XO laptop, first impressions

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So, you may know I have been distantly following the progress of the so called $100 laptop. The organization that tried to make this a reality is called One laptop per child, and last year they finally finished with the development of the laptop, and moved on to manufacturing and distribution.

When I heard that OLPC had a program called Give One, Get One, I plunked down my $400 (the computer actually costs $200) and have been eagerly awaiting the moment when I would hear that a child living in the third world had been gifted with the transformational ability to go online... and perhaps, just perhaps I was selfishly interested in getting mine.

Anyhow, mine came via UPS yesterday, and I've been toying around with it since. What follows is an initial review.

I ordered December 5, it came March 14, or approximately two months after my initial estimated delivery date. Not being too anxious about it, I found their communication to be sufficient.

As for the computer, it was definitely designed for a child. The whole case is 9" wide, and 9.5" deep. The keyboard is perhaps 2" too short to allow me to touch type, but the hunting and pecking is much easier than, say, a blackberry. I think if I were 10, however, I could probably touch-type. The keyboard itself is pretty cool. It is rubberizedto protect against spills, sand, ants, or whatever other small objects could get inside a normal keyboard. Also, there are a dozen function keys around theoutside that do reallygreat things like adjusting the volume, the screen contrast, and some program quick-keys. There are also a few keys with no assigned functions. These are intended for 'later developments', but I'm sure I can find a script to let me repurpose them. Finally, the space key is not sensitive enough, and onlyworks occasionally. (The mistake was left in for emphasis, but not generated for such.)

The screen is pretty good. I have not had a chance to try it in the sun, but I've turned the backlight off and can see how it will enable me to use it outdoors during the day. The resolution is probably VGA quality. All the colors are muted, but pictures show up pretty well.

The internet connectivity may be problematic. I couldn't get it to connect to my WPA secured network yesterday, so I used me Dell to explore the troubleshooting at OLPC and saw that they won't support WPA until early 2008, so I assumed it wouldn't work in my apartment. However, with a reboot and a sunrise, I turned it on and lo and behold, it had connected to my network.

One of the strengths of the computer is its networking range. It was designed to pick up weak signals in the bush, so when you take it into a highrise in downtown Chicago... well you might see somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 wireless networks.

This leads into one of my frustrations with the software... it's intended for illiterate children. They use pictures wherever words might suffice. For instance, say you were looking at the 'neighborhood' (networking) screen with seventy five networks. You would see you little XO (it looks like a stick figure if you put the O above the X) surrounded by seventy five different partially filled, multi-colored circles. There is no text anywhere to explain a color legend, and you have to hover over each circle to disover the name of the network. Yes, it's intuitive, but humans speak rather than play pictionary for a reason.

Anyhow, the browser seems to be pretty good. I haven't tried youtube or internet radio, but ESPN works better on here than my blackberry, and the browser hasn't had any issues with the CGI scripts that run eByron.

I've toyed around with the included programs. My favorite is the one that takes in sound through the built-in microphone and displays the sound waves on the screen.My neighbors probably think I went insane, but it's fun watching the computer interpret all the weird sounds I could think to make.

I tried the band synthesizer program a bit, and that's cool. It lets you select an instrument, and then presents you with a staff-like interface that you draw notes into as the note sounds. The enterprising composer can then layer in at least six instruments, allowing them to compose for the entire band... and of course the program will play your music for you.

I've yet to try out the camera or microphone capabilities... but I'm hoping to try a video call pretty soon.

All in all, I'm pleased with the machine, but the true tests are yet to come.


(Of course I wrote this on the XO.)