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David Pogue Reviews the XO Laptop 303

Posted by Zonk
from the little-engine-that-could dept.
Maximum Prophet writes "David Pogue, technology reviewer at the New York Times, has taken a first-hand look at the XO laptop, also known as the 'One Laptop Per Child' project, or the '$100 Laptop'. His reaction is very favorable, having tested it out via several criteria. And ultimately, he writes, the laptop is about more than just technology for the people. 'The biggest obstacle to the XO's success is not technology -- it's already a wonder -- but fear. Overseas ministers of education fear that changing the status quo might risk their jobs. Big-name computer makers fear that the XO will steal away an overlooked two-billion-person market. Critics fear that the poorest countries need food, malaria protection and clean water far more than computers. But the XO deserves to overcome those fears. Despite all the obstacles and doubters, O.L.P.C. has come up with a laptop that's tough and simple enough for hot, humid, dusty locales; cool enough to keep young minds engaged, both at school and at home; and open, flexible and collaborative enough to support a million different teaching and learning styles.'"
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David Pogue Reviews the XO Laptop

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  • by elrous0 (869638) * on Thursday October 04, 2007 @04:28PM (#20857593)
    What these well-meaning folks never seem to consider is that not all these kids are going to use their laptops for education and nice stuff like that. A third-world kid, given the internet might well decide to use it for things like scams [cnn.com] (especially when he is exposed to the vast wealth of the first-world) and, of course, porn [reuters.com].
  • by iamacat (583406) on Thursday October 04, 2007 @04:37PM (#20857755)
    After all, children do not stop needing cool, rugged laptops just because they have clean water and no malaria. Many US families are by no means reach and those pedal/crank/cord charging schemes would come very handy on scout trips. It's a bonus that the laptops will not run most viruses or "mature" 3D games. A modest market at somewhat higher price in US will lower costs through mass production as well as directly subsidize free - not even $100 - laptops for truly poor countries.

    The fact that the OLPCs are not offered in US toy stores even before pushing them abroad makes me suspect that they are seriously underpowered machines without much available software and are not as fun and cool as the project leaders would have us think.
  • tradeoffs (Score:3, Interesting)

    by LwPhD (1052842) on Thursday October 04, 2007 @04:42PM (#20857825)

    Despite some of my reservations (some of them in common with Pogue) I really hope that this "little laptop that could" becomes widely adopted. If it is, it will be game changing on so many levels. It is so much more than a teaching tool. Not only will it redefine who gets to participate in the market of ideas, it will change the pricing for laptop prices across the board. Perhaps even quicken the convergence between cell phones, PDAs, laptops, and other media centers. The little device is just wicked cool.

    However, there are some darker sides to it. Online addiction [bbc.co.uk] is epidemic in China. Also, if the OLPC is actually successful, some suggest that their owners would man a CAPTCHA solving army [olpcnews.com].

    In the end, I think these risks are worth the benefits. And wide adoption is the least of the project's worries. It seems as if adoption is taking off a little too slowly.

  • Re:first tits! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by iamacat (583406) on Thursday October 04, 2007 @04:44PM (#20857861)
    Yes, in fact an ideal "change the world" computer should come with a complete schematics. Local tech industry can then get off the ground by manufacturing clones costing way less than $100 and eventually making more powerful versions for adults and even businesses.
  • yeah (Score:3, Interesting)

    by everphilski (877346) on Thursday October 04, 2007 @04:59PM (#20858127) Journal
    virtually all ham radios, even the new ones with the tiny pitch SMT soldered components, come with schematics. I'm on a mailing list for the Yaesu FT-817 [yaesu.com]and people have broken it open to swap out resistors to improve performance. Ham radio operators complain that nowadays we are just 'appliance operators': computer users haven't been experimentalists/hobbyists for the most part for 20+ years, although a few still do tinker. I wonder if it will come full circle someday and computers will be more of a hobbyist build, with schematics and more possibilities.
  • Re:yeah (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 04, 2007 @05:22PM (#20858511)

    I wonder if it will come full circle someday and computers will be more of a hobbyist build, with schematics and more possibilities.
    Perhaps when printed circuits are truely printable circuits. If the technology for using a printer to print out operational circuit "boards" complete with all the ICs, resistors, capactitors etc becomes advanced and inexpensive enough then how many geeks will be able to resist? Especially if the design software is OSS. Greatest hindrances possible would be patent law and printer jambs.
  • Re:first tits! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by timeOday (582209) on Thursday October 04, 2007 @05:51PM (#20858955)
    "There are also three programming environments of different degrees of sophistication. Incredibly, one keystroke reveals the underlying code of almost any XO program or any Web page. Students can not only study how their favorite programs have been written, but even experiment by making changes. (If they make a mess of things, they can restore the original.)" OK, you were asking for open hardware, but still I think that is pretty amazing.
  • Re:yeah (Score:3, Interesting)

    by iamacat (583406) on Thursday October 04, 2007 @05:58PM (#20859029)
    So sounds like you are only waiting for cheaper and more powerful FPGAs? I guess the programming equipment doesn't have to be that cheap - an online service that mails you ones programmed to your schematics would do.
  • by ChaoticCoyote (195677) on Thursday October 04, 2007 @06:00PM (#20859067) Homepage

    I'll be picking up at least one of these machines -- well, two, since if I buy one for $400, they send another one to a kid somewhere who needs it.

    I hope the distribution isn't limited to third-world countries; there are some poor areas right here in the U.S. that could use these machines. Certain Indian reservations come to mind...

    I need a computer with decent outdoor screen and great battery life, one that's cheap enough I can afford to let it sink into a swamp without diving in and fighting the alligators and leeches for it (I do wildlife research in Florida). This machine may be just the ticket.

  • by semiotec (948062) on Thursday October 04, 2007 @06:00PM (#20859073)

    We shouldn't go into this with rose-colored glasses, with blind idealism.

    Yes, but projects like this are driven by idealism in the first place. I suppose there are differences between practical and blind idealism, but while it is important to note the possible pitfalls, it is also equally important not to lose sight of the ideal.

    I hope this is not sounding evangelical already, but I believe the OLPC team (both administrative and technical sides) have considered most if not all the possible eventualities this project may encounter and decided to go ahead with it anyway.

    So there will always be some bad apples, but that's the same everywhere. There are plenty scammers on the internet from first world countries too. Just because people don't live below the poverty line doesn't mean they don't want to acquire wealth in dodgy manners, in fact, they are even more creative at it. Equally, just because people live below the poverty line doesn't mean they all want to scam money from richer folks.

    By some people's standards, I am probably living in the slums. I've heard of people living in styles where their daily expenses are greater than my annual income, but I don't really feel the need to con money out of these "rich" people. At the same time, I know many people who are in much worse financial situations than myself, but I've not felt they are trying to take advantage of me financially.

    I suppose you are arguing that by given technological tools to poor people, we are giving them the possibility to commit offences. But (let me put on my rose-tinted glasses) we are also at the same time enabling others the opportunity to do good, and hopefully in the long run, the good will outweigh the bad.

  • by DragonWriter (970822) on Thursday October 04, 2007 @07:00PM (#20859869)

    You make it sound more complicated than it is. In simple terms: nobody wants to spend a lot of money trying to market a cheap computer that isn't really designed for the U.S. market. Even if Americans wanted to buy it, there's no hope of making any money selling it.


    I don't think "the U.S. market" is the thing that it is not designed for that makes the big difference. Sure, sure, its environment-proof in many ways to meet needs of the developing world, but that kind of kid-proofing isn't far from the needs of young users in the U.S.

    What it isn't designed for that really makes a difference is the individual purchaser market, in the US or elsewhere. Most of the key features of interest to end-users rely on either (a) having regular access to an upstream content supplier, or (b) having lots of other people in your peer group that have a compatible system.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 04, 2007 @07:46PM (#20860381)
    ... fear that their scams will be outsource to Congolese child labor.
  • by IonOtter (629215) on Thursday October 04, 2007 @07:48PM (#20860413) Homepage
    Critics fear that the poorest countries need food, malaria protection and clean water far more than computers.

    "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime." Or teach him to phish and he'll buy a mansion and a couple of Ferraris.

    But seriously, this is a fatuous statement at best, and downright offensive otherwise. Look at what happens when you give these people cellphones and PDA's? How PDA's Are Saving Lives in Africa [slashdot.org]

    Imagine what they can do with computers that not only have some serious processing power, but have multiple interfaces? WiFi, keyboard, mouse, screen and more? Now those PDA's and cellphones can get data from the XO Laptop in their home, send it along the cell network to whomever.

    Right now, the farmers can take pictures of the bugs eating their crops with a PDA or cellphone and send that image to a research facility for the best advice on how to counter the pests. With the XO, they can download a small library of insect pests common to their region and find it themselves, along with the necessary advice.

    THEN they put it out on the XO Net and the PDA/cell network, where it's sent to ALL the farmers in the region. "Look out! Locusts spotted in our village, heading east!"

    Suddenly, farmers and villages can take a proactive approach to their lives.

    Or howabout this?

    "Look out! Soldiers coming from Darfur! Everyone get out, we'll rendezvous at the well and head south!"

    Don't underestimate these people. They may need food, but these devices will help them get their OWN food.
  • by Mr. Slippery (47854) <tms.infamous@net> on Thursday October 04, 2007 @07:56PM (#20860483) Homepage

    Is you Compaq designed to take all sorts of abuse, and be able to withstand water and dust and such?

    The durability and the low power consumption make this very interesting to me. If I can plug my phone into it via a USB port it could be a great connectivity solution while camping. (Festival-type campground camping in rural but not backwoods areas, where I can still get a cell signal, and be reachable in case of a work emergency. Backwoods camping is a different beast, if I'm going to the woods I am gone and don't expect to reach me.)

  • by grcumb (781340) on Thursday October 04, 2007 @08:13PM (#20860707) Homepage Journal

    I won't perpetuate the popular stereotype of straw huts and rampant starvation and disease, but I don't buy into this assumption that African progress is being hindered by a lack of cheap computers, of all things.

    I believe it was Duke Ellington who, when asked what Jazz is, famously said, "Man, if you gotta ask, you ain't never gonna know."

    (And while we're at it: You are aware that the majority of the developing world is not in Africa, I hope?)

    If you don't get why improved access to information is a fundamental prerequisite for development, then the XO will always look like wings on a fish. If, however, you can accept the premise that inadequate communications is one of the biggest stumbling blocks we face when trying to perform any kind of development work, then you will quickly see why people are so excited about this project.

    I met a young doctor yesterday whose initial reaction was almost exactly the same as yours. She's dedicated to health education in the developing world, and she's very good at what she does. When she first read about the work we've been doing in the South Pacific, she immediately scoffed and insisted that we should try getting a steady supply of antibiotics and anti-malarials first. But just last week as she was conducting a walking tour of one of the poorest areas in the country, she realised what she could achieve if most or all of the children there had these laptops. She's since signed on to our national OLPC project as a content developer.

    Solving communications is a necessary - but not sufficient - element of development. The XO doesn't remove the need for vast amounts of material aid, but it makes it so much easier for development projects to actually succeed.

  • by markov_chain (202465) on Thursday October 04, 2007 @08:22PM (#20860839) Homepage
    It's been said already, but let me also add:

    - the screen is readable in daylight
    - the battery lasts 24 hours in "ebook reading" mode (they power the framebuffer only, while suspending the main board)

    Is there another product on the market that does this? If you reply "paper" I will smack you with a fish! :)

    The other neat point is, it hasn't even been designed for first-world grownups to read on the beach.
  • by argent (18001) <peter.slashdot@2006@taronga@com> on Thursday October 04, 2007 @08:41PM (#20861089) Homepage Journal
    Most PDA's don't have the high-resolution displays of good dedicated eBook readers or the XO

    Most dedicated eBook readers are bigger than a hardcover, far too big to slip into your pocket. And my Clie has at least the same resolution as the good eBook readers I've seen, it just has a smaller screen... about half the size of a page of a paperback.

    IMO, most PDA's don't make good e-Book readers.

    IMO, most eBook readers don't make as good eBook readers as PDAs do. Being able to fit into my pocket is for me a non-negotiable feature, and something the size of a hardback book doesn't qualify.

  • by ozmanjusri (601766) <aussie_bob&hotmail,com> on Thursday October 04, 2007 @09:04PM (#20861341) Journal
    After all, isn't one of the big controversies over OLPC / XO the "fear" that the technology will be used irresponsibly?

    No, that's just a bunch of shills/trolls who realise this thing's good enough to make people in the developed world wonder why they're paying so much for the bloated, virus-infested crap they're saddled with.

    When you see whining on the scale of the posts here, about a project with so many clear benefits, scrape a bit deeper and you'll see the usual greed and self-interest driving them.

  • by tedswiss (913333) on Friday October 05, 2007 @07:29AM (#20865601)
    Here, here! Jon "Maddog" Hall spoke at the Ohio Linux Fest last week on "computing off the grid." In his presentation he spoke eloquently on the multitude of good uses for the XO/OLPC program, and the caveats of thinking like a "westerner" in non-western geographies. A very interesting ~45 mins. Here's a bad quality, but understandable MP3 [shrug.com] of his speech.
  • by neomunk (913773) on Friday October 05, 2007 @09:47AM (#20866957)
    And with that, we've come back full circle to the topic of the XO.

    This machine has a high likelihood (if coupled with an internet connection, and that is being developed alongside the XO, IIRC) of creating blogs of starving villages. These WILL get noticed, and WILL receive charitable donations whether solicited or not from bleeding hearts. ('bleeding hearts' not meant derisively)

    Put another way, I think there's a really good chance that these laptops will actually end up feeding people, very possibly more people than the equivalent amount spent on food, by making them more a part of the *OVERUSED EUPHEMISM WARNING* 'global village'. It'll bring their reality into our personal world more.

    For example, when a person's kid tells them that their friend that they talk to over the internet hasn't been to school for 4 days because he/she is too hungry to walk there, said person has a much higher chance of writing a charitable check than seeing the kids on the Save the Children Fund commercials, at least in my opinion.

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