Thursday, February 07, 2008

Two weeks with the OLPC XO-1

I was able to obtain two OLPC XO-1 via the Developers Program and now had around two weeks to play with them. So where do we start? The look of the machine is somewhere between Fisher Price and the early iBooks, it is not bad at all, but likely won't be the fashion item of the month either. I think it gets the job of looking like a laptop for children done quite nicely and has a quite robust feel to it.

Next thing that one will notice is the weight, while it is at 1.5kg rather light for a laptop, it feels rather heavy for a small laptop. Not so much a problem when it stands on the table or you want to just carry it around, but in eBook/tabet-mode it gets hard to hold the thing for an extended period of time without resting it somewhere.

The keyboard of the machine gets its job done, but it doesn't feel all that great, the rubber keys can require quite a bit of force when you want to make sure that a key got really hit, otherwise you might end up with a missing letter now and then. Its not bad compared to what some PDAs have, but doesn't really come close to a real PC or laptop keyboard. Its size is of course a problem, since you can't fit your fingers on the homerow, but then it wasn't designed for adults, so that doesn't come as a suprise.

The gamepad keys suffer a similar size problem, when you thought the Gamecube dpad was small, think again, this one is even smaller, its really tiny actually. Which comes kind of as a suprise, since Gameboy and such don't really have a much different target audience then the OLPC, yet are far larger. The precision of the dpad is also not exactly great, some directions always end up getting a diagonal into it even when you try to make straight move. That said, I could play through all of SuperTux without any problems, so it gets the job done, at least for that game. And lets not forget that there really isn't another laptop on the market that has a gamepad in the first place.

The webcam gives a surprisingly good picture, even without much light the results are still ok.

The stylus area is currently not supported by any software, but it does report some events via /dev/input/event5, so its actually working.

The touchpad works like most other touchpads, not as good as a mouse or trackball, but gets the job done.

The screens diagonal striping can annoy a little bit in the beginning, but you get used to it. In terms of color it not all that great and its rather view depended. But its resolution is huge, so huge in fact that you can't really run normal applications on the machine without enlarging the font by factor 2 first. And in terms of sunlight readability it likely kicks most other laptops ass. The only downside of the sunlight-readable screen is that it really needs sunlight, in-door its not all that usable and you will likely use the backlight.

The biggest problem right now with the machine is its software, which really doesn't feel like a 1.0, but more like a 0.3 or so. There are a lot of feature and applications that aren't implemented or incomplete right now. The stylus area doesn't even have a demo app, there isn't a usable eBook reader aside from the webbrowser and a Evince port and lots of stuff feels rather slow due to the lack of optimizations, especially application startup, even so the machine itself is quite fast. The Journal, which replaces a classical filesystem for most part, also lacks more then a few features to be usable. Aside from the pure feature side the power consumption is likely the area where you notice the incompleteness of the software first, currently it runs for around 3 hours, far from the once advertised 20 hours. However, there is still lots of room for optimizations and some power saving features aren't even activated yet.

The incompleteness aside, Sugar does work great. Having all apps starting in full screen and having all Window management problems solved that way really gives a very smooth experience, since things will just work and you don't have to waste your time with shifting Windows around.

Don't get me wrong. While the machine does have some small problems, none of them is really a show-stopper and most will likely be fixed in the coming month in software. As an eBook reader the machine is, aside from the lack of proper software, near perfect. You simply don't get another device in this size and price range that has a rotatable sunlight readable screen along with solid gamepad buttons. And while the screen might not be ePaper like in readablity, it gets pretty damn close with its 200dpi, so close in fact that I have some serious doubt if ePaper will ever have widespread success. Unlike ePaper this screen doesn't have a problem giving you quick refresh rates. So while ePaper will have large trouble displaying some webpages this screen doesn't and its also cheaper.

The biggest downside of the OLPC currently is simply that you can't buy it. G1G1 isn't available in Europe and no longer available via G1G1 in the USA. And as great as the machine is, $400 is quite pricey, so I really hope that the machine will see a regular release. At $200 it kind of really becomes a must-by if you ever wanted an eBook reader, especially one that is completly open, not DRM looked and can browse webpages and play games too.

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