XO musing 1.0

3+ weeks ago my give one get one XO arrived. I’ve been trying to grok it and show it off. This is a summary of observations, ponderings  and usage.



The green and white toy-like industrial design draws plenty of attention. Closed, it is not obvious what it is or how to open the display. My 19-year-old neice, properly acquainted with iPods and MacBooks, thought it belonged to my two-year-old grand-daughter. Those already XO aware but unitiatated have reacted with intrigue and envy. Once you open the display and start the browser, people adjust to it quickly after pondering the keyboard and touchpad.

It seems sturdy, ready to survive drops and spills, and designed for hardware serviceability.

The display is delightful. With 200 pixels/inch at 1200×900 layout, photos look great. In reflective monochrome mode it should be fine on the beach, based on my minimal outdoors experience.

The keyboard is frustrating, too small for touch typing with adult hands. I keep trying and am getting closer to touch typing. It is doubtful that any QWERTY keyboard this narrow could be a lot better. At least 10 keys are reserved for future use and at least a few are specific to the “Sugar” environment. The legacy IBM 3270 function keys (F1, F2, …) of PC and Mac keyboards are omitted.

http://wiki.laptop.org/ is the starting point for OLPC external and internal documents. Bunnie Studios and Notebook Review provide relatively detailed hardware analysis.

http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Suspend_and_resume seems self-contradictory, but right now I see no signs that “standby” is functional — the machine is basically on or off.

The readily visible software, “Sugar,” is unique. The usage model seems intended for mesh networking of groups of children, with roughly a dozen games and basic applications, including browsing and writing. A journal of activities is central, and intended as a replacement for files and file hierarchies as known by most adult computer users. Also see The Journal.

There is an easily accessible Terminal (x-term) “activity” to escape to the underlying Linux. Without Terminal, I would not have been able to be productive with the XO.


Why are so many things unnecessarily different from other PCs? If the fundamental goal is to help children become computer literate, differences from adult computers, whether Windows, Mac, or Linux-based, seem counter-productive.

M.I.T. has pioneered child-oriented software before, going back, at least to Papert’s Logo programming language, but it has never been obvious that Logo helped prepare for adult computing. The benefits of Sugar are not yet obvious, but perhaps they will become apparent.

The relatively small main memory (256MB) and non-volatile storage (1GB) make it challenging to supplement the built-in software. It is easy to add flash storage with the SD and USB slots, but it seems providing 512MB standard main memory would likely be a noticeable performance boost.

Reportedly, Microsoft is preparing to support Windows XP on the XO, and will require a 2GB SD card for XP.

WiFi, the only built-in networking, is intended for both conventional access points and mesh networks, either formal or ad hoc. WPA is not supported by Sugar, but there is a workaround with “Wpa.sh” run from Terminal. Similarly, there is no “airplane mode” from the Sugar GUI, but there is a workaround from Terminal.


For the first three weeks, I paid relatively little attention to the machine, fiddling around with it every now and then, showing it off when there was an eager audience. This past weekend, I went on my first airplane trip since receiving the XO. I spent most of the departing flight sleuthing around the underlying Linux software and most of the return flight starting to write this. I brought along a Windows laptop just in case the XO was insufficient, but that machine’s charger failed, so I was forced to rely on the XO and hotel lobby machines at my destination.

On the outgoing plane, I also tried many of the pre-installed “Activities,” i.e., applications. I was expecting to be able with “Write” to revise Microsoft Word documents saved as RTF, but did not understand the drag and drop constraints until reading http://wiki.laptop.org/ more carefully. In the process I discovered that RTF support is not fully enabled yet.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment for me is the Browse activity. Though based on the same “Gecko” rendering engine as FireFox, Browse’ simplistic controls seem very limiting. In particular, there is no “tabbed browsing”. Since Sugar is a full-screen experience, without multiple visible windows, the omission of tabbed browsing is particularly puzzling. Browse also disallows self-signed TLS certificates, which frustrated my attempts to access SquirrelMail.

On the trip home I assumed I would try to install full FireFox to displace Browse. However, I discovered that OLPC sort of encourages Opera as an alternative to Browse. This was a blessing in disguise, since it has been years since I’ve tried Opera. So far Opera on the XO seems very promising, much more like the experience I’m used to with Microsoft/Mozilla/Apple browsers. In particular, Opera for XO supports tabbed browsing and self-signed certificates.

I also was able to easily install (and use) the Lynx text-mode browser from the Fedora 7 distribution RPM. This is encouraging, both that XO has used familiar Linux package management and is compatible with (simple) generic Fedora packages.

Normally, I spend most of my work time using the Windows laptop that has the dead charger. Since that machine is unavailable, today I tried working in my office with the XO, but ended up mostly using XP on a 9-year-old desktop instead. The desktop only has a 450MHz Pentium II, roughly equivalent to the XO’s 433MHz AMD Geode, but has 512MB of main memory and familiar applications. I think the extra memory was the real difference.

As one benchmark, I tried viewing/listening to “The Parting Hand” with both the XO (subsituting Adobe’s Flash player for the built-in “gnash” player) and the 450MHz XP machine. The XO couldn’t keep the audio streaming, and the video was very jerky. The 450MHz XP machine, with twice the memory, had jerky video, but mostly kept the audio streaming.

In finishing writing this, I mostly used the XO, but used vi(m), not Write, and used a full-size USB keyboard.

There’s been lots of controversy surrounding OLPC and the XO. I’m glad they made it. I’m glad I bought one, for the display if nothing else. The XO probably will be a useful travel machine, half the size and weight of my Windows laptop. But the XO is underpowered, and it definitely feels to me like a “version 1.0” product that was pushed out the door too soon. I’ll be eager to see what Version 2 is like, and what the competitors, especially ASUS, do.

Comments are closed.