updated 12:20 pm EST, Thu January 10, 2008
OLPC XO Hands-On
Electronista has received its own XO notebook from the One Laptop Per Child project and is about to put the notebook for the developing world through tests to see whether it works well for its stated goal of bringing computers to those who may never have used (or seen) a computer before -- as well as whether the small Linux-based system can co-exist with a world of more complex Mac and Windows PCs. So far, the device is promising and even shows a relatively Apple-like simplicity, but may almost prove too simple for some purposes.
When setting up even the simplest mainstream notebook PC can be an involved process, the XO is something of a shock. An unpacked box leaves you with just the notebook, its battery, and an AC adapter; aside from two sheets of basic instructions, the box is virtually devoid of the clutter that usually comes with a computer. The operating system is stored entirely on flash and is hidden away in a separate disk image. If the main software is ever corrupted, it can be restored back to factory condition; quite frankly, this is a feature we would like to see on many more expensive systems.
The notebook itself is also simple to get up and running, albeit with its own share of catches. Ironically, Westerners used to simple notebook latches may trip up on opening the OLPC: to open the computer, the Wi-Fi antennas first have to be swiveled into place. Once open, however, the computer is at least as welcoming as anything else -- if not more, thanks to a design that feels very rugged and friendly at the same time. This system is made to survive dust and rain but never feels as intimidating as Panasonic's Toughbook.
In practice, it may well be over-engineered and immediately suggests why the system is priced at $200 in bulk orders: the computer includes features that not even some far more expensive notebooks have, such as a webcam, an extra-wide trackpad with stylus support (only the middle supports finger input), and even a convertible tablet mode for e-books or games. All of these are potentially useful for OLPC's stated goal of educating young children, but feels like excess when a lower-cost system could have accomplished most of what was necessary.
Only a small amount of time has been spent using the XO's custom Linux interface -- nicknamed Sugar -- but it enjoys an almost Apple-like level of simplicity. The aim of the interface is to never require a right mouse click and avoid having to use local languages, and for the most part it succeeds; while we had to double-check how to connect the system through Wi-Fi, a process simpler than we thought, navigating the XO is easy.
That said, there are reservations about the keyboard and the system's preferences for Wi-Fi networks. The spill-proof keys are clearly designed for children and are decidedly smaller than even most small Mac or Windows notebooks. The keys are usable enough but are liable to trigger more than a few mistypes without the experience of using the XO regularly. Wireless networking is also a potential problem simply because it prefers a fixed channel. As most wireless routers are often set to use automatic channels, this can result in little to no connection until the router's settings are changed.
We plan to spend the next few days determining whether these problems are just minor flaws or systemic bugs that will need to be fixed with any future versions of OLPC's notebook; until then, please have a look at our early photo gallery.