Blogging from an XO

The machine had arrived unceremoniously after New Year’s– it was sitting there in a box when we came back from vacation. Intended as a gift for my better half that arrived just a few days too late for the holidays, it was in time for all the controversy surrounding Intel parting ways with the OLPC group.

After installing the battery and charging for the first time, we had a chance to experiment briefly. Her initial impressions were that it was surprisingly unintuitive as far as user interface goes. This blogger agrees: after being used to a standard Windows/OS-X/Ubuntu system, the XO involves a steep learning curve. And that may be perfectly reasonable beause the true target audience for this laptop will be coming to the table with no pre-conceived notions of what a personal computer ought to look like. In that sense the XO is that rare opportunity for system designers: a chance to start with a clean slate, no backwards compatibility, not even the faintest worry about “sideways compatibility” to interop with the applications rest of the world is using, except for the ubiquitious web itself. Perhaps the only familiar moment aside from a stripped down web-browser was launching a command line shell to see which standard utilities were available. Python, ssh, grep: check. ifconfig, emacs, gcc: no dice.

One big problem initially was getting wireless networking. The graphical “neighborhood view” is a great way to visualize other peers and infrastructure access points but the XO could not associate with our DLink draft-N router. A quick Google search revealed that the particular build that ships with this version does not support WPA out of the box. Luckily a work-around was available in the form of a shell script that manually adds the information to config files.

After getting net access and trying out the other included applications, the XO sat on the shelf for a while until the blogger decided to borrow it for a test-drive today. Writing this post can be described in one word as frustrating. The keyboard is dimunitive, which is understandable considering it is designed for children. But it also lacks feedback because of the water-proofing  covering the entire layout in an uninterrupted sheet of plastic.  Biggest challenge to text-editing is that the system is awfully slow: it makes Vista feel like a streamlined catamaran by comparion. Of all things simple UI tasks such as typing and clicking should be the times when CPU speed does not matter. After all a user can’t “outclick” or “outtype” a modern CPU running at hundreds of megahertz. Apparently on the XO they can: there is noticeable delay between typing and having the words  appear in the WordPress edit box. (A problem aggravated by the fact that on an unfamiliar keyboard  half the time the first attempt at typing contains a typo.)

There is a lot more to write about the XO but it is clear that these future posts are best not authored on the XO itself.


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