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The OLPC XO laptop

Is the mean, green thing hacker-friendly?

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Installing the Helix-based Watch and Listen activity allows both MP3 and OGG files to play, but not streaming audio. It doesn't support playlists, despite having buttons for previous and next track.

The Fedora Core Linux installation includes the Totem media player, but it's not integrated into the Sugar UI or Journal. It also doesn't include MP3 or AVI codecs. The OLPC Wiki claims this is for legal reasons, but why can they include a MP3 codec for Etoys and Watch and Listen, but not Totem? They also observe that some codecs are legal to distribute in some countries and not others, so the codecs installed will vary by country.

XO Possessed

A couple of days after this review was finished, the XO started acting... well... wonky. Typing produced weird behavior such as the screen rotating, apps closing and the GUI restarting - which made the laptop useless. The BIOS diagnostics have a visual keyboard map which showed that the ALT key was coming on at random times. This is a known problem, and OLPC recommends that owners RMA their laptops.

I called for an RMA number and after a half hour on hold, was told it could take up to a month to fix, plus 2-4 weeks shipping, but keyboard issues typically had faster turn around times. This raises some questions about support: will the 30-day warranty be extended after repairs, or for customers who develop the problem after the warranty expires? What about laptops already shipped to third-world countries? OLPC shouldn’t be faulted for a batch of bad keyboards, but how it handles the warranty will be telling.

Verdict

There's a lot to like about the XO laptop. It's tough, it's great as an eBook reader, it has a big (for its category), high resolution screen. It runs silent and cool, has good battery life, and the clean design of the Sugar interface is easy to use.

But several areas need work.

The browser should be replaced by Firefox, and the Journal needs to support folders to match how people actually organise their work and play. Multimedia performance needs to be improved, which can hopefully be done through software. The XO needs a unified media player that supports all media types, along with playlists, and should be integrated with the UI.

Most of these changes come down to the OLPC organisation placing more emphasis on real-world usability and less on their ideals of a perfect interface. If they can manage to do this, the XO laptop could be a great tool for learning and play.

Brian Hurley has been a system administrator since 1984, and involved in internet radio since 1999. He lives in Detroit, Michigan.

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