HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM 2007

  

 

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 electricity supply.
 

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.

 

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©  R. Maybury 2007 0406

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