Months back, I traded an older Toshiba laptop for an OLPC XO-1. This device is spectacular on paper and the whole project is such a fantastic idea that I just had to try one out. Honestly, from first impressions alone, I couldn’t have been more disappointed.
The XO was/is horribly slow, the UI was… without a doubt the oddest and least intuitive I’d ever used, the entire experience was just frustrating.
So, it sat unused in a corner for months. (Well, I used it to occasionally charge USB devices, as it draws almost no power itself.)
Then I thought about trying to use it as an eBook reader. Why not? It has a spectacular screen for that when it’s in B&W mode. As a reader, that CPU speed shouldn’t pose a problem. Perfect! Right, then I tried to view PDF. From a USB drive, nope. From and SD card, nope. From the local filesystem, nope. The only way I, a sysadmin with ten years of Linux experience, could figure out how to view a PDF was to put it online, browse to the website, download the file through Sugar’s odd interface and then ultimately view the PDF through the Journal app.
Yeah, I didn’t think that was good enough either.
So, the XO sat for another month. Then I decided to sell it, then I happened across Ubuntu Hardy instructions for running the XO from an SD card. I did that last Saturday night and am typing this on the XO running Opera in Ubuntu 8.04.1
It’s great! Yes, at 433MHz it’s still not fast but it’s already far more usable than it ever was with the sugar UI.
And I can read PDF files from the local filesystem or a USB drive or the SD card. Hooray! Even the screen rotating works well. The whole thing is so much faster in XFCE that it’s actually usable. I click things and they happen fast enough that I don’t wonder if the OS got my commands.
My conclusion: The XO is in fact a cool and capable piece of hardware that is being held back by the Sugar interface. Yes, innovative computer interfaces should be developed and I think there is some good stuff in the Sugar UI, but the XO is experimental enough on its own without having to also contend with a radically different, slow, and heavy UI.
So, OLPC people, please decouple Sugar from the XO and keep working on both. This article sums up the shortcomings with the interface nicely. Please take these as constructive criticisms and work from them. I know you’ve put a lot of time and effort into it, but the interface is not yet ready for prime time and your hardware is. Put some nice, light Linux interface on the XO and leave Sugar for another time. It clearly needs to cook for a while. In the meantime, why not follow Asus’ excellent example with the EeePC UI? Who’d have thought that they could do so much with IceWM tweaks and a fancy launcher?
To any frustrated OLPC users out there, follow these excellent Ubuntu 8.04 installation instructions and start getting some use from these nifty, innovative computers.