OLPC XO Review and Teardown

by Kevin O'Brien Reads (63,707)

by Kevin O’Brien

A new initiative called One Laptop Per Child has the goal of getting a low-cost, entry-level notebook into the hands of children in developing countries. This notebook is the OLPC-XO which is an extremely basic version of what we might consider a portable computer, but comes in a durable, affordable, and easy-to-use package. In this review I will cover both the internal hardware aspect of this notebook, along with a comparison of it against more common consumer notebooks.


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Specs

  • Processor: 433MHz AMD Geode
  • Display: 7.5" LCD 1200×900 (black and white)/800×600 (color)
  • RAM: 256MB DDR333
  • HD/Storage: 1GB Flash w/ SD Expansion slot
  • Wireless: 802.11b/g and 802.11s Mesh
  • Ports: 3 USB, Headphone, Microphone
  • Battery: 3.1Ah 6.5v
  • AC Adapter: 12v @1.42A, 100-240v switching
  • Dimensions: 9.52 x 8.97 x 1.26"
  • Weight: 3lbs 2.2oz
  • Price $400 with the "Give One, Get One" program ($200 per laptop)

Build and Design

The OLPC is targeted towards children and built for areas with less than perfect operating conditions. It is ruggedized and very sturdy even when compared to a high-end business notebook like a ThinkPad. Almost every inch of this notebook is designed to hold up against being dropped, thrown around, or carried by itself without any case.

The design of the OLPC is very simple, yet incredibly well thought out. The notebook is shaped like a thin lunchbox, with a carrying handle on top. All edges are rounded off, and the flat surfaces of the notebook are textured for easy gripping. Screen latches are nothing like what you would find on a standard notebook, with the WiFi antennas themselves acting as the latch mechanisms.

OLPC engineers even went one step further, making the notebook very easy to repair almost anywhere. With a single small Phillips screwdriver you can tear the entire thing apart to bare components in probably five minutes. The first time I cracked my OLPC open I had it apart in about 10 minutes including the time to take pictures for each step of the process. Another interesting design feature was the inclusion of spare parts. Housed inside the handle section are a number of spare screws for the entire notebook.

Screen

The screen on the OLPC is unique in that it works in both bright and dark environments. You can view the screen in black and white in bright sunlight, and then switch back into color by turning the backlight back on. Another interesting trait of this screen is the resolution changes between modes. In sunlight mode (black and white) it has a resolution of 1200×900, and in color has 800×600.

The reason for the change in resolution is rather technical, so if you want to know more about the screen resolution I’ll direct you to the display section of the OLPC Wiki article.

Compared to even the most basic budget notebook, the OLPC’s screen really falls short in terms of color, viewing angles, and brightness. Just moving a hair off of a direct viewing angle, the screen looks black and white. Colors when in optimal viewing range still don’t compare to any standard notebook, with a very grainy and washed out feel.


Straight view: color. (view large image)

Horizontal view: color … but looks black and white. (view large image)

 

Performance

In the speed sector the OLPC really falls flat on its face. Boot time from a fully powered-off state is 1 minute and 35 seconds. Simple tasks like viewing a basic webpage can also bring the OLPC to its knees. One example would be loading the NotebookReview.com homepage, and scrolling up and down the page. The OLPC has pretty bad lag doing that, and will have mini lockups on long distance scrolls. Following a YouTube link, if you click to play the flash movie the OLPC will become slow and unresponsive, and never actually start to play the video.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The keyboard on the OLPC is not unlike the flexible keyboard we reviewed a while back. Typing passwords or even a website address can be a pain, and it usually requires a few backspaces to correct errors. While it is undoubtedly a very durable keyboard for harsh conditions, I would take the keyboard on my Motorola Q over it.


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The touchpad has a soft matte texture and is fairly responsive. You notice some lag when moving the cursor around, but that could be blamed on system performance, not the touchpad. The touchpad surface is quite large, measuring almost 6" x 2", but only the center section (~2×2") is useable. The touchpad buttons are on the small side, providing shallow feedback.

External Connections


Left side: AC Power, one USB, headphone and microphone jacks. (view large image)


Right side: Two USB ports. (view large image)

Battery Life

With backlight on and the OLPC sitting idle and WiFi enabled it barely reaches 4 hours of battery life. Here is a link to a page on the OLPC’s Wiki with more detailed battery life stats.

Software

Included software is very sparse, but with only 1GB total storage space for operating system and programs, you don’t have much room to work with. While it does have some software you don’t find on standard notebooks (acoustic tape measure, pippy for editing code), the software many people look for is missing or very basic. The word processor resembles wordpad, the chat software has no support for common protocols (AIM, MSN, Yahoo!), and the internet browser is very clunky to use.


"Browse" web browser (view large image)

"Write" word processor (view large image)

"Accoustic Tape Measure" (view large image)

"Naim" chat application (view large image)

 

Advanced users who have access to the internet can pull in updates and additional software through the console, making the notebook somewhat easy to maintain. One of the first programs I installed was Naim, which gave me very basic AIM instant messaging capabilities. While it doesn’t look or feel anything like what people are used to, at least it worked.

Comparison To Other Notebooks

The Asus Eee PC is a good comparison for this notebook, as they are both in the same size and price range (the 2G Surf). While they are designed for different markets, the Eee PC is the only other recent product on the market that could be considered a competitor in most markets.


Asus Eee PC (left), Lenovo T60 (middle) and OLPC XO. (view large image)

Size and weight wise the Eee PC is smaller, and weighs almost 50% less. System speed is also almost no comparison, as the Eee PC has twice the speed, and has double the RAM. Just turning the systems on you notice the huge different between each notebook, with the OLPC starting up in 1m 35s, and the Eee PC starting in 12-20s. System storage space is also double on the Eee PC 2G Surf, with 2GB of space compared to the OLPC’s 1GB.

For average use, the Eee PC is also much easier on the eyes and hands. The screen is much brighter, has vivid color, and the viewing angles are incredible in comparison to the narrow window on the OLPC. The OLPC keyboard is also a pain to use, as the OLPC uses a flexible membrane style keyboard, and the Eee PC uses a compact "standard" keyboard. With the OLPC you need to aim perfectly for keys, and give a solid press for proper recognition. The Eee PC has better tolerance, and as long as you have adjusted to the smaller layout it is much easier and faster to type on. Even the touchpads vary greatly between both machines, with the OLPC having a great deal of lag, and the Eee PC being snappy.

For your average consumer, the OLPC is not really the best notebook to consider for purchase. You can get much better performance and capability from the Asus Eee PC in almost every situation. The key difference though is the Eee PC is not anywhere near as durable, and probably wouldn’t survive in the harsh conditions found in a developing nation.

Conclusion

As a cheap notebook for children to use who have no other prior computer experience this notebook is designed and built very well. It is extremely rugged, offers a simple repair solution, and has incredibly simple to use software. For power users this notebook should not be considered. It runs about as fast as a 4-5 year old notebook, can’t properly render most webpages, and lacks software that many advanced users would need.

Don’t get me wrong, it is fine for a child, but don’t expect to take this notebook as a replacement for your work machine on vacation anytime soon.

Pros

  • Very durable
  • Sunlight readable display
  • Has spare parts inside!

Cons

  • Very slow
  • Heavy in comparison to other similar sized notebooks

Additional Teardown Photos


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