Impressions of an XO laptop

I’ve had two or three days to look over my XO and I’ll admit up front that I really love it. I don’t know all the ins and outs of it, and it will take me some time to get used to the way things work, but I believe I’ll be keeping this one for a very long time.

At this point I do have some reservations about certain things, as well as some big thumbs up for the people that put it together. I’ll list what I see as the downsides first, that way I can close on a positive note. Because no matter what negative things I might say, I really really like this little machine.

If I could put my finger on one thing that I really didn’t care for, it would probably be overall system speed. Start times are around two minutes, and programs can take as long as 30 seconds to load sometimes, depending on what they are. I know this is an underpowered, special breed of machine, but even with those concessions, it’s still rather sluggish to me.

I say that knowing full well that I am a confessed speed freak, with most of my spare time spent hot-wiring (metaphorically) old machines to run faster. This one is outside my immediate range of experience, but I plan to add it over time, and see what it can do.

The GUI speed might be the drag, and that’s the next thing I would mention. Getting from point to point in Sugar isn’t as direct as I’d like sometimes, but again, that’s because of my perspective. I’m used to Openbox being two clicks away from anything; in Sugar it seems I have to keep jumping back to the home screen to move from Activity to Activity, or just to start another Browser instance.

Along those same lines, I wish file management were a little more intuitive. Part of it might be my newbishness, but to open a sound file, as an example, I have to jump to the Journal, click on the mount icon for the USB drive, find the file I want, resume it, wait for Browser to open … and then the file cues up. If there’s a better way to do it, please, somebody let me in on the secret.

(For stronger file management outside of Sugar’s reach, I’ve installed Midnight Commander out of the repositories. Just FYI. ;) )

Similarly, the Journal seems to be the hub for everything that happens, and moving things in and out of the Journal appears to require python scripts. I don’t mean you have to use python to copy things from the USB to the XO or something like that, but that individual files (for example, something wget’ed from the terminal) apparently have to be force-fed into the Journal to access them from within Sugar. I might be wrong on that though; I’m still new at this.

On top of that, the Journal acts as a record of everything done on the machine. If you take a picture with the Record Activity, it appears in the Journal. If you open Browser, it appears in the Journal. If you install Doom, it appears in the Journal.

It’s a personal quirk of mine, perhaps evolved over years of working with Windows machines, but I really dislike footprints and trails within programs. I disable all histories and most-recently-used lists out of the software I use, and delete them if I can’t. So to have a master application that logs everything I start is a little annoying. I can manually delete those things — and I do — but if there’s a way to avoid that behavior, I’d love it.

Shifting the topic only slightly, I have a slight reservation about Google as the default search engine. I am sure Google has everyone’s best interests at heart, but they’re still a corporation, and they’re still primarily within the demesne of the American political sphere. That uncomfortable juxtaposition aside, I’m not sure I like the idea of underprivileged children in impoverished communities generating revenue for Google each time they search.

I get no ads on Google results pages in Sugar; perhaps they are pre-filtered out at the software level, or perhaps (and I’d love to think this was the case) Google makes a point of removing those ads from searches that come from XO laptops. I have my doubts about that last one; I’m allowed to hope though, aren’t I?

There are some other software points I would mention. The omnipresent .serverauth.* files appear in the home directory, which is easy enough to fix though. Matchbox works great for Sugar, but I don’t think I would use it as a window manager on my own (and it’s not intended for that, if I understand it properly). I also wish there was just a simple audio player, something that can play ogg tracks in sequence, rather than relying on Browser to play a single song at a time. (I installed Sonata off the OLPC wiki, but it doesn’t seem to work.)

Physically speaking, there’s not much to dislike about an XO. I do notice some slower performance on battery; perhaps there’s a power-scaling feature I haven’t found yet, or perhaps it’s my imagination (that occasionally is the case ;) ). The SD card port is a bit inconvenient, but not inaccessible by any stretch.

And there’s something magnetic under the left side palm rest. I set a paper clip on there and it spun around like it was possessed. I know it’s not a big deal, it’s just that I come from the old days when magnets and computers didn’t mix. So don’t set your credit card there.

But that’s about all I can find to fault. And really, most of my “faults” stem from the fact that I am expecting an XO to behave like a normal laptop, from the GUI on down. And that’s the biggest mistake I could make. It’s not a laptop like you buy at your local ベスト電器 — foremost it’s an educational tool, and one of the cutest ones you can get your hands on.

Which brings me to the list of things I like — first and foremost being the overwhelming consensus being that the XO is cute to the nth degree.

Most people who look at it immediately fall in love with it — it has just enough function and just enough kawaii to bridge that middle-ground gap between technology and technophobe. It’s not intimidating whatsoever, the antennae look like rabbit ears and the keyboard is rubberized. The most common question I get is — does it come in pink?

Not that I’m aware of. :)

From my perspective though, the biggest bonus is a dead-easy complete system reinstall. I did one on Saturday just to make sure I understood the process, and I had a fresh, updated system in place in less than 20 minutes. So even if you completely butcher your system, which I intend to do soon, you can have a fresh, brand-spanking-new system in less time than it takes most people to wash the dishes.

There’s more to like beyond the technophiliac’s choice. Fonts are smooth and easy to read, which is interesting since technically, as I understand it, everything is massively oversized. Screen resolution is 1280×900, but you’ll feel like you’re working at 640×480 because of the dimensions of the screen and the size of the letters. But those letters are gorgeous, and easy to read.

I chided Sugar earlier for being somewhat inefficient, but I’ll give those points back now for style. The zoom effects and pulsing startup icons are not only cool, but fun to look at. And while the gray-on-black effects might not appeal to everyone, they’re easy to read and very chic.

There are some points specific to Linux that I think wise. Superuser mode is passwordless, but still there if need be. There is a log manager and an analysis manager built into Sugar, which means a terminal isn’t always necessary just to see how the insides are doing.

And physically speaking, it’s a fantastic looking little laptop. The texture, the weight and the controls are all perfect for a kid or for an adult, the latter mostly because it doesn’t have that silver quasi-professionalism that hovers over everything else at ヤマダ電機. For a child, this thing has to be a blast — particularly for a child who’s never seen a computer before. For an adult, this is a blast — particularly for adults who have seen computers phase through beige, then black, then silver, then white then back to beige again. I haven’t seen a computer that looked like fun since … since. … :|

Perhaps most impressive of anything, physical or cosmetic or functional or otherwise, is that you can get so much done with it. There’s a news reader on here. And a PDF viewer. And a basic image editor. And a sort of a file manager, and camera, and stereo sound, and so on, and so on. This isn’t a spelling game with a pair of cute antenna. This is a laptop, and a very functional one.

But one that’s geared toward children, and that’s what I keep having to remind myself. I sometimes look at it as a kind of a nifty technophiliac gizmo that I can poke and prod and time, like it’s an ugly old laptop. And for me, in a way, it is.

Or at least that’s what I plan for it. I said earlier it was foremost an educational tool, and that’s a fact. The catchphrase at the top of the OLPC wiki is Negroponte’s reminder that it’s an educational project, not a laptop project.

I agree, but only so long as we’re talking about the project. If you got an XO, you know that yes, it’s an educational tool — but it’s also a unique and special laptop.

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1 Response to “Impressions of an XO laptop”


  1. 1 xabbott 2008/01/22 at 5:16 AM

    Thanks for this this in depth write up. I must admit I was most interested in the Google bits.

    “I’m not sure I like the idea of underprivileged children in impoverished communities generating revenue for Google each time they search.”
    Well they they would be generating revenue for anyone they pointed that browser to. Even at the lowest end by increasing the visitor count for stats and investors. Out of the big search companies who would be the best one to point it to? Yahoo, Microsoft, or Google.

    As far as the no Google ads, that’s very interesting. I know they could be filtered out by the browser, for instance with customizegoogle.com. But this was the first I had heard about this as default behavior. I guess they could filter it out by useragent. Could you check what kind of agent string it reports?

    I actually did a little searching to find out if this is mentioned else where. Funny enough they have this screen shot with a Google ad itself.
    http://laptop.org/en/laptop/start/sharing.shtml / http://laptop.org/en/img/browse-4.gif


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