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The One That Makes the World a Better Place: OLPC XO

If you've been following any tech or gadget news at all in the last two years, then you shouldn't really need an explanation on the OLPC XO, but here it goes again anyway. The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO started life as a proposed $100 laptop. The small green and white PC is targeted at children in developing nations to help them get the education they need and connect them to the rest of the world.

How it works: The laptop does just about everything any other Linux-based PC can do, such as Web browsing, word processing, games, music, and more. But it's got some extra features that seem suite to the needs of developing nations -- for example, the laptop can also function as an ultra low power Wi-Fi repeater, which means it can potentially extend the range of Internet connections for miles, provided there is a long enough chain of interconnected OLPCs. This can prove to be useful in sparsely-populated rural areas that lack wired Internet infrastructure.

What we like: There is plenty to like about this little device beyond the noble goals of its creators. On the software side, the proprietary Sugar interface is one of the few truly innovative reinventions of the desktop. Describing Sugar and all the ways in which it's different from the standard Windows or Mac OSX desktop interface could fill a lengthy post all on its own. Basically ,Sugar eschews the traditional desktop metaphor in favor of a simple intuitive interface with a focus on social networking and collaboration.

The menu at the bottom of the main or 'Home' screen where you launch applications looks just like the Mac dock, but that's pretty much where the similarities end. Instead of a "start" menu and desktop, Sugar has a series of views, which are essentially different panels with different choices for programs and other computing activities. The "neighborhood" view, for example, allows you to connect to wireless networks as well as find other XO users and join activities. The "friends" view cuts the neighborhood view down to a more manageable size, showing only your friends and allowing you to invite them to chat or collaborate with you. The "home" view allows you to launch or switch applications. Active applications are shown in a ring around a centered icon that represents you, rather than on a traditional task bar. Lastly, the "application" view which shows the last active application.

Another major departure from computing as you know it is the Journal. The XO has no file manager like Windows Explorer (MyComputer) or Mac OS X's Finder. Instead of drives or folders, the Journal is a chronological list of all files downloaded, applications installed, and activities launched. You navigate by narrowing your options via the search box at the top. Have you installed an application you no longer want? No problem, just delete its entry in the Journal. Trying to track down a Web site you visited three months ago? Search the Journal and you can resume your Browse session right where you left off.

That collaboration also extends beyond the usual chat or document sharing that most office workers are used to. Students can create music together in a suite of applications, called Tam Tam, by adding melodies and rhythms to a group-composed song even if they're in different countries, or even browse the 'Net together from separate computers in a shared browser window.

As for hardware, this bundle of innovations doesn't disappoint. The dual mode (regular color LCD and high resolution black-and-white sunlight readable mode) screen is brighter and clearer than most photos would lead you believe, though it'll never rival your glossy wide screen MacBook Pro. The sunlight readable mode is engaged when you turn the brightness all the way down. The backlight is turned off and the screen enters a reflective black and white mode that is not only readable in direct sunlight, but so sharp it looks like print on a page.

The laptop is almost indestructible. We dropped it a couple of feet on to ceramic tiles... not on purpose, and spilled chicken grease on it (also not on purpose), and it didn't break, not even a scratch. The laptop is cased in heavy duty plastic and completely sealed to keep dust and liquids out.

What we don't: This thing is sloooooooooooowwww. So slow, in fact, that most people in the U.S. who got one will never use it for anything beyond showing off how cool it is. The browser takes almost 30 seconds to load, and bringing up Gmail with chat can take almost a whole minute.

Slowing up the whole process even more is the tiny, squishy keyboard. Anyone with fingers bigger than a 4-year-old's will have trouble typing on this thing, and tactile feedback is almost nonexistent -- it's hard to tell whether or not the keyboard has registered your key press until the letter shows up on screen, often a few seconds after you've hit the key.

Verdict:
Despite its shortcomings, and some bugs (such as the cursor occasionally jumping across the screen) that still need ironing out, the OLPC's innovative hardware, software, ruggedness, and, of course, low price may deliver on the promise of bringing computers and the Internet to those in the most remote and destitute parts of the world. And if you're lucky to find one (see next entry), you'll be able to partake in its innovative design and unique apps.

Price:
Well, here's the bad news. At this point, it doesn't really matter if you want one or not, if you didn't jump on the Give 1 Get 1 bandwagon back in December, you're out of luck... until they start showing up on eBay, though, you can still donate money to the cause at laptop.org. Governments can buy them in bulk for $188 apiece.

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