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Why should rich Western kids get all the cool kit? Nicolas Negroponte's ambitious plan to bridge the global digital divide has borne fruit at last. The XO-1 costs twice as much -- $200 (£100) -- as he'd originally hoped for, and lacks the hand-powered crank that would have freed it from the grid completely. But otherwise it's a cyber-hippy's dream come true: a simple, practical wireless laptop packed with cool new technologies and stuffed with open-source software.
It's currently not available for sale to consumers, although Negroponte has said that the UK is in line for a 'Give 1, Get 1' donation programme during 2008.
The XO-1's primary audience is children, who'll love the bash-it-about ruggedness, textured plastic housing and comfortable built-in grip -- no need for a poncy laptop sleeve here. There are dozens of smart design touches, from the show-off -- flip-up Wi-Fi rabbit ears that also lock the keyboard in place -- to the simply sensible -- the three USB ports are in different orientations to suit different devices and cables.
Open up the 7.5-inch screen and you're faced with a splashproof ZX Spectrum-like rubber keyboard that's definitely on the squashed side for adult fingers. The keys need a good firm press to work, but are very well laid out in a PC style, with dedicated volume and brightness buttons -- but no Caps Lock. There have been reports of problems with the touchpad, but ours worked fine.
The screen itself has gaming controls on either side -- a direction pad and four action buttons. There's also a button to flip the screen's orientation, as it can rotate through 180-degrees like a tablet, and fold back in over the keyboard. In normal use, the screen is a decent full-colour affair that's fine for Web browsing. But pull the brightness down to its minimum level and the LCD transforms into an ultra-sharp mono display that looks fantastic in full sunlight -- and saves power, too.
Most new computers are built from the latest components, with a healthy over-performance margin to allow for the demands of future software. Not the XO-1. A modest 433MHz processor has to handle operating system, software and graphics all on its own, with just 256MB of RAM to work with, and a mere 1GB of Flash memory storage.
A key feature is its wireless performance. Not only do you get full 802.11b/g functionality, but also 802.11s, which enables mesh networking -- even when powered down. Get within range of another XO-1 -- tested at over two kilometres in the Australian outback -- and you can piggyback on its Internet connection, swap files or enjoy multi-player gaming. There are dedicated buttons to pull up graphical maps of your local mesh 'group' and wider wireless neighbourhood.
Multimedia features are pretty good -- a built-in VGA webcam can capture video at up to 30fps, and the stereo speakers are loud, if tinny. The XO-1 also uses brand new battery tech -- lithium iron phosphate -- that promises to last the planned lifetime of the computer, an impressive five years.