The XO Laptop

from Technology & Learning

The pioneering XO computer balances low price with kid-friendly features.

Company: One Laptop Per Child Foundation (www.laptop.org)

System Requirements: Electricity (though alternate charging methods such as hand crank, solar and wind are/will be available).

Price: Bulk purchase only: 100 XO laptops/$299 each; 1,000 units/$ 249 each; 10,000 units/$199 each.

Pros: Preinstalled applications promote cre ativity and collaboration; built-in digital camera; very rugged; excellent outdoor screen visibility; automatic mesh networking; built-in WiFi; long battery life; low cost.

Cons: Currently no printer support; slow performance; keyboard is an awkward size for adults; scaled-down applications; no Ethernet port.

The One Laptop Per Child Foundation's XO computer is currently available for bulk purchase in the U.S. Designed specifically for children in developing nations, the device balances its low price with a lack of the "bells and whistles" common to mainstream laptops.

For example, the XO does not include an Ethernet port but does have builtin WiFi. And because it targets youngsters, the keyboard is small and kid-friendly—somewhere between the size of a thumb pad and a regular keyboard—which means it's not so friendly for adult-sized fingers. The rugged design is also kid-appropriate, with an integrated handle, rubber protective bumpers, and a display—with excellent visibility outdoors—that can be rotated, tilted, and folded back down for an e-book view.

The XO's parentage is the MIT Media Labs, with its focus on research projects and its historical relationship with Logo computer language, so it's no surprise that both the design and built-in applications promote collaboration, higher-order thinking, and creativity. The mesh networking capability—which reduces the need for an external infrastructure such as the Internet—is a real innovation that encourages team authoring. Other XO users within a certain area automatically appear in a child's "neighborhood" view and can be invited to collaborate on activities via a "share" menu.

The suite of open-source applications includes a word processor, e-book reader, introductory programming application, calculator, turtle art, electronic-circuit construction program, music, and drawing tools. A mediarich authoring game, Internet browser, chat, and other capabilities are also included. The XO supports downloading and installing additional activities, and comes with four external ports, including mic, headphone, power, and USB, plus an SD card reader. Though perfectly functional, applications can be slow-loading and include fewer features than their consumer counterparts. For instance, the AbiWord word processor lets users embed images and insert tables but lacks a spell checker and many formatting options. On the other hand, the built-in digital camera gives students an all-in-one solution for including photos in written documents. Video and audio can also be recorded.

No direct technical support is available, but the Foundation says the machine is so simple, children can learn to troubleshoot for themselves.

The bottom line: view the XO laptop within the context for which it was designed. It's not the fancy computing device students in the U.S. are used to, and it's not the best solution for adults or a business setting. But it's a pioneering effort that's setting a new standard for bridging the digital divide. And that in itself is pretty amazing.

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