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The XO laptop gets a Windows makeover

CNET News' Ina Fried gets an exclusive, first-hand look at what it means to have Windows, rather than Linux, on One Laptop Per Child's signature device.

On the outside, the Windows version of the XO laptop looks just like the Linux model. But simply booting up the device shows that the Windows version bears little resemblance to the original One Laptop Per Child device.

With the Microsoft version, you get Windows, for all the good and bad that entails. It's full-on Windows--XP Professional, in fact--and can run basically any software that can adjust itself to the mini-laptop's diminutive screen and modest processor.

Microsoft has managed to slim down the OS enough to boot up off a 2GB flash memory card and has written drivers for a number of the XO laptop's unique features, such as its scratch pad, game controller, and built-in camera.

Now playing: Watch this: One (Windows) Laptop Per Child

But what's missing in the Windows version is the personality that oozes out of the Linux incarnation. The Linux model comes with an integrated suite of educational games, programming tools, and other software, all built around a kid-friendly OS shell known as Sugar.

The Windows version of the XO doesn't have much of that built-in spunk, although a child-oriented programming tool known as Scratch did survive the Linux-to-Windows switch.

At the same time, having Windows allows students to take advantage not only of Microsoft's dominant Office suite, but of all the educational software that has already been written for Windows.

For the past week, I've had two XO laptops on my desk, one of each OS variety.

I've taken them both to coffee shops and let myself explore each machine. I'll save my thoughts for a later post.

But to really get a sense for each device and its unique appeal, I turned to an expert--an 8-year-old who's far more representative of the target market than a reporter who has to dye her hair.

Ella Taggart, the daughter of one of our editors, happily volunteered to put each of the devices through its paces. She spent an afternoon at CNET's offices on Wednesday exploring the built-in software on each, looking up her spelling words on Wikipedia and attempting to visit her favorite Web sites.

In the end, she found each option had its challenges and each its benefits. She had a great time using the built-in speech synthesizer on the Linux version, while the Magic School Bus game that was on the Windows version was also enthralling.

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Web browsing was slow on the Linux model and the pointer and menu system somewhat complicated for someone used to Windows. Still, when it came time to borrow one for the night, she opted for the Linux model, in part because it had more built in than she had a chance to explore in her brief time at the office.

In the end, she said she liked the XO no matter what software it was running. It was fun and just the right size for her (even if all the adults complained about its small keyboard).

From my perspective, her experience shows not that the software doesn't matter. It matters a great deal. But it's all about how a school chooses to use the laptops. Used properly, as part of a well-thought-out curriculum, both models offer tremendous opportunities for students to learn about technology and how to use technology to learn about many other areas.

At the same time, I don't think either model simply dropped in the hands of children will do the trick. That meshes with the experience I had touring through the Bradesco Foundation school in Campinas, Brazil. It wasn't the fact that all the students had Intel Classmate PCs that made the program stand out. It wasn't the use of Windows over Linux.

What made the the experience so dramatic was how well the teachers incorporated the laptops into their teaching. It was the fact that the art teacher used the PCs for research, but had the students put them away and use their hands to make wax sculptures.

It was the fact that while each student had their own laptop, they still worked in groups as often as they worked alone.

Some countries have demanded that their students work on Linux, arguing open-source computers offer a chance for an independent software economy not tied to Microsoft. Many others, such as Peru, have demanded Windows, arguing that that's what their students need to get good jobs. Ultimately, OLPC hopes to offer a dual-boot option, though that is still being developed.

Testing out XO laptops
Credit: Ina Fried/CNET News
Ella Taggart tests two versions of the XO laptop.

And while developing nations will now have their choice of operating systems, those in the U.S. won't enjoy the same flexibility.

OLPC plans to reprise its "Give One, Get One" program this holiday season, which lets Americans pay for two machines--one of which they keep and the other of which they donate. However, in all cases, the one they get will be of the Linux variety.

In part, that has to do with the fact that Microsoft offers a cut-rate version of Windows for large educational programs that doesn't apply to the consumers here that buy the machines.

Microsoft general manager James Utzschneider notes that it's also not comfortable with the lack of support that comes with the OLPC for those who take part in Give One, Get One.

"This is Windows," he said. "People want to be able to pick up the phone and call us if they can't get something to work."