I got an early look at the XO laptop, from the One Laptop Per Child Foundation, at the 2007 International Consumer Electronics Show. The friendly green-and-white computer, with a truly glare-free screen, appealed to me right away.
So last December I took advantage of the OLPC ”Give One, Get One” program. For US $400 I scored a second-generation XO, a $200 tax deduction, the presumed gratitude of an anonymous child, and a year of T-Mobile Wiâ''Fi service. My hunch was that, with a little hacking, the XO could be as useful as an equally small Asus Eee PC, which also costs about $400 but comes with no charitable benefit.
I quickly found that for casual use, the XO’s small size and builtâ''in handle make it a great workplace or travel companion. It comes with Wi-Fi, and you can get a USB Ethernet interface if you prefer a wired connection. For all-day use, the keyboard is way too small for most adult fingers, and the touch pad is too twitchy, but a USB mouse and a folding USB keyboard solved those problems. If the built-in keyboard gets in the way, you can use the XO’s ”transformer hinge” to rotate the screen 180 degrees.
Getting the software side of things right took a little more effort. Sugar, the XO’s preinstalled version of Linux, may be a uniquely great operating system for kids, but it really doesn’t cut it if you’re trying to do workâ''work. Luckily, plenty of XO owners before me seem to have felt the same way. I quickly found some great step-by-step instructions for installing alternative versions of Linux, including Ubuntu, my choice for this project.
The new operating system goes on your XO’s secure digital card. To boot from an alternate device, you need to first access the OLPC’s boot loader, and for that you need to get a developer key. Instructions are at http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Developer_Key.
With the key installed, you’re ready to build a bootable SDâ''card image. Directions are at http://tinyurl.com/3xd8xb. I found that an 8-gigabyte SD card had more than enough room for applications and files, but physically placing the card in the XO wasn’t easy. The SD reader is under the screen and awkward to get at.
For my operating system, I chose a distribution of Ubuntu known as Xubuntu. Given the XO’s modest 1200-by-900-pixel screen resolution and 433-megahertz processor, I went with a lightweight window manager, Xfce.