Monday, December 24, 2007

Review of the XO computer

I have, at one time or another, owned every computer model ever made - from the TRS-80 and Commodore PET computers, to computers that run DOS and/or Windows, to the Apple e-mate and the Macintosh. As an educational technologist, if it had educational potential I tried it. So it is with great enthusiasm that I am reviewing the XO computer from One Laptop per Child (OLPC).

In the next few paragraphs I will make my case for why this is the most evolved platform ever produced for education. 

I won't bore you with all of the hardware specs. You can get those on the XO Web site. What is important to note is that from a usability point of view this is an immensely functional computer. It boots up rapidly (faster than Windows or a Mac) and it switches neatly between Activities (in the XO world, programs are called Activities). It multi-tasks, so you can have multiple programs running simultaneously. I pushed it to the limit with about 6 applications running at the same time. Generally I can imagine a child running 4 or 5 at a time - chat, the browser, a word processor, and a music program, for example. The speed of any application was more than adequate. It did not even test the patience of my frenzied adult friends!

Greatest hardware benefit: At 1200 x 900 pixel resolution and 200 dots per inch the screen resolution rivals that of my Macintosh laptop and even beats the iPhone (just to put it into perspective). So even though the screen is only 7 inches measured diagonally it holds a good deal of information and is easy to read.

A hardware weakness: The main weakness is the keyboard. It is covered by a waterproof sheath which makes it impervious to spills. This is nice except that it makes it less responsive than traditional keys. This really only affects typing activities - not drawing, programming, etc. and I believe that its benefits outweigh the disadvantages. In a future version of the XO I would like to see the keyboard eliminated and replaced by a touch screen similar to the iPhone. Now getting that down to $100.00 will be a challenge! Another solution to keyboard responsiveness would be if somehow the sensitivity of the keyboard could be adjusted via software. If the keyboard had a lighter touch I imagine that typing speed would improve considerably.

The user interface: Finally someone has moved us away from the desktop interface! The desktop metaphor, invented by Xerox and adopted by Apple and by Microsoft, has been useful because it allowed people to understand computers when computers were very new. Nevertheless this metaphor has major flaws. One such flaw is that the concept of embedded folders still eludes many users. In real life people simply do not place folders within folders! The XO has eliminated the idea of folders and/or of directories.

The XO re-invents the human-computer interface. All computer programs are called Activities. Activities and data are not separated so when you open a document the application automatically loads. When you stop the document, your work is automatically saved and the application that runs it quits. In the meantime, the Journal records every thing you do so you can return to any document at any time by simply clicking on the line item that represents what it is that you were doing.

Your main interface to the XO is the Home page which shows your custom avatar, currently operating Activities, battery life, and the network you are connected to. At the bottom of the screen an Activities bar shows all the Activities that are available to you. It is ultimately simple and understandable. There are no application folders or files to worry about. If you want to find a document, you just go to the Journal and search for an Activity by typing its name, a portion of its name, or a keyword that you yourself entered. It is as easy as searching in Google.

Activities: The XO is student-centered. It focuses on things that children will want to do, thus all applications or documents are just called Activities. The user finds an Activity and runs it. All Activities are designed with some form of collaboration in mind. Children can, with a simple click, write and edit a document together, share Internet bookmarks, chat, and much more. Activities are designed to allow students to participate in the creation process. The XO includes powerful tools for users to create their own simulations and programs taking learning to a whole new level of creative thinking and problem solving.

Software weaknesses: A great computer begets greater usage which begets the need for more memory and better search tools. I can see the need for a way to globally eliminate un-needed Activities. There are still a number of rough edges in the software. For example, there is no system-wide control panel, unless you use the built-in Linux control panel, and some applications have un-expectantly quit on me. On the other hand the system itself has never crashed and I haven't lost anything. This is an amazing computer in a small package!

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6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is a bunch of marketing crap the OLPC XO computer sucks.

6:49 PM  
Blogger Emiliano De Laurentiis said...

Since I have no financial interests in OLPC I cannot see how you could call this "marketing crap." I believe that my review is fair and balanced. Have you used an XO? What don't you like about it?

8:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this review (I followed the link from the Wired.com review). Your description was particularly helpful to me because my technical knowledge and understanding of technical terms is limited. I teach in a high school and will share your description with my students. I hope the OLPC project will succeed--I fear the technical aspect while wonderful, is threatening to more established competitors who have greater political clout and will work to undercut its progress from design to implementation.

Steve H.
Ann Arbor, Mi.

7:48 PM  
Blogger Emiliano De Laurentiis said...

I appreciate your comments. Can you please provide a link to where you saw this review referenced in Wired.com?

11:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yes , as another xo computer owner i also say that i think the xo is a paper weight... and the network doesn't work because not enough people are close enough to interact so it doesn't matter anyways unless u spring for WiFi... and then when you do it can handle certain websites because the format wont support the media... bottom line the xo sucks horribly, i think the company is scamming kids out of computers on the other end anyway...

12:20 PM  
Anonymous Shopping Cart said...

Your article prove helpful because i have no technical skill and OLPC is very helpful for me.

7:31 AM  

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