Wednesday, January 09, 2008

XO Laptop, part 2

Now that I've had a chance to play with it a bit more, a few more impressions. I've been thinking about the "but what's it good for?" question, as well, and I'll have more to say on that later.

Everything is terribly slow
Part of this is because a lot of the UI and the Activities (applications) are written in Python. I understand that the goal of tinker-ability is trumping the desire for a snappy UI, but I fear that children (who aren't after all, known for their great patience) will get bored when they try to do something, and all they get is a blinking icon on the screen for a minute or more.

A co-worker says that he pulled his out of the box, turned it on, tried to use it for a while, decided it was unusable, and put it back in the box. I don't think it's that bad, but performance is definitely an issue.

One of the first things I tried was launching each of the activities, to see what each one was. That lead to the discovery that you really don't want to launch multiple activities at the same time. It was probably 5-10 minutes before the laptop was responsive again. They ought to consider throttling this in the shell, because I'd bet your average 8 year old is going to do just that when they use it for the first time.

Given that Psyco exists, I don't know why it's not installed on the XO to begin with. I couldn't find any indication on the OLPC Wiki that anybody had actually tried it. I'll try building a version and enabling it for a few applications to see what impact that has.

Great wireless sensitivity/range
I haven't had a chance to use the mesh networking features yet (due to lack of another XO, or a School Server to hook up to. But the standard 802.11b networking gets a substantially stronger signal than my conventional Dell laptop does.

Lots of features are still "to be implemented"
Totally understandable, I think. The hardware seems to be pretty well worked out, the software is just lagging behind (and who hasn't seen that on a project?). For example: there are about half a dozen keys on the keyboard for various special features. about half of them do nothing at all. There's a "view source" key combination, which doesn't do anything, presumably because the "Develop" activity isn't finished yet. So much for "easy to tinker", though...

Relatively clean User Interface
I admit it - I'm a fan of minimalist UI "chrome". I liked Nextstep, I liked the old Mac OS, I even liked CDE. The modern UI trend toward glossy reflective surfaces and transparency effects feels like a major step backwards in usability to me.

The OLPC "Sugar" interface is largely monochrome, and very simple. Presumably at least part of this is due to the limitations of the system (especially the requirement to be usable in black-and-white mode), but overall, it's pretty pleasing.

The camera and microphone work well
I can't wait to see what the kids will do with this. It's only camera-phone quality, but I think that'll be a popular feature.

Many of the activities are a little impenetrable
Unfortunately, many of the included activities are a bit hard to get started in. The music stuff is particularly bad. I understand that a full user-manual for these applications is a bit much to expect, but trying to "drive" a multi-track sequencing application without any documentation or online help, and with only icons in the user interface, can get a little frustrating.

Too many programming environments
The standard install comes with Etoys, Pippy, and TurtleArt - development environments for Squeak Smalltalk, Python, and some kind of "graphical" language, respectively. Rather than three different programming environments, I would have liked to see more "out of the box" usable software.

Friday, January 04, 2008

XO laptop mini-review

My first hours with the XO laptop

Back when the One Laptop Per Child Foundation was running their "give one, get one" promotion, I signed up to donate a laptop, and get one for myself. I figured I could do some good, and get a chance to see what it's all about.

Initial impressions:


t's small - really small. Seems more deserving of the "notebook" designation, rather than calling it a "laptop". It'd probably fit well on a child's lap, though.

The exterior case feels very solidly constructed, and has a built-in handle. It reminds of my original iBook. It does look a little like a toy, but that impression goes away pretty rapidly once you start using it.

The keyboard is a rubber dome "chiclet" keyboard of the sort you might have found on inexpensive home computers in the 1980's in the USA. It's not too hard to type on, with the exception of the "space bar", which seems to be made up of 10 or so individual switches, and my thumb keeps hitting it between the individual switches.
The screen is very clear and readable. I haven't used it in black & white mode very much yet, but it's readable in a (fairly bright) room with the backlight off. Not bad at all.

The user interface is a little weird, if you're used to a standard PC operating system interface. I think someone who's coming to it with no preconceptions would find it fairly easy to get started.

It's running Ubuntu Linux, but you'd never know it from looking at the UI. Everything uses just one mouse button - none of the right-click, middle-click crap from KDE.

The "window manager" doesn't so much manage windows as screens - most of the applications run in full-screen mode, to make better use of the low resolution screen.

The web browser is plain but functional. I'm using it to type this entry, as a matter of fact. So far the only problem is that the cursor disappears in some text boxes. That makes it a little harder to edit text than it should be. Might be a Blogger Javascript problem, I'll see if it come up elsewhere.

I'll report back with an update after I've tried out the other included applications.