Review: OLPC XO review: Linux for Africa, not America

One Laptop Per Child PC works for kids, not adults (January 17th, 2008)

Electronista Rating:


Product Manufacturer: One Laptop Per Child

Price: $400 (includes donated system)

The Good

  • Rugged, clever hardware design.
  • Very accessible interface for children.
  • Good educational apps for primary school.
  • Surprisingly capable web and RSS.

The Bad

  • Cramped keyboard for adults.
  • Relies too much on command line; little support.
  • No practical file transfer or printing.
  • Unstable OS and Wi-Fi access.

opening it up: unpacking and design

The XO is designed as a PC for schools in the developing world, and the OLPC team makes that goal apparent just from opening the box. While this has been covered in Electronista's hands-on, it bears repeating that the XO packaging is absolutely barebones: the design is even more barebones than for a MacBook and includes just the computer, an AC adapter, and a few sheets of paper providing (very) basic information about how to use the system. For first-world buyers used to a 10-minute setup process, the XO is a slight breath of fresh air.

Unfortunately, this simplicity also amounts to a double-edged sword. It's true that the XO is designed to be simple enough for people who may never have even used a computer; however, without a manual users are left to guess virtually everything about using the device or else to contact the OLPC project itself for help. While a phone number and a Wiki exist to help out, it's simply the case that the notebook lacks the help available to mainstream Mac or Windows PC buyers.

Thankfully, the design at least clearly lives up to OLPC's mandate. The XO is built as well or even better than most far more expensive systems. There are no creaks, and the casing really does seem ready to handle sudden shocks or spills. The single-piece keyboard has an unusual texture at first but feels more intelligently made than many $500 systems at retail stores. I also appreciate the position of the expansion around the display rather than the base, which makes it easier to plug in devices.

Visible: audio in/out, one of three USB ports

The screen is also especially noteworthy: where most companies seem happy to release notebooks with ultra-glossy displays that can become almost impossible to view on a sunny day, the XO's is matte and really does seem to withstand tests. While not perfect, it's very readable. OLPC spokespeople say that the 1200x900 screen can flip to a black-and-white mode when necessary, though this never became apparent and wasn't really needed given its strong performance. Note that this is also a convertible tablet: there's no touchscreen, but it can be useful for e-books or basic apps such as games.

However, the notebook's keyboard may eliminate much of the appeal for anyone who isn't part of OLPC's child market. Quite simply, the keyboard is too small to be used quickly by adults, even after significant practice. Each key is spaced far enough apart to prevent mashing more than one letter at a time, but the size and positioning makes it virtually impossible to touch-type with full-size hands. I can type quickly on most keyboards but could rarely complete one word without having to correct an error. Adults who might want to use the XO as a cheap alternative for taking notes will probably be disappointed on this point alone.

Sugar and its role as Linux for kids (as well as adults)

Nothing the hardware does would be complete without software, and it's here where the OLPC group at once shows what's possible with Linux but also the rough edges that seem to accompany the operating system wherever it goes.

The XO's visual interface is nicknamed Sugar, and it's accordingly designed to be sweet and simple. For the most part, this holds up to closer scrutiny. Almost like a Mac, Sugar is designed to be used with only one mouse button, a minimum of typing, and icons that make the interface easy to use without knowing English or even any other language. Although the menus continue to require text, the interface is abstracted enough that it seems entirely likely a developing-world school could make sense of their meaning after a short while. It even allows beginners to understand multi-tasking; users can return to the home screen and launch new apps without quitting old ones.

The XO's home screen; open programs are in the ring around the logo

Likewise, aside from the OS unintentionally showing the command line during startup or shutdown, most users might never know that the XO ever runs Linux -- an important factor for a computer that may be used by communities miles away from the nearest technical help. In that regard, the XO clearly succeeds.

However, this pretty front-end does show signs of crumbling in a way that could prove worrisome for its target audience. Despite the vaunted stability of Linux, I was able to hard-lock the system once and make it unresponsive a few times during my test period. OLPC developers have also done very little to improve software troubleshooting or upgrading the system in a simpler way: in many situations, the answer (once it's found in the OLPC Wiki) is to perform a cryptic text command through a Linux terminal shell.

For Americans and Canadians receiving these notebooks through the Give 1 Get 1 program, this should be passable; while slightly convoluted, it's not impossible to use and may even be ideal for hobbyists eager to have a "safe" environment to try some Linux features. However, this unfairly locks out the developing world from keeping its systems updated and seems especially arbitrary given that multiple Linux distributions already have far easier solutions in place. Simply put, the OLPC group should have spent more time ensuring that the XO could continue to work its best, rather than force less fortunate schools to ask for outside help to tackle flaws that might be discovered later.

apps: strong online, neutered offline

Understandably, most of the programs loaded on to the XO are meant for children and are extremely simple to use, enough so that most users again won't need to read instructions or know a particular language to understand what's happening. A few programs, such as a LOGO-like path-building game, do require a greater amount of knowledge but are also more likely to be used by older students when out in the field. Most of these programs are clearly useful for schoolchildren, especially the writing and painting programs; there are even programs to capture and edit audiovisual input (Record and TamTam Edit/Jam), through the built-in webcam and microphone. The urban management game SimCity is also supposed to ship with the XO, though unfortunately my sample came without this installed.

Using the LOGO game

TamTam Jam, a basic sample-based live music tool

Perhaps even more surprising is the maturity of the Internet suite. While most of the comforts of a full-fledged PC aren't here, the XO has both a simplified version of Firefox as its web browser and even a dedicated RSS news reader with the option for custom feeds; in theory, the system could be used for basic blogging or coffee shop surfing, a reality helped along by T-Mobile USA's offering of free access to its public hotspots for every one of the systems. This is not a stripped-down browser in terms of what it supports. There's even a basic media player with a visualizer, though this is mainly built for playing Record or TamTam clips than a personal collection.

Firefox on the XO

Media playback on the XO

What they are not, however, is complex. When the Give 1 Get 1 program was originally announced, more than a few had suggested the XO might be useful as a rugged budget PC for North Americans. That hope is quickly dashed a few minutes into using the portable. Most features are only designed with just enough features to help children understand the basic concepts behind a feature rather than delve deeper over time. Without hacking the device to run a standard distribution of Linux or custom apps, it's unlikely the XO can ever be used for adult-level content creation.

This limitation is particularly glaring when it comes to permanent copies of any finished documents While it's possible to keep files stored to the system's 1GB of built-in flash memory, there are no easy commands to copy or even print most any of the results of your work; outside of the command line terminal and a USB drive, files can only be shared between other XOs on the local network. If you intend to regularly author hard copies, the XO is just not for you.

performance and Wi-Fi

The OLPC's emphasis is on longevity and cost, so it shouldn't be surprising to learn that the system's main processor (a 466MHz AMD Geode) is limited in what it can do. Virtually every program is limited to simple 2D, and the XO-native build of Firefox forces users to click to play Flash videos due to the sluggish speed of all but the most basic videos; YouTube isn't workable on this device. That said, the system is surprisingly responsive even with two or three programs running at once, and that it can record fairly sharp video without stuttering is significant given the trouble that more powerful systems have had in the past.

All the same, I was somewhat disappointed by load times. Flash memory is typically faster than a rotating hard disk, but the XO appears to take the same time as a more complex computer to start up the OS and only slightly less time to load a program into RAM afterwards. The time is short enough to be acceptable, especially for schools where having any computer at all is impressive, but may be frustrating to Western adults used to near-instant launch times for their web browsers and office suites.

What's less forgivable with the system is its spotty Wi-Fi access. When connected to the Internet, the XO downloads websites and feeds just as quickly as a fairly recent computer. Just connecting to the Internet, however, was a genuine challenge in my tests. The interface for hopping online is simple, but not especially logical: rather than display a list of networks, users have to look at a visual map of local networks and locate the right hotspot, click, and wait for it to connect. The map doesn't appear connected to the notebook's position relative to access points, which leads to unnecessary screen searches.

The XO's network map: green dots are mesh (PC-to-PC) networks

Worse yet is that the connection itself tends to be haphazard, at least in urban environments. Despite trying two different routers (an Apple AirPort Extreme and a Linksys SRX) just a few feet away, the XO's wireless utility would only randomly detect one or both and only sometimes make a useful connection with either router -- this despite either device always being accessible for multiple other devices on the network, including an iPod touch. The XO had more success connecting to neighbors' computers that were set to act as mesh networks, but as few users set up their computers to share Internet access in a mesh, this was little help. Both of my own routers were also set to fixed channels, as the OLPC team recommends (but doesn't require) for a connection.

It's a possibility that the experience is isolated, but with such consistent issues it seems most likely that the XO just isn't as well-suited to a North American home's Wi-Fi network; the XO was intended from the start to create meshes of fellow systems, and there the connection is more reliable.

final words: Linux built for Africa, not America

In its official role as a means of bringing computing to the farther corners of the Earth, the XO is a competent if certainly imperfect machine. The Sugar interface does a good job of simplifying computers in general for the educational world, even if doesn't always mask the Linux software underneath as well as it should and is likely to require more help than should be the case in rural areas. The design is also very well-made to survive harsh climates; if anything, one could point out that the XO is almost overengineered. Only so many students are likely to require the webcam and tablet features, which might have added significantly to the XO's jump from a $100 to a $200 price tag over several years of development.

It may also be useful for Western schools: the same programs that would be useful in Mongolia or Nigeria are also very much applicable to primary schools in Europe and North America, where many of the programs used for learning aren't much more complex (if at all) than what the OLPC provides. Recent news from the OLPC team suggests the group may sell the system to at least the US, which is likely a smart move.

As a private purchase, however, the XO is not much more than a curiosity or a child's first notebook. Once you venture beyond the surface, it becomes evident that the XO's ease of use is only surface-deep: to be as useful in a conventional sense as a Mac or Windows PC, an owner either needs to have tangible knowledge of Linux text commands or else to wait for a far more elaborate file management system, neither of which are very probable given the audience. The lack of offline documentation and the intermittent wireless only serve to compound the problem.

The most disheartening aspect of this is that the XO is considered an ambassador for Linux and what it can accomplish. Hundreds of thousands, and likely millions, of these devices will be sold both to schools and to curious North Americans. The former may never complain, but the XO falls short of enough expectations for users in its country of origin that it may hurt the perception of Linux as a realistic alternative. Paying $400 for an ASUS' Eee PC in place of an XO may not send an extra unit to a country that sorely needs these systems, but it will provide a much more satisfying Linux notebook experience for those used to computers I'm providing this system an average score because of its promise for the world's education, not for what it can do as a companion to a first-world desktop.

by Jon Fingas


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