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Hacking the OLPC

With a little tinkering, the One Laptop Per Child XO can be a grown-up computer too

3 min read

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

With the key installed, you’re ready to build a bootable SDâ''card image. Directions are at 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.

With Xubuntu up and ­running, I used two ­common Linux tools for managing ­software, aptâ''get and the Synaptic Package Manager, to add new ­applications. One thing to note is that you’ll get errors about not having an Xauthorization file unless you install Xauth using apt-get, then issue the command ”xauth ­generate :0 . trusted.” You’ll also want to load up NetworkManager so that you can connect to secure ­networks and load CUPS (Common Unix Printing System) to print to ­network printers.

I also installed Gnome-RDP, a remote-desktop application. Remote Windows XP sessions were surprisingly usable, perfect for checking Outlook or taking a peek at other files on my desktop.

Within a week I had a pretty amazing little portable to carry around. Although the screen is smaller than a traditional ­laptop’s, its resolution is higher. The XO is light and durable, has superb Wi-Fi reception, and is an eye-catcher wherever it goes. And nothing beats it as a ­portable Gmail reader at a conference.

Even with its limited ­memory and economy-class ­processor, the XO runs browsers and remote desktop sessions as well as ­regular business-class ­laptops do. I can’t wait to try it out on a plane—no more laptop-in-the-belly syndrome, and the battery might even last the whole flight.

You can keep your Asus Eee PC. I love my Ubuntu-powered XO!

About the Author

JAMES TURNER, author of ”Hacking the OLPC” [p. 24], says the One Laptop Per Child computer came through in a jam: he had forgotten to bring the charger for his regular laptop to a conference in Texas. ”I ended up spending three days in Austin using just the OLPC, and it worked fine,” he says. ”I filed a story from that computer.” Turner is a ­contributing editor for O’Reilly Media and a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor.

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