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The Green Machine aka XO laptop from OLPC

You’ve probably been wondering where I’ve been. (If you haven’t missed me, I don’t want to know.)

I’ve been ensorceled by the Green Machine. It arrived December 21st, and since then I’ve done nothing but play with it. My late batch of Christmas messages never went out, my laundry didn’t get done, and I ate a lot of pizza.

XO laptop with ballpoint pen for scale

I’m talking about the little laptop designed at MIT for use in schools with minimal resources. The XO of One Laptop Per Child fame. It has a revolutionary screen, many-hours-long battery life, an unusual sealed small keyboard, an even more unusual novel operating system, and a truly revolutionary price. For a while, OLPC gave geeks in North America (why not the world, nobody has ever understood) the opportunity to buy two for $400. One of the two is then donated to a school where it’s actually needed.

Within weeks of the announcement, Asus suddenly found it in them to sell a small serviceable laptop for $400. Now I hear word that Everex will have something called a Cloudbook for sale for a few hundred dollars this summer. It has a truly impressive list of specs. The days of having to pay nearly three thousand for a laptop that won’t squash your lap are over, thanks to the XO.

Judging by early reports, the green machine works well for its intended use. There’s the usual crop of naysayers. In the modern, socially conscious version of “Let them eat cake,” they keep insisting that we should make them eat bread. The Third World doesn’t need no high falutin computin while they have starving people to feed. (For one articulate rebuttal, see Bill Thompson.) I can just imagine somebody, say China, applying the same argument to the US. “No. You really don’t need MP3 players until you’ve taken care of all the people dying without medical insurance.” We’d probably get rather bent out of shape.

I, however, did not buy this thing to get educated (although I have plenty to learn). I bought it because it’s the first thing I’ve seen that’s capable of being thrown in a backpack, taken on a hike, and then used for writing when I reach the perfect spot where the muses nest. It’s ++rugged, ++has a 3-5 hour battery life (in the real world!) and a spare battery only costs $10, ++has a sunlight-readable screen (again, in the real world), ++weighs less than two pounds, and ++was affordable. I say “was” because unfortunately the Give One Get One program isn’t being continued for now. It’s another thing nobody can understand. They may be geniuses at MIT, but they’re not distribution geniuses.

It works extraordinarily well for what I want. I’m able to get used to the keyboard (some people aren’t). The mouse needs lots of work, but I’m willing to put up with it because I’m in love. And, as a Linux geek, I can deal with the sudden need to go all command line on the little critter every once in a while.

And then there’s the simple fact that it’s the cutest thing with ears.

laptop with its two wireless antennae back in racing mode the antennae down like floppy ears
ready to go aw-w-w
the antennae straight up

My only real problem was the operating system. I needed to be able to work the way I’m used to, and that involved installing an alternate operating system. I may be a kinda sorta Linux geek, but figuring out how to implement an alternate OS was way beyond me. The only ready-made solution early on was Debian as an upgrade. (The OLPC wiki is a mine of information on everything about the machine.) I was determined to put it on an SD card, messed around for a week, got nowhere, blew up the SD card, and wound up installing it on the XO’s limited memory after all. The alternate OS took up most of the memory and I was Not Happy.

Luckily, figuring out how to put an OS on an SD card is not beyond others who have XOs. Within two weeks, a method of doing what I wanted, installing Ubuntu on an SD card on the XO, was posted in cyberspace. That, by the way, is one of many examples why open source systems, software or hardware, have a huge advantage over proprietary ones. There are tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of people out there solving problems. What that lacks in organization it makes up for in people power. You have to experience it to get it.

the not-so-friendly xubuntu boot screen but it runs the dear old programs and browser I’m used to


Now, here I am with everything just the way I want it, happy as a clam. How often can a mere thing do that for you?


Technorati tags: OLPC, XO, laptop, One Laptop Per Child, ubuntu