Sunday December 23, 2007

XO Laptop - First Impressions

Educational. Fun. Technically Cool. Charitable. Deductible. What's not to like?

My XO Laptop arrived on Thursday. I ordered through the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) "Give One, Get One" program. (Hurry! Current program ends Dec 31).

We opened the box when we got home on Thursday evening, popped in the battery, and fired it up. Here are my early impressions.

Xo Snap

The laptop itself is very cute. With the bright green and white color scheme and the sealed rubber-membrane keyboard, it has a definite "Your Child's First Laptop" look about it. But inside this is a real computer.

Features:

  • x86-compatible processor
  • 256 MB dynamic RAM
  • 1024 MB SLC NAND flash (no rotating media)
  • 7.5” dual-mode liquid crystal display (grayscale (B&W) reflective mode for outdoor use—(sunlight-readable); and color backlit mode for indoor use)
  • touchpad
  • integrated video camera
  • audio
  • three USB Type-2 connectors
  • SD Card expansion slot
  • Wireless Networking
  • Linux

Out of the Box

The keyboard has a surprisingly reasonable feel. For a "chicklet keyboard", it's not half bad, although it is small. I don't touch type so your mileage may vary if you do. If you can't stand it, you can add an external USB keyboard and/or mouse.

The user interface is surprisingly under-documented. This is my first, last, and largest complaint. The very first prompt, before you can do anything else, is NOT DOCUMENTED and is also confusing. (details below...).

If I hadn't read in the OLPC Wiki that there was an SD expansion card slot, I would never have known. Locating the slot takes effort even when you know it's there! Inserting a card is nontrivial.

The OLPC Project created a new UI, called "Sugar", just for the XO. They have Interface Guidelines. Rah. Unfortunately, I think they made some very poor design choices. I also think the UI didn't get nearly enough early review.

The OLPC still has a definite "Beta" feel to it.

The project shows a lot of promise.

Getting Started

When you boot up for the first time, the first thing you see (after the cute startup animation) is a prompt for "Your name". That's actually a prompt for a nickname for the computer, but there's no documentation for this and no way of knowing if you can change it later. It turns out you can change it later... but you must do so from the terminal command line.

Immediately after the "name" prompt, you get a chance to choose the color scheme. I found myself clicking through the myriad choices until my head began to swim. Eventually, I just picked one to make it stop. If you decide later that you don't like your initial choice, you can change it. But, again, the only way to make the change is from the command line.

I have to ask... they wrote a UI for this. Why can't I use it to change the colors? I could understand using the terminal to launch the color-change program. I could understand that they haven't written a System Preferences "control panel" yet. But .... they wrote a one-time UI? A UI that only runs at initial startup and can't be launched again? That's too weird.

Getting Connected

The next thing you're supposed to do is "Get Connected". Again, I have complaints about the UI design choices.

Network choices are found in the "Neighborhood" view. Available network access points (including local "mesh" networks) are represented by colored circles.

Connect
Connect?
Connecting
Connecting...
Connected-Ap
Connected

You connect by clicking on one of the access point circles. The center of the circle will blink while the laptop is trying to connect. Once you are connected, the rim of the circle turns white. Or not (if you don't succeed).

Unfortunately, the white rim isn't as easy to distinguish as it might be, I would have preferred something more obvious, perhaps a change in shape from circle to square, or a differently-colored dot in the center of the circle.

Then there was the ease of making the connection itself. The docs on the Wiki (now changed) assume that an "Apple Access Point" is type WEP. Mine isn't; it's WPA. It took a lot of reading and searching to figure that out, then find what I needed to do to get connected. I also had to edit the downloadable connect script (details). ;-(

Anyone following in my footsteps will have a somewhat easier time. The online docs are in a wiki and I've updated them.

Wifi Key Required I also found a glaring UI bug in the connection dialog (at right). If the network access point is secure, i.e. requires a "key", you'll see a dialog like this, with a space for the password, a cancel button, and an OK button — all very "normal".

Look closely at the Cancel and OK buttons. The cancel button has an X on it. The OK button has a glyph of a right-angle arrow. There's a X key on the keyboard and it does cancel the dialog. However, the glyph on the enter key is a checkmark. The image on the OK button cannot be found on the keyboard.

Sugar

The XO has a user interface, called Sugar, that was designed just for it. Unfortunately, Sugar isn't quite as sweet as I might have hoped.

Home-View For one thing, the "Finder/Explorer" interface, aka "Home" view, is overly sensitive to mouse movement. Snap the cursor to a corner to get choices of environments (Neighborhood, Group, Home) along the top and Activities along the bottom. That's easy. But if you place the cursor anywhere else, including an edge, you go back to what you were doing before and the choices disappear.

Unfortunately, it's very easy for the cursor to bump an edge as you're navigating to an Activity icon. Then, Poof!. the interface changes, the choices of what to click are gone and you get to start over. I've found my finger slipping far too often.

Activities

The XO comes with over a dozen "activities" (i.e., application programs) including a web browser, chat, calculator, word processor, drawing program, Python programming editor, and Linux shell terminal. There's also a button on the keyboard that allows the user to view the programming behind many applications.

I haven't played with many of the activities yet — just the word processor, browser, and terminal so far. I really like the terminal. :-)

You can download new activities from the web.

Along with the applications built into the XO laptop is an ever-growing array of downloadable content and built-in access to popular Web-based applications. This includes Google applications, SimCity, GCompris (a suite of award-winning educational software for children), and hundreds of other applications. There are currently thousands of software developers around the world developing content for the XO. For more information, visit wiki.laptop.org/go/Activities.

I'm looking forward to downloading SimCity.

Overall

My overall impression is that the XO has made a great start. It's not "finished" yet. It has a few very noticeable glitches.. But I think it has promise. Getting it into the hands of techies like myself and others will go a long way to ironing out the bugs, expanding the functionality, and enhancing the documentation. And, you simply can't go wrong with the concept.

One Laptop per Child is an education project, not a laptop project. Our goal is to provide children with access to libraries of knowledge, ideas, experiments, and art. Our hope is that this material will act as a window into the world, complete with examples and references on which to build.

My Favorite "Feature"

I've left this for last because it's literally the last thing you notice. When you reboot (or shutdown) you'll see the screen briefly fill with a long set of Linux console messages. I'm not sure what a child in Nigeria would make of this. As a Unix techie, I was somewhat bemused. :-)

XO Laptop - First Impressions ( in category SciTech , Show & Tell ) - posted at Sun, 23 Dec, 12:20 Pacific | «e»

Comments

We're discussing the xo on a technical mailing list I read. I liked this description from one member (KB).

JT wrote:
> I thought about it, and bought an Asus eee pc ... instead.

It's a curiosity that anyone would think these are in the same product category. Not just you -- lots of my friends are comparing the XO and the Eee.

The XO is - a new UI paradigm, a platform especially for kids, a mesh network node, an artifact intended to cause radical social change.*

The Eee is - a cost-reduced, diskless, mini laptop.

* We won't know for 15 years whether it meets that last goal.


Last night, some friends pointed out that "an 8-year-old probably wouldn't have any problem deciing what to enter at the 'your name' prompt".

That's not the point. The point is that it's not documented. Opening the laptop is documented. Getting connected is documented. In between, however, there is an undocumented step. I'm a obsessive documenter. If it happens, document it.

Besides, what if a teacher decides to set up several XO laptops for a class? We don't want the teacher entering his/her name into every laptop!

I saw the XO at SIGGRAPH this year and had a similar impression; cute, but the software was very rough at the edges.

I opted instead to get an Asus EEE. It's about 2x the cost, 2x the speed and capacity, in a similar form factor. Unlike the XO, the system software is pretty smooth, and it's much more responsive.


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