Intel On Board with OLPC (19/07/07)
Chip maker Intel and
the non-profit organisation behind the sub $100 ‘One Laptop Per Child’
initiative have buried the hatchet and agreed on possible ‘collaborations
involving technology and educational content’. This follows acrimonious
exchanges between OLPC founder, Professor Nicholas Negroponte and Intel’s
chairman, Craig Barret in response to Intel’s announcement last year of a rival
low-cost laptop, called the Classmate, for children in developing countries.
OLPC plans to supply
an inexpensive laptop computer, called the X0-1, costing just $100, to
schoolchildren in poor and developing nations. In fact the price currently
stands at $175 but the economic difficulties have been dwarfed by the technical
challenges of designing a reasonably well-specified laptop that functions
reliably in hot, wet and humid climates and often very sunny conditions, can
survive rough handling and will operate in the absence of a dependable
In fact virtually
all of the OLPC design objectives have now been met and when used as an eBook
text display – one of its lowest power consumption modes – it can run for up to
24 hours between charges. In normal use – web browsing, word processing and so
on – the battery should last for between 6 and 10 hours. Power consumption on
first-generation production machines is just 3W, a tenth of the power used by
most laptops. This means less reliance on mains supplies and opens up the
possibility of using it with child-friendly hand- or foot-operated generators
and solar panels.
The XO-1’s frugal
power requirements are due in part to a highly efficient central processing
unit with on-board graphics processor and memory, and using microchip memory
instead of a hard disc drive to store data and the operating system (a version
of open-source platform Linux, although a Windows version may also be available
later). But most of the savings are down to the 7.5in, 1200 x 900 pixel, dual-mode,
daylight-viewable LCD screen, which consumes less than 15 per cent of the power
of a normal laptop display.
The screen is
backlit but instead of high-voltage fluorescent tubes it uses a bank of bright
white LEDs. Wasteful light-absorbing colour filters in front of each group of
picture elements or sub pixels have been replaced with a diffraction grating
that splits the light from the backlight into red green and blue components.
Additionally the backlight can be switched off and the screen changes to a
crisp, high-contrast mono display, using reflected ambient light.
Instead of the ubiquitous and occasionally explosive lithium ion (Li-ion)
battery packs found in most laptops, the XO-1 uses Lithium Iron Phosphate
(LiFePO4) cells. These are more robust, safer and less toxic, and although they
have a lower energy density than Li-ion cells they perform better and last
longer in the hot conditions these machines are likely to encounter.
A built-in wireless
adaptor and some clever networking technology called “Mesh” allows multiple
XO-1 users to communicate with one another and share an internet connection.
Wi-Fi systems can be power-hungry, but the XO-1 keeps battery drain to a
minimum with slower data rates and the highly effective “bunny ears” antennae
fitted to the side of the screen, which ensure stable, reliable connections.
PC-to-PC links of 600m should be possible and testers in Australia recently
managed to get two XO-1s to connect over a distance of 2.7km.
These are all
significant innovations and it’s likely some or all of them will find their way
into mainstream laptop design.
With so much at
stake, and with such an attractive specification it’s not surprising that
the XO-1 has spawned a number of rivals. It is unclear whether Intel will
go ahead with its Classmate laptop but there has been a lot of interest in the
west for a cheap and cheerful machine and already Asus (who were going to
build the Classmate for Intel) has announced a model called the Eee PC. Due out
later this year, it has 7 inch screen, Intel’s Ultra Mobile CPU chip, 2, 4, 8
or 16 GB of flash memory storage, built in Wi-Fi and Ethernet and a camera, for
a projected price of just $200, for the basic model.
A third contender,
with an astonishingly ambitious price of just $10 per unit, has been mooted by
the Indian government, which decided not to get involved with the OLPC project.
Details are sketchy and few are taking it seriously but with a market as large
as this promises to be, no-one is taking any bets.
Maybury 2007 0406