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


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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