by Kenneth Barrow
The OLPC XO, once nicknamed the Hundred Dollar Laptop is the new children’s laptop developed by MIT and the Open Source Lab with significant contributions from a community of developers. Currently available to the general public with a give one, get one scheme, the XO promises to be a unique tool for children. The operating system and software on the XO have been specially crafted to create a very usable interface with minimal hardware.
- Case Color: Green/White
- Processor: AMD Geode LX-700, 433MHz
- Graphics: Integrated graphics on CPU
- Storage: 1GB NAND flash
- Memory: 256MB DDR RAM
- OS: Red Hat Fedora (highly customized)
- Screen: 7.5-inch LCD, 1200×900. Sunlight readable. Convertible to tablet.
- Ports: Headphone output jack, Microphone input jack, Three USB 2.0 ports
- Webcam: VGA 640×480, 30fps
- Battery: 4-cell 12V 3100mAh LiFePO4
- Wireless: 802.11b/g Marvell with mesh networking. Operates when CPU is powered down.
- Charger: Input: 120-240V AC switching, 0.6A, 50-60Hz. Output: 12V DC, 1.25A
- Input: Keyboard and triple-wide touchpad
- Gamepad: Direction pad + 4 buttons
- Weight: Approximately 3.2lbs with 4-cell Lithium battery.
Build and Design
The main shell of the XO is made from polycarbonate plastic, which is the same material that many laptops today are made out of. It’s very durable and is bend-resistant. On the back of the laptop there is a handle with two thumb holes for easy carrying. The handles were very thick and textured to give greater grip. The only components on the base of the laptop are keyboard and touchpad, everything else is located behind the screen. This results in the base of the laptop being about 1/3 inch thick.
Operating System and Software
The main screen is split into three sections. The bottom is a dock, similar to the one found in OS X. It shows which activities are available. You can click an activity to start the application associated with it. The following are some activities available:
- Browse (Web)
- Record (Webcam)
- TamTam (Music making application)
- Etoys (Authoring environment)
- TurtleArt (Graphical programming environment)
- Games (Memory, connect-the-dots)
- News Reader
Each piece of software was ran looking for responsiveness, ease of use, and integration. Each application was made so that the things you design can be shared with others wirelessly.
The chat activity was exactly as expected. Fonts and font modifiers were available at the top bar, the input bar was at the bottom, and the chat portion was in the center. Along the top were tabs labeled Activity, Edit, Text, and Draw. If there were two OLPCs, they could have collaborated with the other on documents, played a game, or drew a picture.
The web browser sported a very simplistic interface. Along the top were five icons. Back, Foward, Reload, a URL, and Share. The web browser has the ability to share a browsing session with another OLPC, so you and a friend can browse web sites together. You can also fold the laptop into tablet mode and use the gamepad to browse web pages. There were no screen borders, so the screen displayed web pages with small text margins very well.
Write is a basic text-editing utility. It supports the ability to use different fonts and sizes, and supports creating tables and inserting pictures. The only problem with the word processor is that it will not export to the .Doc format used for Microsoft Word.
Calculate and paint were both very basic applications supporting most features you would expect from MSPaint and a standard non-scientific calculator.
The top parts of the screen has four icons that show you other OLPCs in the local community. The first icon is your neighborhood of computers. When you click this icon you will see a map with all OLPCs represented by little XO logos, wireless access points, and printers. You can attempt to connect to any of these by double-clicking on one of them. My screen found a laser printerand my wireless access point. The second button shows you the machines around you, and the third button shows which activities are running on your machine. The fourth button brings back to your current activity.
One main problem with laptops is their inability to use them outside, or in a room lit by sunlight. However, the XO is not like any other laptop, and the screen is no exception. It uses some new LCD backlight technologies to make the LCD viewble even in the brighest of sunlight. It might sound geeky, but being able to see the screen on a laptop on a sunny beach is a very nice experience.
The speakers are two half-dollar sized grills near the base of the screen on each side of the laptop. The speakers sound rather tinny, with very emphasized high tones but are unable to reach even moderately low tones. The sounds in the music creation utility includes sounds that make the speakers good, but using my own music it was painfully obvious that the range on these speakers was not the greatest. They did get loud enough to be heard across the office with as much clarity as the speakers would.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The keyboard is a membrane-based, and does not include scissor keys like traditional laptop keyboards. The purpose for this is durability. A membrane keyboard is more water-resistant than standard keyboards, and won’t wear out as easily over time. On paper, this would seem brilliant, however the result is very awkard to type on, and is downright impossible to use for extended typing sessions. This bothers me, and is my main gripe with the laptop. The touchpad is a triple wide, however only the center pad is meant for mouse control. It uses inductive fields to register input, so the mouse is movable simply hovering your finger over the pad. The whole trackpad can also be used as a digitizer, akin to a cheap wacom tablet. There is a gamepad on the lower sides of the screen. The left has a D-pad, and the right contains 4 buttons just different enough to avoid a lawsuit from Sony.
Testing performance on something as specialized and purpose-built as the XO was tricky. Standard application benchmarks didn’t work, so a practical application benchmark must be used. Responsiveness was tested using TamTam the music composing utility, the web browser, and recording and playing back video from the webcam.
The webcam was used to recorded a 4 minute video at 30fps, and played it back in a loop. No frame drop was visible even at 30fps, although the VGA quality of the camera leaves a bit to be desired. The back of the laptop started to get mildly warm.
TamTam, the music creation activity did not strain the system at all. It seems as though it was engineered specifically for low-power systems such as the XO, and doesn’t require many system resources to compile and generate music. No noticable heat was being generated, and no audio skipping occured.
Lastly, the web browser. The engine that the browser uses to display pages is Gecko, which is a Mozilla project and is the same rendering engine that Firefox uses. Google maps was used to tell how the browser handled AJAX. Loading an address took 4-5 seconds before the map tiles started showing up. Click-and-dragging to move the map around was excessively sluggish to the point of being unusable. Flash is also a very processor-intensive application, especially Youtube videos. The video took much longer to load than it took to download, and the back of the laptop was getting quite hot. The video showed very noticable frame skip and audio stuttering was also obvious throughout the entire clip. My last test would be to see how many concurrent tabs the browser could handle. It seems that six tabs is about the max for the web browser. Any more tabs then the system became unresponsive. This is most likely due to the small amount of RAM.
Port Selection and Expansion
The port selection on the OLPC is very minimal. The only external ports consist of audio input and output ports and three USB 2.0 ports. Internally everything is soldered onto the mainboard. The RAM is not upgradable, and the storage device is an internal SD card.
Heat and Noise
Power efficiency was one of the key points of the XO. Even small laptops which were designed for power efficiency and heat dissipation include small fans because convection isn’t enough to cool the small powerplanets. Browsing the web with the built-in web browser, drew 7 watts. Watching a movie brought it up to 8-9 watts. Using the black-and-white mode with no backlight on the screen made the laptop draw under 1 watt. Wow! The XO is designed to be rugged so it does not include moving parts, including fans or mechanical hard drives.
The XO has a very unique version of wireless. It supports the traditional method of connecting to wireless access points. The range is comparable to my MacBook, and has roughly 70 percent signal quality from the opposite side of my small apartment. The interesting part is the mesh networking. Since many of these are going to be deployed into schools and villages without wireless access points in developing nations (third world countries), the XO must be able to communicate with other XOs near it. The term for this sort of connectivity is mesh networking, and it enables it to bounce through an entire community, hopefully finding someone sharing an internet connection. Besides an internet connection, the mesh networking enables people within the community to share resources with each other, such as documents, pictures, music, and videos.
Batteryand Power Adapter
The battery does not have exceptional capacity, however since the laptop draws so little power the laptop can be used for days. Throughout the course of my testing the XO was subjected to the tortures of MPEG-2 video, browsing AJAX-heavy sites, and making music. At the end of it all the battery was still at 67 percent!
The power adapter appears like a slightly oversized cell phone charger. Not much is interesting here besides the XO logo branded on the lower adapter, and the color coordination with the laptop. It does switch between 110-240V AC, so with an adapter for the plug it should work anywhere in the world.
XO vs Asus Eee PC
The operating system bundled with the XO is much more specialized than the Eee PC. With many applications on the Eee PC, the screen size in inadequate for proper viewing unless you set up each application to remove unneeded menu bars. In contrast, the XO’s interface auto-hides when in an application, and can be reached by bringing the mouse to any edge or corner of the screen. This makes the small screen usable, even for web sites with small margins.
The software on the XO is also much more specialized. This is partially due to the exceedingly low hardware specs on the system, but also because it simplifies the interface and increases usability. One good example to classify the scale of both systems is to look at how each implements a web browser. On the Eee PC the web browser implemented is simply Firefox 2. On the XO, they made their own web browser using the same rendering engine as Firefox, but with a much lighter shell and interface.
In terms of hardware the Eee PC wins hands down. It has a significantly faster processor, more RAM, bigger storage, and it can be upgraded with a larger standard RAM module or mini PCI-E card. Then again, the Eee PC needs all the extra power to be able to run the bundled applications.
A standard 30-day warranty is available that covers hardware failure. No plans for extended warranty periods are given in the laptop-giving program. If you’re a government there will be obviously be support contracts to ensure the thousands of OLPCs in your schools have some way of being repaired.
The OLPC is a very good tool for a classroom setting. All the interfaces in each application interact extraordinarily well together. At a price of $400 you certainly get a lot of value for your money. If you’re the only one you know with one though, you’ll miss out on a lot of the great collaboration utilities.
- Small and lightweight
- Power efficient – Very long battery life
- Intuitive interface
- Innovative wireless mesh networking
- Keyboard is difficult to type on for even basic typing
- Sluggish on rich web sites, especially Flash
- No .Doc format support
- Cannot update software or upgrade hardware
- Very short warranty period
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