The low-cost laptop that Apple should have built

The buzz around the XO Laptop, aka the One Laptop Per Child group’s “$100 laptop” is growing, with an innovative donation program coming in time for the holidays.

But this colorful, rugged computer could have come from Apple, and in another time, it did.

The One Laptop Per Child organization recently announced a donation program for the holiday season: you buy two of the XO Laptops for $400 and you get to keep one. The other is donated to a child somewhere in the world who needs it. The program will start Nov. 11 and you can request a e-mail notification from the site. As far as I understand, this is the first time the machines will be sold to the public in the States. I’m looking forward to getting one.

I got some hands on time with one of the machines last January at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco. Mario Murphy, the books processing engineer at the Internet Archive (and a former member of the Berkeley Macintosh Users Group) had one for show and tell.

I was impressed with the small, green machine. The hardware’s look and feel is a lot of fun and it provides an understandable software interface as well as a useful productivity package. It all looked very useable.

While it’s lightweight, the hardware appeared to be rugged, with a built-in handle that I appreciated. And the keyboard was covered with a rubbery plastic that must be waterproof (we didn’t test this on the show floor).

I pinged Mario the other day and he said he has seen several of them floating around the office.

“They are neat. However, the only downside for me is its keyboard. Both [in] the size and spacing of the keys and the squishy feel. In particular, I find it hard to hit a spot on the space “bar” that will produce a space character,” he told me.

“But I like that they run Debian [Linux] and that they’re full computers,” he continued.

What I will appreciate in the XO is having a computer that I can take outside that won’t make me worry if dust or sand blows on it, or even buries it. Or worry if I drop some water (or beer) on the keyboard. And I will be glad to have a machine that provides a full computing experience for only $200 (or $400 depending on how you are counting) that won’t kill my wallet if it falls on the floor. That’s always the worry with my MacBook Pro, even with its MagSafe power connector.

Of course, it isn’t a MacBook and won’t offer the rich experience of my powerful desktop substitute and Apple software. Still, for a low cost it can provide the basics: access to e-mail, a browser and productivity tools.

At the same time, I remember a time when Apple made a comparable machine to the XO for the education market. It was called the eMate 300 and was based on Apple’s Newton OS.

For MacWEEK, I wrote about this device in late October 1996. It’s hard to evaluate specs and costs from those times with today’s commodity pricing for hardware. Processors, RAM and LCD screens were expensive in those days.

Code-named Shay, the eMate 300 integrated a keyboard and display in a green shock-resistant ABS plastic enclosure shaped like a clamshell. It came with 1MB of DRAM for running applications and 2MB of flash for storage. It ran a 25-MHz ARM 710 processor.


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