Glaskowsky takes his first look at the OLPC laptop and provides his analysis of the machine's physical design as well as some early battery-life benchmark results.
Peter N. Glaskowsky is a computer architect in Silicon Valley and a technology analyst for the Envisioneering Group. He has designed chip- and board-level products in the defense and computer industries, managed design teams, and served as editor in chief of the industry newsletter "Microprocessor Report." He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.
I'm a little late to the party with this unboxing of my new OLPC XO-1 laptop, but the machine arrived while I was out of town visiting my family for Christmas. In fact, there's a story there.
Before I left, I started hearing that people were receiving their XO-1's, and I realized that if mine didn't show up before I left, it would almost certainly arrive while I was gone. The OLPC people sent out no shipment notifications and didn't reply to several emails, so I had no way to delay the shipment or contact the carrier.
I left a note on my front doorstep: "PLEASE DO NOT LEAVE PACKAGES HERE. HOLD FOR PICKUP. THANKS."
But on Dec. 21, a FedEx delivery person left the XO-1 box right next to the note, and they were both still there six days later when I got home. All that time, the package was in clear view of the street. Never mind New York-- I love Cupertino.
If you get an XO-1, don't throw away the box! You'll need it for the free year of Internet access through T-Mobile WiFi hot spots. The box has the reference number for account activation.
In keeping with the low-cost nature of the XO-1, its packaging is minimal but adequate.
The XO-1 comes with no manual, just two sheets of paper: one showing the hardware and software features of the unit plus some warning icons, and one with a thank-you note from OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte.
There's also no warranty booklet. The XO-1 comes with a 30-day limited warranty, but that's it, and it isn't written down anywhere.
I was somewhat surprised-- and pleased-- to see that OLPC provided a toll-free support phone number. As I'll describe in my forthcoming review, that might prove to be an expensive decision; the XO-1 is not yet very well documented, and some aspects of its operation are difficult to understand.
Of course, there's some XO-1 documentation online. Negroponte's letter points buyers to the laptopgiving.com website, which in turn points to the main laptop.org site, and from there a diligent search will reveal more detailed information on the OLPC Wiki.
But many aspects of laptop operation that are familiar to Windows, Mac, or Linux users aren't documented anywhere, as far as I can tell, probably because they aren't even supported. I can't find any way to control power-management features, for example.
Bottom line: the OLPC developers have a lot of work to do. These early systems don't even qualify as beta-test devices; they're just an alpha release, not feature-complete.
But they do work, and I still believe the XO-1's primitive state of development could actually be a positive benefit for bright children, who will be challenged to learn about these machines in ways they'd never have to do with a mainstream laptop PC.
The XO-1's limited hardware budget isn't wasted on unnecessary doo-dads. It arrives with the bare minimum of accessories: a battery and an AC adapter.
Both of these items are in keeping with the low-power design of the XO-1. Most laptops today come with larger batteries, often in the 50 watt-hour range; the XO-1's battery provides only 40% as much capacity. The AC adapters for full-size notebook PCs usually provide over 65W of power; this one is about a quarter as powerful.
But these are advantages, not disadvantages. A low-power laptop is like a lightweight car. A lighter car can use a smaller engine, brakes, and suspension without compromising performance. If the car gets heavier, the other components have to bulk up too. Similarly, reducing a laptop's power consumption saves weight in the machine itself and in its battery and power adapter.
You can see here that the whole surface of the XO-1's hard plastic case is covered by a pattern of nubbly dots that make it easier to grip without making it any more difficult to clean-- a wise decision by the developers. There's also a bit of whimsy around the handle section, where the openings are ringed by little "X" shapes that form the XO-1 logo.
Since the hard plastic would still be too slippery on a desk, the XO-1 has molded-in feet made of some non-skid rubbery material. They aren't very tall; since the XO-1 consumes so little power, there's no need to create airspace under the case.
My XO-1 came with a nice blue/green logo color combination. I don't know how many combinations there are, but I gather it's a large number, reducing the odds that two students in the same class will have the same colors.
The XO-1's ears contain 2.4 GHz antennas shared between the WiFi and proprietary mesh networks. They're also the locks that hold the machine closed. They engage with spring-loaded pins so the top will snap closed even if the ears are stowed first.
There aren't a lot of I/O options on the XO-1, just the basic requirements. The microphone jack can also be used as a generic analog input; the XO-1 comes with an application that works like a simple oscilloscope. Neat.
(Actually, applications are called "activities" on the XO-1. Sometimes it seems like the developers are thinking too differently.)
Another clever design feature on the other side of the unit: two USB jacks are positioned at different angles to make it more likely that awkwardly-shaped USB devices can be accommodated.
The XO-1's display is about what I expected. Resolution is good, but colors aren't as vibrant as on traditional LCDs. As I should have predicted, color saturation is related to the ratio of backlighting to ambient light. Outdoors or under a strong indoor light, colors are very washed out even with the backlight cranked up all the way. In sunlight, color disappears entirely, and you might as well turn off the backlight since it doesn't help.
The LCD viewing angle, unfortunately, is very poor. At little as 30 degrees off-axis, contrast begins to drop sharply. Two children sitting side-by-side would have trouble viewing the screen together. For ebook reading, the XO-1's display can't match those of the Sony PRS-505 Reader and the Amazon Kindle.
Not shown here is the Secure Digital (SD-card) slot, which is under the lower edge of the right side of the display unit. The positioning helps protect the slot, but there's no way to get clear access to it, which may limit the range of SD-card peripherals that can be used with the XO-1. I'm not sure this was so clever.
To me, the low point of the XO-1's physical design is the keyboard. The synthetic rubber membrane is very thin and the keyswitches are very soft so there's almost no tactile feedback. Hitting a key feels almost the same as missing one.
Perhaps children's fingertips are sensitive enough to get the feedback they need for good touch-typing. But even if that's true, I fear this keyboard may be too fragile.
The keys are also smaller than necessary, even given the focus on small hands. The keyboard is 15 keys wide, with a double-wide Enter key plus tab, [, and ] keys on the QWERTY row. Although the OLPC developers took a fresh look at pretty much everything else, they slavishly imitated the high key counts of full-size notebooks to their detriment.
Since the XO-1 has multiple modifier keys-- shift, control, alt, fn, "hand", and alt-graph keys-- it would have been better to move more of the punctuation symbols to letter keys, reducing the key count and allowing the keys themselves to be slightly larger, making typing easier.
The keyboard is printed with many international characters, but it isn't as cluttered as it could be. Only one key has four different symbols on it (semicolon, colon, and underlined lower-case a and o characters); most have three, and some have two. G, K, L, Z, X, V, and B are left alone. Oddly, there's a whole extra key just for the "times" and "divide" symbols.
There are also many extra keys for features unique to the XO-1's "Sugar" user interface, which is a good thing. Sugar relies too much on tricks like hot corners and tabs, disappearing borders and drawers, and other features that require a lot of careful cursor motion. Unfortunately, the XO-1's touchpad doesn't operate very smoothly or accurately, at least for me, and there's no apparent way to control its sensitivity or the speed of cursor motion.
Because I was somewhat critical of OLPC in earlier blog posts (here and here) for making strong promises about battery life that weren't supported by the early prototype hardware, the first thing I did with the new machine after charging it for a few hours was to run a couple of simple battery-life benchmark tests.
In the first test, I connected the XO-1 to my home WiFi network (which required falling back from WPA security to the relatively insecure WEP standard), cranked the backlight up to maximum, and opened my favorite webcam page: Ben Lovejoy's auto-refreshing feed for the camera at the public entrance to the Nürburgring racetrack in Germany.
The page didn't load reliably-- sometimes the WiFi connection would drop, provoking Server Not Found errors-- but I kept an eye on it and got it back on track each time it derailed. This wasn't the "heavy use" that OLPC's Walter Bender was describing in his comments on 60 Minutes last May, but at least it was something.
The result? The XO-1 ran for just 45 seconds short of four hours. Not so great.
Well, it's a prototype, and OLPC vice-president Jim Gettys said that "heavy use" could be construed to cover uses as lightweight as reading an ebook outdoors with the backlight off. So I charged the machine overnight and, this morning, from a clean reboot, I started an ebook-reading test with the backlight off. I opened a PDF provided with the XO-1 and pushed the page-down button once every 20 minutes to keep the display from turning off entirely. The machine ran for 4 hours and 59 minutes. (I swear these are the actual numbers.) That's a long way from Bender's promise of "10 to 12 hours... with heavy use."
But still, it's a prototype, and as Gettys explained, there are many opportunities for further power reductions. Similarly, there will undoubtedly be other improvements over time. We'll see.