The XO Laptop

As y ou probably know, the mission of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization is to provide their $200 XO laptop computers to children in the developing world.

Back in December, I participated in OLPC's "Give One Get One" promotion. The deal was that I donate one XO laptop and get to buy one for myself. [The deal is no longer offered; you can still donate an XO, but you can't get one for yourself.]

I finally received my laptop about a month ago. I have been playing with it, when I have had the time, ever since.

From a hardware perspective, the XO is amazing. It would be a bargain at twice the price. The XO is small, lightweight and runs on a very power-efficient battery. Helping to keep battery use and weight to a minimum, it has neither an optical drive nor a hard drive. Similar to the super-expensive version of the MacBook Air, it uses a flash drive for data storage, although only a 1GB capacity.

The XO comes with a built-in camera, microphone, a slot for an SD memory card, and a color screen. You can even pivot the screen so that it closes with the display facing up (allowing you to use the XO as a tablet or ebook reader). The XO promises to get even better in the future, without requiring a hardware upgrade. As one example, its trackpad is designed to work with a stylus, although the software support for doing so is not yet there.

The XO especially shines as a network device, easily allowing you to find and connect either to nearby Wi-Fi networks or directly to other XO users via a "mesh" network. The only glitch here was that the XO's ability to detect a network could be quite finicky. It failed to find my AirPort Extreme in the same room as the XO, while picking up my neighbor's similar device across the street.

The XO's water-resisitant keyboard is designed to withstand almost any abuse. However, the keys are too small and cramped together for my pudgy fingers and the cursor response to trackpad movement is often jerky. There is no way I could ever use an XO for any serious typing. But, as I sometimes need to remind myself, I am not the target demographic for this laptop.

While the XO's hardware, despite my few complaints, is unquestionably impressive — the software is a different story. The XO uses a Linux OS overlaid with a graphical user interface, designed for the XO, called Sugar. In judging the software, it was very difficult to ignore my experience as a Mac user. There's no getting around the fact that Mac OS X is a far superior OS to Sugar. Most of the software that runs on a Mac is similarly better, both in terms of its ease of use and its range of features, than what comes on the XO.

Still, even trying to put my Mac experience aside, I found the XO's interface to be clumsy and often hard to navigate. As to the specific programs, a few (such as the Web browser) worked pretty much as expected. But others (such as some of the games and the music software) took a good while before I could discern exactly how they worked. I suppose you could argue that young kids would figure these out faster than me; I'm not so sure.

In any case, don't expect any documentation to come to your aid. The laptop comes with none. To learn about the XO, you have to go online — which can be an obstacle if you can't figure out how to get online or have no Wi-Fi access at the moment. Even if you do access the help site, you still won't find details on most of the XO's software.

I also have to question the decision to include advanced applications, such as Terminal and Analyze, right along side of the child-oriented software. There is no way for a kid to distinguish what is or is not appropriate for them to be using.

Most frustrating, I could find no equivalent of any sort of Finder utility. There was no option to easily see a listing of the files on the drive — or to copy, move, or delete items.

The conclusion of a review by Jon Fingas pretty much echoes my overall reaction to the XO's software:

    "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.

    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."

In the end, paraphrasing a familiar quote, I admire the XO not always for how well it does what it does, but for the fact that it does it at all. Especially for $200. If this computer were to be sold in the U.S. (presumably for more than $200) as a competitor to low-cost Macs and PCs, I wouldn't recommend it. But for the children in its intended market, most of whom will have had no prior access to any computer, the XO will seem almost miraculous. And that, after all, is the whole point.

[P.S. If you are interested in reading other reviews of the XO, check out the articles by David Pogue and Joe Barr.]