XO Laptop: First Impressions

We got in our XO Laptop, the little unit that the One Laptop Per Child organization has begun producing and making available to poorer countries for less than $200 per laptop. (Read David Pogue’s article for a quick introduction to the concept.) Here are my first impressions after fiddling about with it for an hour or two:

  • Holy moley, it’s tiny! Somehow, like celebrities, it seems even smaller in person than in pictures.
  • It feels very much like it’s engineered with kids in mind. The interface is straightforward, rewards exploration, and doesn’t rely much on the habits that adults might have developed in computer use.
  • The keyboard is much more responsive than I’d expected, though it’s definitely awkward for touch typing with adult hands. High speed hunt-and-peckers will do better here.
  • The selection of built-in applications is wild and wonderful, with a strong leaning toward things that let kids create music, software, reports, etc.
  • I haven’t yet been able to figure out how to have multiple browser sessions open (like tabbed browsing or multiple windows) without launching several instances of the Browse app.
  • I love that the mic jack can also be used for other analog inputs, making it easy to connect up things like thermometers, PH gauges, accelerometers, etc.
  • This is clearly a machine purpose-built for curious young minds. Having some time with it has convinced me that Intel was shortsighted to pull out of this initiative, as no laptop running Windows XP is going to be as rewarding for kids to explore. On the other hand, American consumers who are used to being able to get things done with a minimum of fuss won’t be as happy with it.
  • Applications do launch a bit slowly, though they’re pretty snappy once they’re up and running. No crashes or unexpected application exits yet, though admittedly we haven’t pushed it too hard.
  • The idea of the Journal is a really interesting one that may reach mainstream computing eventually. Instead of saving documents in a file system, the computer just tracks what you’ve been up to lately, letting you mark the most important stuff to be saved. You can then search through that record chronologically or by search term and pull up old sessions, right where you left off.
  • Collaboration is built in at a very low level. Nearly all the built-in applications allow you to share what you’re working on with others who have XO Laptops and to work on those things collaboratively. In addition to the obvious cooperative uses, this will be useful in classrooms without projectors where the teacher wants to demonstrate techniques or sites to students.
  • The Browse application uses the Gecko engine, the same one as Firefox, so all those fancy web applications like GMail and Facebook work just fine on it.
  • The screen switches into a high-resolution (200 dpi) black & white mode when you turn down the backlighting all the way. Combined with a button that lets you rotate the information display in 90° increments and the ability to fold the screen back down over the keyboard, this makes a dandy device for reading texts. (When in black & white mode and using a reading application, battery life should approach 24 hours, thanks to a passel of nifty technical tricks designed to keep power draw at a minimum.)

For its intended purpose, it’s a brilliant piece of work. With a connection to the Internet available, it has the potential to be a magnificent educational tool for students who otherwise might not have access to much of what the modern world has to offer.

So, congratulations, OLPC folks. You’ve done a great job, and I wish you the best of success getting your vision out to the rest of the world.