XO laptop is fun for child's play

In a demo, the XO notebook from One Laptop Per Child is intuitive for child's play, but slow for business

The hardest thing about learning to use the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project's XO notebook PC is finding the right way to twist its antenna ears and open the display. Once you can see the screen, just follow the icons to write a note, snap a photo or compose a tune.

OLPC invited analysts and reporters to play with the B2 version of its computers during a press conference at their Cambridge, Massachusetts, offices on Thursday. The group plans to begin mass production in September despite announcing they will now charge US$175 for each of what had been the ballyhooed "hundred-dollar laptops."

That price is still far below the US$500 price tag on the most basic commercial notebook in U.S. retail shops, a discount that OLPC hopes will allow developing nations to buy XO laptops in mass quantities and supply them to rural school children.

With its curved surfaces, bright green plastic shell and puppy-ear WiFi antennas, the physical design of the XO is easy to carry. OLPC President Walter Bender held his 3-pound XO aloft as he spoke to reporters, his fingers wrapped around the laptop's integrated suitcase-type handle.

Even generating electricity for this laptop feels like a game. OLPC designers have cut out the iconic hand-crank that was attached to the side of earlier versions like the engine starter on a Model T Ford. But they still offer that charger mounted on a USB cable as an optional accessory for users without access to reliable electrical sockets. Other power choices include a pull-cord that delivers an hour of use for 6 minutes of pulling, a foot pedal, a car battery adapter and a solar panel the size of a cafeteria tray.

In addition to finding creative power sources, OLPC designers have traded computing speed for lower cost and longer battery life. Instead of Microsoft's Windows Vista OS they use Red Hat's Fedora Linux; instead of an 80G byte hard drive they use a 1G byte NAND flash drive; and instead of a 3GHz, dual-core processor, the B2 XO uses a 400MHz Geode GX 533 from Advanced Micro Devices.

In practice, the Geode chip provides plenty of power to launch applications like paint, calculator and newsreader RSS feeds.

A user can click on the drum-shaped icon, launching the TamTam music composition program and producing a symphony of duck quacks, infant giggles and car horns. Once the laughter stops, he can click on the camera icon, and snap photos and videos by pointing the laptop at subjects. A mosaic-shaped icon starts a quick game of Tetris, and the laptop screen be rotated and used as a tablet for reading an illustrated children's book written in Farsi.

However, with all those applications running at once, the XO can begin to respond sluggishly. The experience can be disorienting for a user accustomed to the speed of a business notebook, but a quick reboot returns the XO to its original state. Future versions may perform better, since OLPC will use a faster, 433MHz Geode LX 700 in the B2-2 and future versions.

Instead of the hierarchical drop-down menus familiar to Windows users, the Sugar interface on the XO lists applications as icons on the screen, arrayed like numbers around a clock face. And a grown man could find it difficult to type a 500-word story on the cramped keys. The keyboard keys are very close together -- rendered on the XO, that sentence came out as "the keybosrd keysare very clsetogether."

OLPC replies to that criticism by pointing out that the XO is not designed for modern office use, but for three universal traits that every kid has in common: learning, socializing and creating, Bender said.

That is why the XO's desktop page shows a graphic map of WiFi signals up to 2 kilometers away, allowing all the XO laptops in a village to share drawings, notes, photographs and musical compositions. The mesh of laptops could also share a single Internet connection, allowing them to use a distant ISP or a single schoolhouse server.

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Ben Ames

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