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The XO Tablet Is Going to Kill the XO Laptop

XO learning tablet 2When OLPC unveiled their new Android based educational tablet earlier this year I wonder whether the commercial hardware fit with OLPC’s traditional mission of bringing better educational opportunities to classrooms no matter how remote or limited.

Today I wonder why it took them so long to make the switch from a proprietary XO Laptop to an XO Tablet running Android.

I was reading a post on the OLPC News blog earlier today about the XO Learning tablet, and how that blogger believes that the XO Learning Tablet renders the XO Laptop redundant, antiquated, and second-rate. I think he has a point:

I recently received an email from a person who is running a small pilot program in Africa. They were seeking my advice on XO Laptops versus XO Tablets:

I currently am working with 4 schools with about 10 XO Laptops in each school. I want to add more computers to these schools this year. I have a choice. I can buy more XO Laptops or I can buy the new XO Tablet. Which do you think is best? We have made progress with the XO Laptop and I have an upcoming appointment with the Ministry.

My response was quite simple and quick: do not waste another penny or minute buying more XO Laptops. They were cutting edge in 2007. They were still cool in 2009. But today the hardware looks dated and without a touchscreen, oh so limiting.

Worse, the XO Laptop never came with any decent software (OS or applications) or content – you always had to hand code your own programs and go begging for ebooks and reference materials.

At first I thought it was a crazy idea, and i set out to show how many advantages the XO Laptop has over a mere tablet, but it turns out the list of advantages is shorter than you might think. The XO Laptop is:

  • repairable,
  • rugged,
  • equipped with a keyboard,
  • and is based around an 8.5″ sunlight readable low-power screen.

The Past

The list of disadvantages include proprietary components, an underpowered single-core CPU on the current model, and a limited development community (far smaller than Android).

The XO Learning tablet, on the other hand, runs Android, and comes with 160 plus apps as well as dozens of books. Can’t find the app you need? Go search Google Play and educational websites. Chances are you will find 5 that do what you want. And while it the tablet might technically not be repairable it also doesn’t have proprietary components to drive the repair cost up.

I’ll grant you that the low-power Pixel Qi screen is a plus, though not in terms of battery life, and I do prefer a keyboard.

But Nate, some of you are thinking, what about battery life? The XO is described as sipping power. Doesn’t that give it a clear advantage in remote locations with limited power supplies?

xo tablet 5

The Future

That used to be an advantage, yes, but thanks to advances in battery tech and hardware design a new Android tablet has a runtime about the same as the XO Laptop.

According to Wikipedia, the XO-1.75 laptop (the latest model available) has a battery life of 5 to 10 hours. In comparison, the XO Learning Tablet is specced to have 8 hours of battery life (with only a slightly larger batter).

Don’t get me wrong, I think the XO laptop was a great idea when it was conceived. At that time there was really no other way to get a large volume of basic computers to remote classrooms other than to design and build them from scratch, and then load your own educational OS.

But that was in 2007; we are in 2013 now and many of the constraints faced in 2007 don’t exist anymore. Thanks to the rise of netbooks and (later) tablets, battery life isn’t the problem it used to be and manufacturing costs have been reduced to the point where they are negligible.

At this point there is literally no reason not to run a cost-benefit analysis comparing the XO Laptop vs the XO Learning Tablet before buying one or the other. Just the short back of an envelope calculation in this blog post shows that the XO Learning tablet is a better option.

With that in mind I have to wonder why OLPC has not yet switched platforms. They are still working on a new laptop, the XO-4, which has many of the same disadvantages as the earlier models, but with a slightly faster CPU and a touchscreen. It’s also more expensive.

I say switch to Android. It’s still a set of compromises, but the switch also brings such a vast opportunity to accomplish so much more in a vastly larger playground.

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Rob August 14, 2013 um 3:06 pm

Yeah, no decent programs for a full-powered GNU/Linux netbook. No office suit, no nothing. Wrong.

What’s more, this tablet device has no keyboard which is the first freaking priority for school computer. But I guess all this fits fine, because who needs these kids to actually create content, right?

Nate Hoffelder August 18, 2013 um 11:18 am

Yes, the lack of a keyboard means the iPad is completely unsuitable for the classroom.

I will agree that a KB is the better input tool in a lot of use cases, but I also think that the KB on the laptop is trumped by the vastly better software on the tablet. It’s a tradeoff, yes, but the students come out ahead.

Rob August 18, 2013 um 11:38 am

Any examples of better software? Is there any acceptable office suit on android? Maybe, IDE? Oh no, why would african kids need to actually code, right? Or learn to work in office suit? They better just sit there and play Angry Birds or whatever we have for them.

Nate Hoffelder August 18, 2013 um 12:34 pm

There are several adequate office suites, yes. They’re not nearly as feature complete as on other platforms but they can still get the job done. But no IDE (not that I know of).

Why do African kids need to code? You’re assuming that this is important; justify your assumption.

Rob August 18, 2013 um 12:59 pm

Adequate, alright. While libreoffice, as an example, is not only adequate, but also free and opensource.

Coding is an important part of computer science class. I’m not saying that it’s the most important thing ever, but this is one good example of the things they can never do with a tablet. But look, there are lots of linux distributions designed specifically for education purposes

Plus it’s all opensource so no worries about licenses and all that. And it features full set of educational software. And you can download anything else for free and modify and use it without restrictions.

Why choosing a tablet?

Nate Hoffelder August 18, 2013 um 1:15 pm

It’s not that i want a tablet per se. I’d like to make the more general argument that commercial hardware is the better option than the custom XO laptop. To put it simply, commercial development has proven to be far more effective at achieving OLPC’s goals of low power and low cost than OLPC ever was.

The XO-1.75 has 5-10 hours battery life, yes? It was released in 2012, but you could find WinXP netbooks with similar if not better battery life in 2010.

But then the bottom dropped out of netbook market and everyone turned to tablets, and that’s where the power and cost trends combined to create a device that is arguably a better option.

Rob August 18, 2013 um 1:56 pm

I can see your point. Still, no mobile OS can compete with desktop GNU/Linux or really any desktop OS in terms of…well, everything. No keyboard? I’m not gonna mention coding anymore, but what about writing? No essay on the tablet. Imho it just outweighs cost/power.

Ignatius Nayan D’Rozario August 18, 2013 um 11:00 am

Kids naturally figure out input interfaces whether it’s a keyboard or a touch screen with a visual keyboard.
In fact in my opinion it’s better to have an on screen keyboard since one can put in an improved version by upgrading software. Also one less opportunity for mechanical failure.
A tablet is a better device for a school since it readies the user for the experience once they encounter main stream technology. Increasingly that it being towards touch based devices.

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