buttons at the top of the screen. Irking is that the edge of the screen is a hot area which pulls up a frame that will knock you out of the app.

    Let’s see if I can actually post this…

  2. Scott 12 years ago

    Whaddya know, the thing woiks!

    I’m trying to win one on PRIZEY (http://www.prizey.blogspot.com/) and it’s nice to see that’s its more than just a hunk of plastic. So many computer geeks I’ve talked to hate it because “it’s too slow”, “I can’t play Halo 3 on it”, “there’s no hard drive”, etc. All true, but for its intended purpose, it works perfectly well.

    I look forward to seeing how the machine works for you in the field.

  3. David 12 years ago

    Mine came in the mail the other day too.  I thought about taking pictures of the un-boxing and all of that, but then just got it out and went to playing on it.  (The un-boxing would have been pretty anti-climatic anyway considering that it’s just a plain brown shipping box, a page or two of startup notes, and the bagged computer held in an egg carton holder.)  Unfortunately, mine refuses to connect to my home wireless network.  It has pretty powerful antennae that can pick up my neighbors down the street, but there is some kind of persistent connection problem here at home.  (I’ve had trouble with Linux and wireless in my home before so I’m going to try switching out my wireless router for a Linksys to see if that fixes the problem.)
    Anyhow, it is a really cool computer.  Totally looks like a toy (which is the point I’m sure).  The UI takes a little getting used to as it’s pretty different than the standard Windows/OSX setup.  As soon as I can get this thing connected to the net, I’ll be able to spend much more time exploring.  Definitely worth $400 (minus the $200 donation tax write off.)

  4. Ben 12 years ago

    The Sinclair is an apt analogy.  This reminds me of getting my first Apple II+.  The software is very raw, but oh so full of possibilities!  It just INVITES tinkering.

    I had trouble getting it on my network at first too, having an Apple Extreme.  I thought it was going to be impossible, since I’ve had numerous problems getting Windows machines hooked up in the past.  I ended up having to use a ridiculously long hex string from http://www.corecoding.com/utilities/wep2hex.php.

    I’m intrigued by the stylus feature that the trackpad is supposed to support.  On the off-chance that it might work, I took my Wacom stylus and tried it, but no luck.

    Also, I guess the hand crank must be some kind of option?

  5. Dave Seah 12 years ago

    David: I took pics of my unboxing just in case. I was struck by how spartan it was, compared to a typical Apple unboxing, yet it fit with the XO’s style.

    I had to broadcast my SSID for the XO to pick up on it, which I am now doing. After that, it worked. I am using a really old SMC wireless 11b hub too, with MAC filtering, so I first had to dig out the MAC address of the XO using the instruction I found on the net.

    I didn’t know that T-Mobile was donating a free year of wireless HotSpot service with every XO. I just activated mine. Very cool! :-)

    One 3 year old kid was mesmerized by it and tried to take posession of it. I was stronger :-)

    Ben:

    Yeah, I feel the same way…OOOH, the possibilities! And that those possibilities can be shared with a programming community, that’s exciting also. I had an Apple II+ also, and learning how to code it through peeks and pokes, then assembly language, unlocking the secrets of its memory map and learning digital circuit concepts along the way…it was an important part of my education.

    I looked up graphics tablets on wikipedia to get an idea of what kind of technology might be in the XO. I wish the trackpad was touch-sensitive for the full width.

    I’ve read the hand crank is something that other countries would have, not sure.

  6. David 12 years ago

    Regarding the hand crank, what I’ve read/heard is that they scrapped it because it simply wasn’t working, but that they have a foot pedal/pump generator instead that they will be giving to some countries in some batches of computers that will accomplish the same thing.

  7. Michael Doan 12 years ago

    I ordered on on 11/12/07 (the first day) and I still haven’t received it yet!  I never received an order confirmation via email.  Apparently many people are having the same issues.  It didn’t dawn on me to follow up on the order status until last week because I simply forgot all about it.  Now I’m trying to get a hold of the OLPC people and its been a very difficult experience.

    Did you get a confirmation # or did you have to call them?

  8. Dave Seah 12 years ago

    Michael: I ordered on 11/20 or so, and received a confirmation email the same day from “OLPC Customer Care” that read like this:

    Thank you for participating in the One Laptop per Child “Give One Get One” program. Your donation of $399.00 will bring education and enlightenment to children of the developing world. $200 of each $399 “Give One Get One” Donation is tax-deductible (your donation minus the fair market value of each laptop you receive). With Shipping and Handling, the total charge to your credit card is $423.95.

    As a “Give One Get One” donor, you will receive one of the first XO laptops to be distributed in North America. Laptops will be delivered on a first come, first served basis. While early purchasers have the best chance of receiving their XO laptops in time for the holidays, quantities are limited and we cannot guarantee timing. We will provide you with regular email updates.

    If you have any questions about your donation, please contact OLPC at [service at laptopgiving-org] or call 1-800-201-7144. Your confirmation number is XXXXXXXX. Should your employer wish to match your donation, we are a 501(c)(3) organization and our EIN# is 20-5471780.

    etc…


    On 12/22, I received another email from OLPC Customer Care with the shipping information and FedEx tracking number. I had received the XO itself on 12/20, two days earlier.

  9. Raghuveer 12 years ago

    Sorry to report …

    “Intel Breaks Up with OLPC”

    http://blog.wired.com/business/2008/01/intel-breaks-up.html

  10. Dave Seah 12 years ago

    Raghuveer: That’s unhappy news. At this point, it’s all about execution and establishing some kind of educational toehold somewhere for the OLPC to have an impact. This reminds me a bit of competing aircraft manufacturers making fighter planes that are about to enter active service. Each product has a different approach to a very general problem, and the talent of the test pilots and early adopters in the operational arena will determine which is the winner.