A while ago, I wrote a piece outlining why the One Laptop per Child’s XO computer was not for the average user. It essentially boils down to the fact that the XO uses a graphical environment, Sugar, which is totally tailored to classroom use and eschews anything outside that narrowly defined context, including what most of us think of as file management. It doesn’t even have an e-mail application.
As it turns out, however, there’s nothing wrong with “the hundred dollar laptop” that a couple of hundred dollars worth of peripherals can’t fix. I have tamed the beast. But be forewarned, what follows will astound you. Ladies may wish to leave the room. Behold, I present to you: Locutus of XO!
Let’s break it down by letter, starting with A, the usb hub.
A.i : the operating system, Ubuntu Linux, with the XFCE desktop environment. This magic is made possible by first getting what is known as a developer’s key. Part of the OLPC vision is that all the kids have basically the same machine, same software, so the teacher doesn’t need to be an uber sysadmin supporting a chaos of uniquely configured machines. This means the machines don’t come with a developer’s key, in order to prevent the kids from accessing the firmware and creating all sorts of havoc.
Fortunately OLPC has made it very easy for grownups who received an XO through the “give one get one” program to get a key (actually a bit of code), copy it to the flash memory or onto a usb stick, and go to town. This particular stick is a fast 4GB capacity one with a cool red light that blinks when there’s activity. If you’re doing this at home, avoid usb sticks that have a small, undeletable partition to hold their free Windows software.
With Ubuntu and XFCE I have a completely normal environment to work in which is faster than Sugar, and where it’s easy to use multiple applications at once, including the blessed Firefox web browser. The file management is normal and easily explorable — as opposed to Sugar’s cryptic hidden data store with the hexadecimally named files.
A.ii : the swap partition. Swap allows the OS to use storage as virtual memory, so if you run out of memory (and the XO only has 256 MB) it can swap out less used contents from RAM to free up more. It’s usually a hard drive partition under Linux, and there is something similar for Windows as well.
The XO doesn’t have a hard drive, and so uses the flash memory instead. But that’s problematic; flash memory (like that used in SD cards and usb memory sticks) is good for a large but limited number of writes, and using it for swap may seriously reduce its life. So I’m using this cheap 1GB usb stick instead. If it dies, it’s easy enough to replace and no data lost.
This stick has an orange light which blinks on activity, so I have an actual visual indicator of when the system is swapping.
A.iii : tunes! 4 GB worth of song files.
The final thing plugged into the hub is the keyboard.
B: Speakers. No built-in laptop speakers are going to offer an audiophilic listening experience, but the XO’s make other laptop speakers seem symphonic by comparison. For listening to music, external speakers or headphones are a must.
C: DVD/CD player/writer. This one is just for show, as it refuses to play DVDs under Linux — not just an XO problem. It’s plugged into one of the usb ports on the other side of the monitor from the hub.
D: Keyboard. The XO built-in keyboard is definitely for kid-sized hands, and not well-suited for an adult touch typist.
E: Wee wireless mouse, because all track pads suck, and the XO’s is no exception. Its receiver is plugged into the other of the usb ports on the other side of the monitor from the hub. It also has a light, green, which blinks on activity. With all these blinking coloured lights, this is clearly the future. Or Christmas.
F: 8 GB SD card. Don’t bother squinting; the SD slot is hidden on the bottom right of the monitor, so you can’t see it. I use the card largely for data storage. With 8 GB on SD, 4 GB on the first usb stick, and 4 GB of tunes, not to mention a GB of swap, I have considerably more space than the 1 GB the XO comes with.
So there you have it. When a friend suggested that I just get a MacBook instead, with its superior processor, memory, built in dvd drive, better speakers, and so on and so on, I just snorted. Anyone with enough money can get a MacBook, but forcing an educational appliance designed for use by kids in the developing world to function as a regular computer, that’s an accomplishment, even if it does take 20 minutes to set up and get booted into!
Hm, maybe I could trim a few minutes off that if I replaced the usb memory sticks with a single, small, 1.8″, usb external hard drive with partition for OS and tunes, and a regular swap partition . . . But only if I can find a hard drive enclosure that has at least one blinking, coloured light.