Can the education-focused OLPC XO 3.0 tablet teach consumer manufacturers anything useful?

The goal of the OLPC XO 3.0 is not to sell a sexy entertainment product, but instead to get every child in the world with a connected computer. Is there anything consumer tablet manufacturers can learn from a tablet made with "cheap" education as its guiding philosophy?

Will the OLPC XO 3.0 start a trend of inexpensive, waterproof, low-power tablets? I hope so, just as long as I don't have to deal with the consequences. Eric Franklin/CNET

Nearly 18 months ago, One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) laid out plans to introduce a $100, education-focused tablet. While the design and features of that original mockup have changed, at CES 2012, OLPC and Marvell finally introduced a working model, the X0 3.0.

We briefly covered the announcement during CES week, but in getting some hands-on time with the device and speaking with the developers of this unique tablet, it got me thinking. With its low-power, low-cost approach to tablets, is there anything useful the XO 3.0 can teach consumer tablet manufacturers?

Honestly, to avoid burying the lede too much here, I'll say that I'm not sure it can. What sets the XO 3.0 apart from consumer tablets is that consumers won't actually have access to it.

OLPC's ultimate goal is to one day provide every child in the world with a connected computer, tablet or otherwise. Most of these children are from developing nations, like Uruguay, where buying a personal tablet isn't the highest priority for most families. OLPC (a nonprofit organization) markets directly to ministries of education in these nations, which then distribute the tablets like textbooks.

So how different is a tablet you'll never find lining the shelves at Best Buy versus one that gets marketed directly to people with expendable incomes? Turns out, not very.

The XO 3.0 is still a conventional tablet with an 8-inch capacitive touch screen and Wi-Fi support (to save on costs, there's no 802.11n support, though). The tablet felt fairly light in my hands, but is a lot thicker than the original mockup. It's not as thick as the Toshiba Thrive, but nowhere near as thin as some of the sub-9mm tablets available today. It includes both full and Micro-USB ports, as well as input and output audio jacks. There's 512MB of RAM, but only 4GB of storage space.

Editors' note: In asking the question, "Do any of the XO 3.0's features make sense in a consumer tablet?" I'll be speculating how those features would work in a consumer tablet for someone in a developed nation with disposable income (the current chief market for consumer tablets). Please keep this context in mind when reading the rest of the blog post. Thanks.

The costs of low power
Making a low-power, low-cost tablet like the XO 3.0 probably isn't the easiest thing in the world to do, but OLPC and Marvell achieved this in a number of ways. First, while most tablet vendors use IPS panels in tablet screens, OLPC decided to go with a TN panel instead.

Using a less-expensive TN panel kills two birds. TN panels cost less in power consumption as well as manufacturing dollars than their IPS counterparts; however, IPS screen have wider viewing angles, providing greater image quality.

In addition to cutting both power and financial costs on the screen, OLPC set its sights on what is usually the second most power-hungry tablet component (after the screen), the CPU. The problem with low-power CPUs is that they're usually gimped in performance to some extent.

So choosing a CPU that can perform quickly, but also one that consumes relatively little power, is a tough challenge. Kids can't exactly learn if they're waiting around all day for processes to finish. Well, I guess they could learn patience, but that's getting off the subject.

The point is, you need a balance. OLPC feels it found that balance in the 1GHz Marvell Armada PXA618 CPU.

Marvell says the PXA618 "consumes extremely low power, while maintaining high processing performance at attractive price points." Sounds about right, on paper at least. In my time using the device, I found performance to be somewhat sluggish; however, I was dealing with an unfinished, unoptimized front-end interface, so it's difficult to determine at this point if the PXA618 was the right choice.

And yes, while it was announced that the Tegra 3-based 370T Memo would launch at $250, and it would be great to see that chip in every tablet, $250 still a far cry from $100.

OLPC also has the advantage of not having to make a profit. It can sell these things to countries in volume, virtually at cost, with no need for a price markup.

We've already seen some ultra-low-priced tablets, but the prevailing consensus on these is that they usually aren't something you'd want to spend money on, no matter how low the price. And with good reason. They're bad . The XO doesn't feel like a bad tablet and honestly, in this case, I'm not even sure exactly how I would judge that, given its very narrow market focus.

Obviously, we'd all love to have high-quality, cheaper tablets, but as you can see, that comes at a cost to performance, features, and design. There are two ways mainstream consumer manufacturers can offer cheaper tablets. One, cut costs by cutting features and performance. Sure, as a mainstream tablet consumer, you don't get something as fast or that offers as much in terms of features, but at least you aren't destroying your credit rating to purchase it.

On the other hand, there's the second option of saying to hell with margins and sell at cost or at a loss, in the hopes that you'd sell so many as to make it up on software sales.

Personally, I like the second option best. I want my $100 tablet with quad-core performance with the battery that lasts 20 hours. Unreasonable? Yes. Will I ever get a version of that? Probably not, and while we will see cheaper tablets that cut some features in mainstream consumer markets, we likely won't see $100 tablets you'd actually want any time soon.

See the XO 3.O in real moving action.

Play

Battery charging, now with more fun!
If you've read anything about the X0 3.0, then you've likely stumbled across its unique battery-charging methods. Though the option remains to charge the tablet via a conventional wall socket, OLPC added a few fun and interesting options as well.

First, the XO 3.0 features a solar panel cover, that, if set out in sunlight, will absorb energy from the sun and once reconnected to the tablet, will transfer that energy directly into the tablet's battery.

Not only would powering a mainstream consumer tablet in this manner cut down on energy consumption, lowering your overall energy bill, but having a cheap, remote power cover would allow you to be more flexible with your tablet usage.

You could use your tablet all day, draining its battery, while concurrently charging your solar panel over. Then, pop the cover on and you have what is effectively a fully charged battery that doesn't require you to be attached to a power cord if you want to keep using it. Kind of like a cheaper version of the Transformer Prime and its optional keyboard/battery.

Also, going camping with your tablet would become more feasible as you'd never have to worry about charging it; however, bringing a tablet camping still feels like a weird idea to me.

You've probably also seen pictures of the hand crank that makes for a great demonstration. Rotating the handle will charge the battery; but for a full charge, you'd probably want to clear out your schedule as well as warm up your arms.

Alternatively, OLPC says you could conceivably set up an exercise bike or even a water wheel to charge the tablet.

Access to alternative, green power sources is something I'd absolutely love to see in future tablets and it's not the type of thing that's so unreasonable as to not be feasible. While the hand crank is a great gimmick, being able to power your tablet with clean energy is something I'd welcome with open arms, but would mainstream consumers in developed nations actually use it?

I think it would depend on the convenience and time factors. Most users would likely use it in tandem with their power adapters. If it's nighttime and I forgot to set out my solar panel and I don't want to spend the next few hours destroying my arms, cranking power into my tablet, then you'd better believe I'm using that power adapter.

Not a completely green solution, but you'd likely consume less overall power. I'd at least love to have the option.

Still, unmoving photos of the XO 3.0. look pretty cool.

Your tablet, your bathtub, and you
OLPC states that the XO 3.0 is waterproof, although it likely would not survive significant deep water submersion.

For a mainstream consumer in the developed world, a waterproof tablet could come in very handy during your monthly relaxation bath. You know when you have the whole house to yourself and it's just you, bubble bath, and a glass of wine. You could sit back, relax and enjoy your tablet without the fear of it slipping, falling into the water and ruining your night.

Also, camping. Yes, camping again or any outdoorsy kind of activity where you might come into contact with rain, rivers, or pool parties.

In the kitchen as well. I for one one usually spill at least two glasses of water for every meal I make, and if I'm using the tablet as a recipe book, a waterproof one would diminish at least a few of my current cooking anxieties; however, I'll still to deal with those anxieties that stem from my having very little cooking skills in the first place.

Sure you're likely LOL-ing at the prospects of a waterproof tablet and its applications in a mainstream tablet in the developed world, but they may be becoming a thing. At CES 2012, Pantech announced its waterproof Element, which can be submerged in water and reportedly, still function afterward.

Practically, though, just how useful is this? As a teaching tool and depending on your subject matter and possibly teaching venue, having a waterproof tablet would serve some use.

For consumer tablets, a waterproof tablet feels like a feature nobody asks for, but everyone appreciates once experienced. We'll see.

So what did we learn?
The XO 3.0 was made with very different goals than most tablets. By putting education, low power, and low price at the forefront of its goals, the OLPC is seemingly at odds with entertainment/productivity tablet design philosophies, but that's not entirely true.

While we may see waterproofing and solar panels in future tablets, don't expect $100 quad-core-based devices anytime soon. Performance and features cost money to implement and as long as they do you'll have to dive deep into your wallet to pay for them.

 

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