Saturday, August 28, 2010

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project is unique, as is its first product, the XO. Designed to bring educational computing to children in the developing world, the XO's bright green-accented casework, rabbit-ear Wi-Fi antennas and highly customised software are designed as much to differentiate it from more mainstream products as to provide focused functionality for its intended task.

The XO's screen is a dual-mode transmissive (top)/reflective (bottom) TFT. In reflective mode with the LED backlight off, the greyscale display consumes minimal power to ensure maximum battery life.
This works very well: although the colours wash out easily in strong sunlight, the main image is viewable under all lighting conditions. It's a very flexible, very capable design and deserves to hit the mainstream. It's also a good match for the built-in camera, which although only VGA resolution produces still and moving images of above-average clarity. You can twist and fold back the screen into a tablet, or e-book, mode, but this isn't fully supported in the software -- there's no touch-screen hardware, for example; nor can you get at the stylus pads on either side of the touchpad in e-book mode.

Although it has no internal expansion options, the XO has an SD card slot, three USB connectors and standard microphone and headphone sockets. The spill-proof, child-finger-pitch keyboard is more than adequate for general use and shows a good deal of innovative thinking. Of special note is the absence of Caps Lock. About time.

The OLPC XO's rubber membrane keyboard has small, short-travel keys: if you don't like it, you can always plug in a USB keyboard.
Turn over to see our views on the mesh networking and the Sugar GUI.
. Mesh networking
One of the other major differentiators in the XO is, or should be, the mesh networking. The computer has a Marvell 8388 Wi-Fi module with two antennas, which as well as supporting 802.11b/g is intended to run 802.11s for mesh functionality. The 8388 is highly autonomous and is designed to be able to run all of the networking stack components necessary for mesh maintenance by itself without recourse to the main CPU; in this mode, the XO can help create a local infrastructure even when closed and otherwise quiescent.
This functionality is not readily apparent, as the status of the mesh networking software is unfinished -- unsurprisingly, given the similarly unfinished nature of 802.11s -- and there is little or no diagnostic software provided. It's unclear how quickly this will change as the firmware within the 8388 device is not open.
We tested the mesh networking, which worked up to a point. It's quick and easy to transfer pictures, short videos and audio, start chat sessions and generally interact without any configuration beyond finding your friends on the Sugar neighbourhood screen and inviting them to collaborate. However, as well as the virtue of sharing, the XO also teaches that of patience: starting a new shared application is a leisurely process, as is establishing contact with your friends.
All this suggests there is some work to do before another component of the OLPC project, the School Server, is ready for widespread deployment. Designed to provide wireless internet connectivity, storage and backup services to a mesh of XO notebooks, School Server is currently undergoing trials as a (Linux-based) software solution. However, OLPC also has plans for various hardware School Server platforms, and we look forward to examining these in due course.
The Sugar GUI
Sugar has four main views onto what the system's doing, reflected both by four icons on screen and four custom buttons on the keyboard. These are Neighbourhood, Group, Home and Activity. In the Neighbourhood view, you can see yourself in the centre of the screen as an XO icon, with other XOs in range of the wireless also so depicted. Access points -- and mesh network channels -- are shown as various colours of circle, sprinkled randomly about the screen and filled in according to their strength. Clicking on one of these starts a connection process. Group shows only you and your within-range friends, while Home shows you surrounded by your running tasks. It's clear, clean and quick to learn.

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