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One Laptop Per Child dumps AMD for VIA

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The One Laptop Per Child folks have found new brains for the $199 laptop that wants to change the world.

OLPC will keep the look and feel of its current XO laptop (which we reviewed last January), but will replace its end-of-the-line AMD Geode LX-700 with a low-power VIA C7-M. The Geode was x86-compatible, and so is the C7-M.

The "refresh" was announced by John Watlington, OLPC's hardware-development chief, and it answers the question that many OLPC-watchers had been asking since it became clear late last year that AMD wasn't going to compete in the low end of the netbook market. The writing was on the wall: The Geode line was not going to enjoy any further development.

Not only is the OLPC group moving to a new, equally power-miserly processor, it's using the switch as an opportunity to give other elements of the XO a hefty upgrade. The new version, XO 1.5, will look the same as its predecessor - we'll have to wait until XO 2.0 to see if the next offering will be a less jarring-but-unmistakable green - but inside will be a number of welcome improvements.

Perhaps even more important than the C7-M will be its support chip, the VIA VX855 Media System Processor. This low-power, small footprint chip provides DirectX 9.0-capable graphics, eight-channel 192kHz HD audio, support for two DDR2 memory channels, and hardware acceleration for assorted video codecs, including H.264, MPEG-2/4, DivX, and WMV9. According to VIA, the VX855 is capable of "smooth playback of high bit-rate 1080p HD video."

There will be more room inside to store audio and video as well. The original XO had a 1GB flash drive. The new version will come with either 4GB or 8GB. RAM will be boosted from a meager 256MB to 1GB, and the wireless networking hardware will be upgraded to a 400mW Marvell 88W8686 and made field-replaceable.

OLPC is also working with the manufacturer of their laptop's display, PixelQi, to improve its brightness. After all, not every kid is fortunate enough to go to school indoors.

You've got to hand it to OLPC. They've endured layoffs, doubts from folks who suggest that cheap netbooks are just as good, and competition from companies who tout virtualization as a better way to get more kids in front of more screens.

Through it all, the good people at OLPC have kept their laser focus on empowering kids in the developing world. Well, at least when they're not building hella-sexy electric motorcycles. ®

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