Sunday, December 16, 2007

OLPC XO Laptop: Now What?

Disclaimer: So I'm a Windows guy.  I used Unix in college, have done web development for a Linux server, I have Ubuntu on an old laptop (and my two TiVos also run Linux but that doesn't count), I used to have a Treo, and I have an iPod, but really: outside Windows I'm a newbie at best. So I may be a bit handicapped when evaluating the XO. 

I ordered my (son's) OLPC XO laptop through the Give One. Get One. program a while back, and frankly hadn't expected to receive my laptop until after the holidays.  So I was a bit surprised when FedEx dropped G1G1 box on my doorstep yesterday.

I'll start with my conclusion: It's a good thing I'm heading down to DC for the OLPC LC-DC Holiday Meetup cause I have a number of learning issues with this thing.  Oh, and it's a kinda cool little gadget.

Getting Started

The computer arrives in a tiny box with nothing but a battery (fully charged - thank you!), a small power brick (very conveniently made to fit side by side other plugs), and two glossy pieces of paper; one thanking you for the purchase/donation, and the other telling you to go online to get started.

While this is all very environmentally conscious and Apple-esque and all; given how different this thing is from anything mainstream, I would have appreciated a basic instruction pamphlet.  At least tell me what all the different keys do.  And perhaps tell me how to get connected to a network so that I can go online to read the rest of the docs?

Touchy Feely

It looks nice - it's much cleaner than any other laptop I've owned (remember - I'm a Windows guy).  I was surprised at how small and light the whole thing is.  This is both good and bad.  It really is very portable: the handle is convenient, though I question the added bulk it provides - unless there's a bunch of electronics in there, wouldn't a strap of some sort be better? 

The small water and dust resistant keyboard is spongy and certainly not good for touch-typing  (good that I'm not a touch-typer...).  It has an innovative 3-panel touchpad, but without an obviously tactile separation, which makes it hard  to control the central touchpad as it's easy to stray off the central pad. (I have yet to find an activity that uses the other touchpads.)

The screen swivel function is nifty, but the antennas on one side and the handle on the other can make it a bit clumsy in this mode.  Buttons on the screen are nice, but not intuitive.


Well, I went online from my other laptop, and figured out how to get connected to my WiFi.   I had to switch my network from WPA to WEP, since the XO doesn't yet support WPA.  After that, it was pretty simple - locate my access point and enter the pass phrase.  Another 10 seconds and I was connected.  The connectivity appears to be excellent.  I pick up all sorts of signals, some mysteriously labeled as mesh networks.  2 of these could perhaps be my TiVos, but there's a third that I can't account for.  Moreover, I can connect to these networks, but can't browse the internet through them.

Applications Activities

The so-called Activities (a.k.a Applications - not sure why they need a different name?) on the XO are appropriately enough very child-focused.  That said, they're also very geeky.  Almost every activity has some form of programming component.  I understand that this is v.1.0 and it helps to encourage developers, but I question the value to elementary-school kids.  And I really wonder if any of these applications - err.. activities - will be of interest to a preschooler.  Except TamTam Mini.

Personally I believe I'll be spending 95% of my time on the XO in one activity: Browse.


Browse is the web browser activity that comes with the XO.  It is Gecko based, so it's pretty decent, but as with the rest of the Sugar interface, it has some quirks:

For instance, it has JavaScript support (thank you!) but it is much slower than on a regular laptop.  This is to be expected, I guess.

It has Gnash for Flash support, but it has some limitations.  (It doesn't have Flash, since Flash is not open source.  You can download Flash, which I did, but it has so far crashed the browser on more than one occasion.)

It has a full screen mode, which I know how to enter, but not to exit.  It doesn't have support for multiple browser windows, nor tabs.  It also does not show you the url of a link before you browse to it.  <-- This is a big deal - I can see all sorts of problems with kids (and adults) ending up at "bad sites" from this omission.

It supposedly has support for using the screen/gamepad keys in eBook mode, but I can't figure out how to click on links that way.

All in all, it's better than my Motorola Q's Windows Mobile 5 Pocket IE, but I do wish for something more like Firefox.  Hopefully that will become an option soon.

eBook/Handheld Mode

The XO has a dual mode screen that can be used in eBook or 'Handheld' mode.  I think there'll be a lot of confusion about what actually constitutes the eBook mode - flipping the screen to hide the keyboard, or switching to the no-backlight 200dpi display, or both.

The 200dpi mode screen does work better than any regular laptop in direct sunlight.  It's hardly like reading text on paper, however, unless you typically read dark silver text on a glossy gold paper.  The contrast could definitely stand to be improved some, and you need to make sure to angle the screen to avoid reflecting the light back into your eyes.

As I mentioned above, the gamepad-like controllers don't work that well, at least not in the Browse activity.  Some of the promised features simply don't seem to work as advertised.

All in all I'm a bit disappointed about the delivery of this aspect of the laptop.  I guess I was expecting something more like an Amazon Kindle or a Sony Reader.  Then again, that was probably hoping for way too much, given the true cost difference (after deducting the gift laptop and the free T-Mobile WiFi).



Too bad most of these would require a completely new machine - i.e. a new purchase.  Oh well:

  1. Touch screen.
  2. Move the function keys to the screen - that way they'd be available in eBook mode.
  3. Improved capacity and performance.
  4. Bigger screen.
  5. Better contrast in eBook mode.
  6. Smaller handle.
  7. Car charger.
  8. GPS.


These are wishes I hope to benefit from on the current XO:

  1. A better browser.
  2. Google Reader version for the XO, with eBook key mapping
  3. Google Documents version for the XO
  4. A YouTube app (as on the Apple iTouch), with eBook key mapping.
  5. GPS Mapping.
  6. More play-only applications for kids
  7. Blogging application

Questions with or without Answers

I'll update this list as I continue learning.

  1. How do I exit full screen in Browse?
  2. How do I use the eBook mode buttons to click on links?
  3. How  do I change the user?
  4. How do I register?  I click Register but nothing happens.
  5. Is there a sleep mode?  What happens when I shut the lid?

To paraphrase PC in the Apple ads. 

"I just bought an OLPC XO.  Now what?"

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  • Hi Oskar,
    Thanks for the post, I'm really looking forward to getting my xo.

    I'm not 100% sure this will work for you, but is has, mostly, fixed the flash problem on my Ubuntu system.

    add the following to /etc/X11/xorg.conf (might be /etc/X11/X11.conf i'm not sure on the xo. )
    Section "Extensions"
    Option "Composite" "0"

    Hope this helps, I'll try to update when I get mine.

    By Blogger Ryan Barrett, at Tuesday, December 18, 2007 9:13:00 PM  

  • Just like Firefox, Alt+Enter gets you out of full-screen mode. This will be fixed for update.1.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wednesday, December 19, 2007 12:12:00 AM  

  • > How do I change the user?

    I'm pretty sure this release is designed as a single-user laptop. One laptop per child, not One laptop for a few children. :)

    > Is there a sleep mode? What happens when I shut the lid?

    Yes, but it's disabled in the current build due to it's bugginess. This is a bit of a disappointment that I hope will be rectified soon.

    Thanks to Jason for the Alt-Enter tip. I had wondered about it myself.

    By Blogger Thomas Stromberg, at Wednesday, December 19, 2007 5:58:00 PM  

  • Ryan, Jason, helixblue: Thanks.

    Unfortunately I didn't make it to the OLPC DC LC event. :-(

    I did figure out how to change the nickname of the user - you do ith through the sugar-control-panel command:

    sugar-control-panel -s nick Bob

    By Blogger Oskar Austegard, at Wednesday, December 19, 2007 7:02:00 PM  

  • Very nice review. My XO came this afternoon (unexpected, late in the day), and I have a very similar early take.

    I am enjoying it, and wowed by the look of the screen turned to zero brightness (sharp! yow!). I have some niggles, incl. that the web browser doesn't do tabs; that's something I really hope gets reconsidered in future versions of the software. Also, mine has an annoying screen flicker, which might just be annoying enough to get me to send it back for repair / replace -- I really don't like flicker.

    I haven't yet figured out how to view documents from a USB stick, though I figured it might be something besides intuitive ;)

    The keyboard is as expected, or even slightly better, since what I expected was truly awful. Touch typing is out, but it's not as bad for me (smallish hands) as for some people; I still get to use most of my fingers ;)



    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wednesday, December 19, 2007 11:35:00 PM  

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