The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO laptop may have been designed as a small cheap computer for children in developing countries, but it's become the antecedent of all netbooks

It's bright green and white, runs Linux and could be the most important laptop you're never likely to use. The OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) XO was designed expressly to put modern computing into the hands of children in developing countries.

And it's been something of an inspiration to commercial laptop manufactuers such as Asus, to make small and cheap laptops for the rest of us.

If you've ever used, owned, or wanted a netbook... think of the XO as its spiritual and more academically tuned predecessor.

A target price of $100 was set for manufacturing, although production costs are currently closer to $200. With nascent demand from the developed world, the OLPC organisation started a Give 1, Get 1 (G1G1) scheme, so that around $400 would buy you one of these unusual gems, while putting another in the hands of a child elsewhere in the world.

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The XO has been engineered as a robust, low-cost computer able to withstand the conditions of working outside in hot and dusty countries. With the help of a special dual-mode screen technology, it can even be used in direct sunlight.

Putting an XO in the hands of an experienced laptop user, meanwhile, can be an exercise in entertainment. Because the designers have rethought almost every aspect of the XO's construction, to enable it to perform best with its target audience of young children in an outdoors environment, it's a devil to get open the first time you try it.

First you must open the bunny ears - actually twin antennae for send/receive mesh networking, where wireless access points can be extended by every connected XO-user - then pull the main ‘body' up. This is actually the screen, which has the electronics built behind it. The keyboard is a water- and dust-resistant type with a rubbery green membrane to protect it. Anyone familiar with a ZX Spectrum will be right at home here.

It's not the easiest keyboard to work with, as there's less tactile feedback - but once you get used to that it's easier to type with confidence.

With the screen open, it's actually possible to rotate it 180º and fold it flat, rather like some tablet PC laptops, and use the XO as an ebook. But this blocks the keyboard and trackpad, so you'll probably want to swing the screen back and explore the operating system.

Again, experienced windows, Mac and even Linux users will have to scratch their heads initially to find the apps they need. There are plenty of programs here, 26 of them splayed out in a graphic ring on the Home screen. These range from predictable inclusions such as Write (for writing) and Web (for browsing), to more bizarre inclusions such as Scratch (for stop-motion animation, naturally).

In use, it's no speed demon, but web pages load almost as fast as a modern netbook, and there's certainly enough power for word processing and light creative duties.

NEXT PAGE: Earlier US review from January 2008 >>>

Take a quick look at the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO and you can't help but be impressed with the clever design, both technically and physically.

Laptops used by children in the remote villages of developing nations must be cheap, compact, easy to repair, rugged and power-stingy. Business users stuck on a flight, say, from New York to Paris, would want the same thing. So here's the question: is the OLPC XO XO computer a good tool for business users?

Take a quick look at the OLPC XO and you can't help but be impressed with the clever design, both technically and physically.

Hardware-wise, the OLPC XO has an AMD Geode LX-700 processor running at 433MHz, with 256MB of RAM and a 1,200-by-900 display. It's not a speed demon, but it's designed to sip electricity lightly, not to run an Unreal Tournament.

(After having an OLPC XO for a couple of weeks, I can say that it's clearly a great machine for kids. My son loves to play with it, using the Python tutorials and animation programs. However, I have had less success. Some of the issues I encountered are early teething pains, some are dissonance between the needs of an adult computer user and the included software, and some are physical problems with the system. The OLPC XO is not currently available outside the North America area, although it is possible to get one shipped to the UK. Purchasers buy one of the $100 - £50 - devices for themselves, and one for a child in the developing world.)

Good news, bad news

First, the good news. If you have to lug a laptop on to a plane, the OLPC XO should be the one you want. It is tiny compared to a traditional laptop, and it could actually fit on a coach-class tray table without it encroaching on to the user's stomach. Visit Business Advisor for reviews and the best deals on IT equipment for your business.

It is also more likely than "traditional" laptops to last an entire flight without needing a recharge. According to informal tests conducted by some early purchasers, the OLPC XO's battery lasted three and a half hours of normal use and, with the backlight off (which downgrades it to high resolution black and white), it lasted about five and a half hours. By the way, in black and white mode, with its swivel-screen, the OLPC XO makes a dandy e-reader.

There are some significant "buts", however. For one thing, the OLPC XO's current Linux image (which is based on Fedora Core 6) has a few bugs. Most notably, you can't attach to a WPA-encrypted wireless network (the passphrase fails). Although some users have posted work-arounds on the web, none of them worked for us. This supposedly will be fixed in the next image, so by spring it hopefully won't be an issue. By the way, this isn't an issue with public Wi-Fi zones, which typically don't use WPA.

We also ran into trouble trying to access our workplace Wi-Fi network with the OLPC XO. Like many corporate wireless networks, we need to open a web browser and log into get access.

However, our corporate network uses a nonstandard SSL certificate, and the OLPC XO browser doesn't have the option to accept such a certificate. Instead, it just displays a security violation error and won't open the page. The browser is XulRunner, the engine inside Firefox.

NEXT PAGE: software, media and our expert verdict

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Software, media and a big gotcha

The most useful included software applications for adult users are the word processor, browser and calculator. The OLPC XO's word processor is AbiWord, a Spartan but functional package. It can handle basic tables and embedded images but doesn't have a spell checker or support fancier formatting.

The most notable missing software on the OLPC XO is an email application.

Still, these deficiencies don't spook us because this is a Linux system, which means that at least a few of the initial 150,000 XO purchasers are likely to create new versions of the operating system more suited for adult users.

There is also some simple multimedia support using the OLPC XO's onboard camera and microphone; it should be possible to make it do video chat with the right software. Another potentially intriguing capability is XO's collaborative authoring mode.

OLPC XO systems on the same wireless mesh network (which is set up automatically whenever there's more than one XO around) can edit each other's documents. This could be a useful tool for collaborative tasks in a workplace, similar to Google Docs, but on a local scale. Visit Business Advisor for reviews and the best deals on IT equipment for your business.

However, the major problem for adult users is likely to be the OLPC XO's membrane keyboard, which obviously was chosen for durability reasons. The feel of such keyboards is highly unsatisfactory, particularly for adult-size fingers, which tend to slide off the keys rather than getting a definitive keypress.

And not surprisingly, the OLPC XO's keyboard is scaled for young hands; its size is awkwardly between a thumb pad and a real keyboard. It's better than a thumb pad, but don't expect blazing word-per-minute rates with it. The touchpad is serviceable if a little oversensitive.

So what's the verdict on the OLPC XO for business users? While many of the design goals for laptops used by children in emerging nations and for western business users are similar, the XO won't cut it in the corporate world, which, of course, isn't part of OLPC's ambitions in any case. As currently equipped, the software doesn't match the needs of business users.

More important, though, the keyboard won't work for most business users. Still, the device, and particularly its software, is likely to change quickly, so it's worth keeping an eye on the OLPC XO if you're looking for a durable, long-lasting and inexpensive laptop for the road.

James Turner, Computerworld

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OLPC XO: Specs

  • 433MHz AMD Geode LX-700 processor
  • 7.5in (1200x900) dual-mode LCD display
  • Fedora Linux OS with Sugar GUI
  • graphics controller integrated with Geode CPU
  • 1GB NAND Flash SSD
  • 256MB RAM
  • wireless 802.11b/g, plus 802.11s (mesh networking)
  • 3 x USB 2.0
  • MMC/SD Card slot
  • water-resistant membrane keyboard
  • audio in jack
  • headphone jack
  • 3100mAh Li-Fe battery
  • 242x228x32mm
  • 1.4kg
  • 433MHz AMD Geode LX-700 processor
  • 7.5in (1200x900) dual-mode LCD display
  • Fedora Linux OS with Sugar GUI
  • graphics controller integrated with Geode CPU
  • 1GB NAND Flash SSD
  • 256MB RAM
  • wireless 802.11b/g, plus 802.11s (mesh networking)
  • 3 x USB 2.0
  • MMC/SD Card slot
  • water-resistant membrane keyboard
  • audio in jack
  • headphone jack
  • 3100mAh Li-Fe battery
  • 242x228x32mm
  • 1.4kg

OUR VERDICT

While the last G1G1 scheme from late 2008 is no longer running, the OLPC XO can be donated to children in developing countries for $199 via laptop.org. Or it can now be bought for personal use through Amazon UK. If you're looking for a tough laptop for your own kids, the XO fully deserves your investigation.

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