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OLPC XO: Background and Review
Image by robertogreco
As many of you are already aware, we created the Pudú mascot for the One Laptop Per Child campaign in Chile (Un computador por niño). While the Chilean initiative does not call specifically for the OLPC hardware developed by Nicholas Negroponte and his team at MIT, it was inspired by the work done there. So, for a lomg time we have been following news about the OLPC machine which is named the XO. Having now lived with an XO for about three weeks, this is our preliminary review of the software and hardware including the story of why we bought our children a computer and how we decided on the XO over other options. For a shorter version, just skip to the parts about the XO as an e-book reader and Scratch. I must apologize in advance for the poor writing, but I’d rather get this up now than later. More photos in the OLPC set.
———– Background ———–
A few months ago I posted about our experience with programming. At the time we were staying at my parents house and had access to a total of three computers: ours (a Mac laptop), my father’s laptop (running Vista) and my mother’s desktop (running Windows Me). We actually had our old swing-arm-display iMac with us, but didn’t bother setting it up for lack of space in addition to the fact that the other computerss were available for the kids to use.
Meanwhile we were gearing up for a six month trip overseas. Knowing that we would have limitations with regard to luggage weight and would unlikely have regular access to lending libraries, we decided that it would be a smart decision to find some sort of e-book reader for our travels. This was especially important after a summer and fall reading binge that amounted to having checked out at least five hundred books. Sophia alone was consuming a thousand pages per week. (We know this because in October she was curious about such. So we sat down with the receipts from the library, searched for the lengths of the book on Amazon, and plugged them all into a spreadsheet (including the URLs for each book) which spit out a total of 23,507 pages for the previous twenty-two weeks.)
OLPC had recently announced the Give One Get One program in the United States and Canada during the holiday season and the ASUS Eee PC was becoming available as well. We also looked at some handheld devices that would serve for e-book reading like the iPod Touch, the Nokia N800 or N810.
Considering that the price of the handhelds were either the same or not much lower and that they didn’t offer the same chance to continue dabbling in programming, it seemed like a better option to get one of the two laptops that would allow them to further explore. We talked it over with Sophia and Enzo and they decided that one laptop for two children would be a great gift. The bonus was being able to have one sent to a child somewhere else in the world who wouldn’t likely have a computer otherwise.
At the time we placed our order, the estimated delivery date was for mid January and that was to their grandparents home in Washington State. Of course, the G1G1 program was only shipping the computers to addresses in the participating countries meaning that my parents would have to send it to us in South America when it arrived, so the kids also had to agree to wait until as late as February to receive their XO.
We eventually left Washington, spent two and a half weeks in Argentina and on December 21 having just arrived in Chile, we received an email from OLPC (dated December 21) letting us know that the XO had shipped on the 19th. The message included a FedEx tracking number and when we plugged into the FedEx website it showed that the package had been left at my parents’ front door. The good news was that it arrived much earlier than the anticipated delivery date. The bad news was that my parents had gone to visit my brother and were not planning to return home until the 27th.
Since they were also unlikely to be checking email, I sent off an email to all of my siblings asking for them to either contact my parents or if they knew anyone in the area to ask them to bring in the XO from the cold and possibly the rain as well. We quickly heard back from my sister and confirmed after a few days that someone had been able to give it shelter.
Eventually, my parents returned home, made arrangements to pick it up, tested it out, and got it in the mail around mid-January. It arrived here in Chile eleven days later and the kids have been loving it ever since.
———– Review ———–
There have been plenty of reviews lauding the hardware. The XO is solidly built and includes a few technologies that are not found in other laptops. Everyone who has seen the kids’ machine has marveled at what has been packed into it for such a low cost. (Yeah, we know it was supposed to be a 0 laptop, but if you consider inflation since that target was set, the current price of 8 is getting pretty close.) For example, not having a hard drive makes each minor and major jolt the machine takes much more bearable to someone who is used to handing computers with care. Speaking of handling, the handle is great for kids and the two smaller holes allow for them to add some sort of strap which we haven’t gotten around to doing just yet. Finally, most people are not used to having a built-in webcam (although that is fast becoming standard issue on most laptops).
I have not a single complaint to report about the screen. The low power setting works like a charm for reading outside with strong sunlight as we have been experiencing just that with the clear skies and long summer days here in Viña.The fact that it swivels around and folds flat is another plus that can only be found in tablet computers at this time, the Eee PC did not offer this and that too helped make our decision.
This is perhaps the major hardware drawback, but I am really the only one complaining and not much at that. The sealed keyboard is designed for a purpose and meets the goal. The kids are hunt-and-peck typists (as am I) with petite fingers (here’s my problem), so they haven’t had much problem as they go about inputing text and keyboard commands.
The wifi reception has been walking all over our Mac and has given us a pretty impressive picture of the wifi penetration here in Viña del Mar. We would love to try the mesh networking features built into the XO software, but will have to wait until we find some other XO users to do that.
We added a 16MB SD card (that came with our camera) to it which is primarily used for transferring files from our Mac and for save the most important files that the kids create, a sort of backup system.
There are too many activities to touch on each one as this review is much longer than it was intended to be, so here I’m mostly mentioning some of the kids’ favorites and giving some more information on those that they’ve used the most.
Sugar Interface (XO’s GUI)
First off, the user needs to be willing to adjust to a new way of considering the operating system. Sugar has been criticized and laughed at by many, but the kids have picked it up without delay and even I have come to appreciate many of its charms. Do note that they had played with the interface previously when I let them run it off a CD on an old Dell laptop from work that was headed for the trash. There is room for Sugar to improve, but when you consider the true target audience is going to work with these computers without much (if any) prior experience on any computer, the readjustment pain is instantly removed from the equation.
Draw and Write (pre-installed)
There are no frills in either of these activities. They serve exactly the purpose that their names imply. When the kids want to write a story or other document, Write (which I believe is a version if AbiWord) steps in swiftly and does the job. If they need an illustration for said story or some other purpose, Draw works more or less just like Paint in Windows.
The kids have few complaints, especially after upgrading from system 650 to 653 which appeared to deliver considerable speed improvements in the browser, although that may have been the result of something else – no definitive proof there. I created a little web launch pad we call Soen – Nose for the kids (a text-only page so that it loads quickly) that contains links to many of the sites that they frequent on the web. A somewhat clunky version of the Adobe Flash plugin can be installed and we did at first, but as we upgraded the system software we didn’t install flash again.
XO as an e-book reader (pre-installed)
One of the reasons we chose an XO over other options like the Asus Eee PC, was it’s ability to work as an e-book reader.
Before leaving on our trip, Sophia had read H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine which I had recommended to feed her science fiction addiction. So, after the XO arrived we immediately downloaded several science fiction classics from H.G. Wells and Jules Verne as e-books in different formats (.pdf, .txt, .html). So far our favorite sources are manybooks.net and Project Gutenberg. The kids’ launch pad has links to several other sites as well.
Many Books is especially nice as it offers many different formats for each book including HTML, large print PDFs, PDFs formatted for the iPhone (which Sophia likes on the XO) and even better (in my opinion) an option to create custom PDF and HTML files. The XO can handle both. While the Reader icon does not appear at the the bottom of the screen like the other activities, it is pre-installed and launches when a PDF file is opened. HTML files open in the Browser. TXT files
Here are some of the books we’ve got loaded on the XO at the moment:
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in 80 Days, The Mysterious Island, A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, and The Invisible Man.
I’m not sure how to describe eToys. For the kids it wasn’t exactly new having already played with Squeakland (on which eToys is based) using both Mac and Windows machines. The activity allows them to play with and combine a variety of media.
Both of the kids enjoy the four TamTam activities which allow them to create music in different ways.
Turtle Art, Pippy and Turtle Art with Sensors (first two pre-installed, last one add-on)
Turtle Art is an XO version of Seymour Papert’s Logo which allows students to write programs (series of instructions) directing a turtle around the screen and leaving a trail (the drawing). Pippy is a version of the Python programming language for the XO. Turtle Art with Sensors allows for the turtle to be controlled with sound level and pitch and (through a connected device) resistance an voltage.
Scratch (add-on, must download separately)
When a version of Scratch for the XO appeared for downloading about a week and a half ago, the kids were elated. Scratch is by far their favorite programming environment and while they enjoyed playing with Turtle Art and Pippy, nothing could compare to Scratch. They have not been disappointed as they have spent countless hours working on a variety of projects either alone or as a team. I might go as far to say that if the XO was no more than a portable Scratch machine it would be worth the price, but of course it is much more, so that stretch doesn’t need to be made.
Sim City (add-on)
SimCity is a classic. The version available for the XO is the original release and aside from the small text which can be a bit difficult to read, it works wonderfully. Since loading it on the XO, the kids have spent many hours learning the ins and outs of the game.
Guido van Robot, Ruler, Stopwatch (add-ons)
These are some of the other activities that we’ve downloaded and installed. The ruler and stopwatch are practical for exactly what you would expect them to be. Guido van Robot is another programming type activity which we’ve tinker with a bit.
Acoustic Tape Measure and Chat (pre-installed)
These are two activities that we’d love to try out but, like the mesh networking, we’ll need to wait until we have some more XO owners around to do so.
Not all has been perfect with the XO, but we knew going in that the software was still in something of a beta state. Although our first attempt to get online was an easy success, we subsequently had a few snafus connecting to wifi which have since been resolved. We also have met with some frustration regarding some of the additional software (none of the items mentioned above) that can be added. Finally, we had some issues with the volume being set to zero and not being able to readjust it. All that said, we have successfully upgraded the system from the version 650 with which it shipped to 653 the day after receiving it and eventually version 656 which is currently the latest stable version released. At this point everything is working well.
———– Conclusion ———–
The XO is not for everyone. If you can afford a full-blown laptop, if you are looking to do extensive touch typing, if you have no interest in experimenting with a new interface, or if you are unwilling to deal with beta-ish software, it’s most likely not the machine for you and you should look elsewhere. The target audience for this machine is a child who is eager to experiment and learn. The XO fits that bill splendidly. It also serves as a great, albeit a little heavy, e-book reader.
One important point I forgot to make was that the kids are asking for a USB mouse because the built-in trackpad seems to be too sensitive to make drawing on the XO a pleasurable experience.