The touchscreen XO – a (p)review & update on OLPC Australia

Preview: XO-4 Duo hybrid laptop/tablet from OLPC Australia

  • Based on use of an early XO with touchscreen prototype

 

Announced just recently but under development for sometime is the next hardware iteration of the ‘its an education program not a laptop program’ XO. Once hyped as the ‘$100 laptop’ at at time when such machines cost many hundreds more, the final manufacturing price of the XO-1 was closer to $200 plus – but even so the impact of the XO’s development was enough to shock traditional computer companies such as Intel and Microsoft into helping birth the netbook and focusing on emerging markers with new energy.

Since this time, well over 2 million XOs have been deployed worldwide, some successfully into sustainable programs that are still on going, and some not so successfully (the difference has often been the quality of teacher training and the level of partnership with education providers). An upgraded XO-1.5 with a faster processor and improved trackpad was released in late 2010, but since the original model with its unique Yves Behar child-friendly design debuted back in 2008, the world of computing has dramatically changed. No longer are cheap netbooks the frontier of computing. Instead, it is even lighter and longer-battery life tablets and smartphones with touch screens and accelerometers that fill Christmas stockings. So how is the XO design evolving to stay relevant in such a ‘PostPC’ era? And can OLPC continue to partner with existing education systems so that this new design can get into students hands?

Externally the design of the XO is staying unchanged. Like a classic car (or even Apple’s product designs that often don’t change much for years) the basic rugged green XO exterior that screams ‘made for kids not adults’ remains. I can personally attest to the ruggedness of the design, having seen it thrown across classrooms and known it to have been immersed in water with no negative effects. So its a good thing to know that this tried and tested design will be continued for the XO1.75 and XO4 Duo.

One thing that is being changed in the next versions however is the keyboard. While the rubberised keypad of the original certainly helped it maintain its water resistant reputation, typing anything more than a few words quickly becomes a pain – perhaps not for the littlest kids who haven’t known anything else, but from about year 3 many schools know that students can become as likely to pick the rubber apart as to enjoy a lot of typing. Partly because of this, and also because its responding to teacher request for the keys to feature upper and lower case letters, the keyboard has been redesigned. New XOs will feature a keyboard much closer to the standard plastic ‘chiclet’ keys of other laptops – still with a rubber membrane underneath I believe. Wether it can stop the keys being damaged is yet unknown, but typing I can confirm is improved by many magnitudes.

The other external item also being updated (for the XO4 Duo) is the screen. A Neonode touchscreen is being added in a move that allows the XO design to properly embrace the tablet mode it has always had (the ‘Duo’ branding to be used in Australia has been chosen to reflect this fact). Where the current model limits tablet-mode use to a few activities where the side controller buttons have been programmed to provide some control (Camera, Maze), the XO4 activities will all be controllable via touch, something which many schools who have deployed iPads have discovered is something students find inherently intuitive.

As far as responsiveness goes, I have found the early prototype I’m previewing to be good. A full analysis will have to wait for a production model probably when the software hopefully will have been updated and optimised (at the moment the prototype just enables touch but with the old, mouse and trackpad orientated interface). One other thing to note is that at least in the one I’m using, this change to a touchscreen has also dramatically improved the clarity of the screen. After the rubber keyboard, my biggest personal criticism of the XO has been that even though its screen has always been quite hi-res (1200×900 at 7.5 inches at a time when standard laptops had this resolution on 12inch or larger panels), something about the design of the new one (reportedly almost of ‘retina’ class at 300dpi) has removed the slight blurriness of the old one that meant for me at least that any prolonged use tended to involve eye strain.

Internally, the changes are much greater due to the change of the whole processor architecture to being ARM-based – the same kinds of chips that smartphones and tablets use. These chips use much less power but provide faster processing than the equivalent laptop or PC chips of larger devices. This means that even on this early prototype, the machine is noticeably faster at nearly all tasks, bringing it in line with the current laptops and smart devices. Bootup time in my testing is almost doubled, and opening and closing activities, which even on the XO 1.5 left students sitting idle for several crucial seconds, is also much better.

Apart from this, I can’t comment too much on the non-touch optimised software, however activities like Paint already work well. It will be very interesting to see how others get updated (and what a potential touch-friendly version of Gnome looks like) in the leadup to the XO4 Duo’s anticipated release date around April 2013.

 

Despite all these technological improvements, I want to highlight another development that I consider to be even more important – that being the partnering and training focus that OLPC Australia has developed to support its XO deployments, particularly the upcoming ‘One Education’ expansion that could see 50,000 XOs in student hands here by end of 2014. Where once OLPC has had a reputation for going-it-alone and seeing established Education systems as being part of the problem, the Australian arm has been able to change from also having this stance to partner and work with schools and education providers. In this way, its mandating of pre-deployment teacher training, its having schools contribute some of the support funds, and also its offering of post-deployment training and extension modules like XO Champions and XO Mechanics has been adopted and even advocated for by the state schools sector in a way that is already strengthening the sustainability of the program across the country. The challenge will be for OLPC to maintain this sense of partnership so that that their program can reach the current 50,000, and future 300,000 goals it has set.

In 2007 as a young mobile learning blogger who had been writing about digital voice recorders, Palm and Windows Mobile PDAs and dumbphones (although we thought at the time they were smart) I wrote about how the XO was the first major computing product that had been designed for children first, rather than just being corporate hardware requiring teachers to translate into schools. At the time I never dreamed I’d get the chance in 2009 to trial them at my own primary school, or help manage the deployment of thousands of them across Australia. With a continued focus on partnering, the training that comes with the One Education program, the classic tried and tested design, and soon the upgraded hardware, I, and many other teachers and students across Australia are gaining access to the potential of connected learning.

We (as in the education department I work for) don’t see the XO as being the entire solution itself however. Indeed some of our XO classrooms are also using iPads and other devices in tandem with their green machines. Committed teachers and schools are making the difference – but it is an advantage to have a ‘personal learning device’ built for education first.

[PS. As usual, opinions expressed are mine and not necessarily those of my employer]