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The OLPC XO laptop

Is the mean, green thing hacker-friendly?


When the XO boots, it cycles through all unsecured access points in range until it finds one it can connect to. To choose one manually, click on the Neighborhood icon then click the desired access point. If the AP is secured, it will prompt for a password. To stop communication with an access point, hover the mouse over the AP's icon and click Disconnect.

XO mesh networking - neighborhood view

XO's neighborhood view
Click to enlarge

The XO couldn't initially see my Actiontec GT704-WG DSL router. Switching the ESSID from 9 to 5 allowed the XO find it and connect. There were reports on the OLPC Wiki about similar connectivity issues with other routers.

The Journal

The Journal is the XO's combined file manager and activity log. It shows a timed-based view of activities performed, as well as saved files.

The XO's main journal view

The XO's main journal view

Along the bottom of the screen are icons showing the Journal view, along with an inserted USB drive and SD card. To show a device's contents, click on the device. To copy a file, click and drag it onto the target device's icon. To remove a device, hover the mouse over it and select Unmount.

To open a file, click the gray button on the far right. The Journal will open it in the default activity for that file type.

To perform other file actions, click on the entry's title.

The XO: Start working from the journal - click to enlarge

The XO: Start working from the journal
Click to enlarge

The top icons, left to right are: Go Back to Journal, Erase, Copy to Clipboard or other device, and Resume (open). To open a file in a non-default activity, hover the mouse over the Resume icon to list other applications that can open the file and click on one.

Clicking the star marks an item as a Favorite. Typing in the text box renames a file. Below the filename is a preview section. The preview is blank initially and will be generated the first time the item is opened from the Journal. Finally, there are text fields for Description and Tags.

The observant reader will notice that there are no folders in the Journal. The OLPC foundation has a disdain for file system hierarchies, preferring a time- and activity based metaphor. If the Journal opens a USB or SD card that has folders, it will show a listing of all files on the device as one flat list.

The problem with this approach is that the underlying computer is very much based on a hierarchical file system. Since the children are encouraged by the system to view source code and to create their own programs, they'll have to learn how the file system works anyway. The OLPC folk argue that children don't think like adults, but the concept of putting stuff in a container to keep it organized is as useful to a developing-world child as it is to a first-world adult.

The idea of an activity-based Journal has merits, but combining it with file storage is very confusing. If the user saves a document ten times, there will be ten separate entries (and copies) in the Journal. Consider how hard it would be to find a file in a journal with dozens of pictures, MP3s, text files, etc mixed in with a list of every program executed. The Journal does allow filtering by activity/object type and access time, but this is unreliable. For example, filtering for audio or video failed to show any MP3, Ogg or AVI files.

The built-in activities don't allow files to be opened from within a program. Instead, the Journal must be used to open files one at a time. To listen to music, click on a song file in the Journal and it will launch a player. When it is finished, close the app, then switch back to the Journal and repeat for the next song. No playlists or photo albums here, folks.

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