Good Deeds Come in Small Laptops

One Laptop Per Child's XO delivers everything it promises -- and a lot more.
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Editor's Note: Gary Krakow is an award-winning journalist whose columns help feed his personal passion for playing with gadgets of all types, shapes and sizes. Stay tuned to this space for more insights on all things tech.

The first computer from the people at One Laptop Per Child is easy to describe but, from the point of view of an adult, a lot more difficult to love.

Basically, the XO is a small, portable laptop computer made for children. It's designed expressly for children who live in Third World countries who are not as technology savvy as U.S-kids. In that respect, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative should be a great success.

For many people who have had contact with modern-day computers, the XO will be rejected on the grounds that it's small, slow and not very good as a business tool.

One Laptop Per Child Not For Grown-Ups

var config = new Array(); config<BRACKET>"videoId"</BRACKET> = 1322221328; config<BRACKET>"playerTag"</BRACKET> = "TSCM Embedded Video Player"; config<BRACKET>"autoStart"</BRACKET> = false; config<BRACKET>"preloadBackColor"</BRACKET> = "#FFFFFF"; config<BRACKET>"useOverlayMenu"</BRACKET> = "false"; config<BRACKET>"width"</BRACKET> = 265; config<BRACKET>"height"</BRACKET> = 255; config<BRACKET>"playerId"</BRACKET> = 1243645856; createExperience(config, 8);

But that's exactly what the OLPC people were aiming for.

The XO is designed for small kids' hands. It measures 9.5 by 9.0 by 1.5 inches and weighs in at 3.3 pounds. In person, it seems heavier than you would expect from its diminutive size. When closed, the device is pretty well sealed off from moisture and dirt. The keyboard has a durable, lime-green rubber membrane protective cover to prolong its life as well.

Our test computer was among the first production units to come off the OLPC assembly line vs. the pre-production models that have been reviewed elsewhere. The test laptop came with two rechargeable batteries and a lime-green power adapter. The XO can also be powered by solar or foot power in places where electricity doesn't exist.

The screen is a 7.5-inch (diagonal) color TFT display with 1200 by 900 pixels. The processor is an

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Geode LX-700 running at a power-saving 433MHz. That chip also doubles as the graphics controller. Standard memory is 256MB. There's no hard drive -- storage is handles by 1024MB of flash. There's also a MMC/SD card slot for additional storage, 3 USB 2.0 ports, a video camera along with microphone in and audio out jacks.

The XO runs on an operating system that can extract the most out of its basic hardware. OLPC decided to use components from

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Fedora Core 6 version of the Linux OS. Applications include a Web browser; a simple document viewer; the AbiWord word processor, an RSS reader, an email client, chat client, VOIP client; a multimedia authoring and playback environment; a music composition toolkit, graphics toolkits, games, and a very addictive music program. (More about that in a minute.)

There is no Ethernet port -- because there aren't many wired networks where the OLPC computers are expected to be used. Instead, 802.11b/g wireless networking is built in. The two lime green Wi-Fi antennas also double as latches, which seal the computer shut and protect the ports. For the record, the Wi-Fi system is one of the best I've seen in any portable computer.

There's also 802.11s networking -- for a feature called mesh networking. The XO can easily communicate with similar devices located nearby -- so that, for instance, many students can communicate with each other in a classroom setting or in a village -- without needing a high-speed Internet connection or a Wi-Fi router.

The graphical interface is designed to be simple to understand for kids despite differences in language and previous computer operating experience. It is very basic-looking at first glance, but is quite robust; plus it's easy to understand and master.

As a teaching/learning tool, the XO passes all of our tests with flying colors. While not the fastest laptop on the block, the OLPC delivers everything it promises -- and a lot more.

We selected three children, all with previous computer experience, to field-test our unit. While there were some gripes about the speed at which some programs and Web pages loaded, there also was great praise for some of the software -- especially the TamTam music program. If parents hadn't intervened, the kids would still be taking turns playing with the XO. And that's exactly the point.

As for price, OLPC's XO is currently available as part of the "Give One, Get One" program, which ends on Dec. 31. You pay $400 so that an XO computer will be sent to a child in a developing country. You also get a second XO computer to give to a child of your choice. Not only do you get a $200 tax deduction, but you'll also be doing something wonderful for two young citizens of this planet.

With 34 years experience as a journalist -- the last 27 with NBC -- Gary Krakow has seen all the best and worst technology that's come along. Gary joined MSNBC.com before it actually went online in July 1996. He produced and anchored the first live Webcast of a presidential election in November 1996. With a background as a gadget freak, audiophile and ham radio operator, Krakow started writing reviews for both Audio and Stereophile Magazines in the 80s. Once at MSNBC.com, Krakow started writing a column to help feed his personal passion for playing with gadgets of all types, shapes and sizes. Within a short time, that column became a major force in many electronics industries -- audio, video, photography, GPS and cell phones. Readership soared, and manufacturers told him they had actual proof that a positive review in his column sold thousands of their products. Many electronics manufacturers have used quotes from his reviews in their sales literature as well as on their Web sites. There have also been a few awards too, including Emmys in the 70s, 80s and 90s.