Marvelously cheap: $400 nets a computer for you and a needy child

xolaptop.jpg

In November, the One Laptop Per Child initiative launches a Give 1 Get 1 program. For $400, you get your own XO laptop and simultaneously donate a laptop to a child in a developing nation.

O.L.P.C. is one of the highest profile and most intriguing experiments in social entrepreneurship. I recently had my first opportunity to play with an XO laptop, which I found to be undeniably cute. What I didn’t realize was how remarkably well-engineered the things are. There’s a temptation to regard the laptops as stripped down Dells with some extra padding. On the contrary, as David Pogue points out, they actually include a host of features you can’t find in other laptops at any price:

In the places where the XO will be used, power is often scarce. So the laptop uses a new battery chemistry, called lithium ferro-phosphate. It runs at one-tenth the temperature of a standard laptop battery, costs $10 to replace, and is good for 2,000 charges — versus 500 on a regular laptop battery.

The laptop consumes an average of 2 watts, compared with 60 or more on a typical business laptop. That’s one reason it gets such great battery life. A small yo-yo-like pull-cord charger is available (one minute of pulling provides 10 minutes of power); so is a $12 solar panel that, although only one foot square, provides enough power to recharge or power the machine.

Speaking of bright sunshine: the XO’s color screen…has a secret identity: in bright sun, you can turn off the backlight altogether. The resulting display, black on light gray, is so clear and readable, it’s almost like paper. Then, of course, the battery lasts even longer.

The XO offers both regular wireless Internet connections and something called mesh networking, which means that all the laptops see each other, instantly, without any setup — even when there’s no Internet connection…

This feature has some astonishing utility. If only one laptop has an Internet connection, for example, the others can get online, too, thanks to the mesh network. And when O.L.P.C. releases software upgrades, one laptop can broadcast them to other nearby laptops.

There’s more. Check out the accompanying video to see the computer in action.

Although the technology is a minor marvel, some questions remain about the value of the O.L.P.C. program — chief among them whether children in developing countries really need computers more than they need, say, access to clean drinking water. Personally, I’m cautiously optimistic. Learn more here.

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  1. John O - October 10, 2007

    What about the environmental impact of these XOs? Do they contain mercury and other toxins which will end up in the water supply?

  2. Jon - October 10, 2007

    John O,

    From the XO website:

    XO is fully compliant with the European Union’s RoHS Directive. It contains no hazardous materials. Its NiMH batteries contain no toxic heavy metals, plus it features enhanced battery management for an extended recharge-cycle lifetime.

  3. david b. - October 10, 2007

    Does XO have a program thought out for return and recycling of old or broken computers? It’s great that they contain no hazardous materials, but it would be great if were designed more in the “cradle to cradle” mode rather than “cradle to grave”.
    Also, I had a chance to try out the computer and hand recharger at an Instructables.com show and tell night in Alameda, CA and the computer is really great. The only downside was that my 7-year old son was able to yank the handle off the recharger (and he’s not a destructive one); hopefullly they’ve improved the durability of that part.

  4. kyla - October 10, 2007

    It may not contain hazardous materials, but laptops do increase the risk of prostate cancer if used directly on your lap. Will you be counselling these kids to use a table? Is there nothing more productive you could be giving these children?

  5. Adam Stein - October 10, 2007

    Um…laptops do not cause prostate cancer. Also, these laptops operate on extremely low power, which further reduces any risk from radiant heat or radio signals (not that any such risk has been demonstrated). Further, children in the developing world face enough other health risks, unfortunately, that I’m guessing prostate cancer ranks extremely low as a mortality factor.

  6. Amy - October 10, 2007

    Has anybody thought about getting these laptops for schools in the US who can’t afford computers? I would think some of the poorer inner city schools could really benefit from this…

  7. Meagen - October 10, 2007

    Amy is a genius! I’m not saying these computers shouldn’t go to Africa, but hers is a great idea ESPECIALLY for rural areas, which often have even higher levels of poverty in the US now than cities.

  8. Adam Stein - October 10, 2007

    I applaud the sentiment, but these computers really are designed for use in the developing world. The things they do really well — operate on low power, resist spills and drops, form ad hoc networks, etc. — are ideally suited for off-grid use in rugged conditions.
    Conversely, the things they don’t do well, such as have large screens or nice graphics, are likely to make them objects of ridicule in an American classroom. The American poor are used to a far higher standard of living than the poor in developing countries, and they aren’t likely to be impressed by 7-inch screens powered by Linux.
    Really that’s what cool about these computers — they’re designed for their target audience in the developing world. Doesn’t mean they’ll be successful, but it’s still an intriguing effort.

  9. Rob - October 13, 2007

    There’s a Google “TechTalk” by one of the OLPC guys: http://video.google.ca/videoplay?docid=-4285568518538296189
    one of the things they mention is that for some people this will be their first source of artificial light. Even that use alone could be life-altering.

  10. Aaron A. - October 15, 2007

    Rob said:
    for some people this will be their first source of artificial light. Even that use alone could be life-altering.
    There was another product, I think we discussed it here once upon a time… here it is: http://tinyurl.com/ytmyry
    In many of developing countries, people rely on kerosene lanterns and stoves to light their homes. As the vendor points out, they pollute something awful, and can be quite dangerous. With something as simple as a cheap artificial light, families can light their homes more cheaply, more safely, and for longer each night than they can using kerosene.
    Seems to me that a $25 flashlight is a much easier sell; it’s hard to argue that poor kids don’t deserve indoor lighting, and a lamp seems like a more flexible tool than a computer (meaning that it helps in ways other than education). Maybe corporate sponsorship is an option for OLPC.
    Regardless, I heartily support any innovation that improves the education of third-world children; these kids are in the best position to understand and solve the problems in their communities.
    — A.

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  12. cheap computers - July 30, 2009

    It sounds great that the resulting display, black on light gray, is so clear and readable, it