OLPC low-power laptop empowers and inspires

2008 Green 15: XO's innovative ecofriendly design raises the bar for green computing while opening new opportunities for underprivileged children

When the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program was first announced in 2005, media attention centered on two aspects: the $100 price tag and the humanitarian nature of the project. Three years later, the environmental genius of these award-winning laptops still not only burns bright but even inspires copycats. Vendors such as Asustek and Via are working to bring their own low-cost, low-power computing devices to emerging markets and education.

If necessity is the mother of invention, OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte can be credited for elevating a need to new and inspired heights of creation. From his original vision of bringing educational opportunities to developing nations came the remarkable XO laptop, a simple, brightly colored device with a remarkably environmentally sensitive design andimpressive energy-saving specifications.

Unreliable power drive energy efficiency and flexibility
Original design manufacturer Quanta Computers and industrial design partner Design Continuum set about to transform OLPC's lofty goals into reality. Because of the unreliable or often nonexistent power supplies in less developed corners of the world, the XO was built to make the most of what little energy is likely to be available to the child using it. The resulting laptop operates on less than 2 watts of power, which is less than a tenth of what a regular laptop requires. The system also selectively suspends operation of its CPU, adding to its energy efficiency.

The XO boasts two display modes, both of which consume minimal energy. The transmissive, full-color mode uses approximately 1 watt. Compare that to the 17.2 watts that the average 15-inch LCD monitor eats, and you begin to realize just how revolutionary this laptop is. The reflective, high-resolution mode, which allows the screen to be readable in direct sunlight, consumes a mere 0.2 watt.

When was the last time you got 21 hours of battery life from your expensive notebook computer? The XO delivers that much -- and if an electrical outlet is not available after those 21 hours, the laptop can be recharged by at least two of three options: crank, pedal, or yo-yo-like pull-cord. Kids may use a second battery for group charging at school while they are using their laptop in class. They can even work outside -- the XO may be solar-powered, as well.

Not only does the XO function with startling efficiency, it is RoHS-compliant and contains no hazardous materials. The LiFePO4 or NiMH batteries contain no toxic heavy metals, yet in a pinch, you could use your car battery to recharge it.

Meeting green goals while staying true to its mission
Despite all these energy-efficient qualities, the XO never forgets that its primary user is a child. Therefore, the laptop's configurations include gaming as well as e-book reading and standard laptop usage. Each machine is also a full-time wireless router. Currently in its fourth iteration, it's not only highly durable but is intended to last at least five years

More than 300,000 units of the XO have been delivered to seven countries to date -- Cambodia, Haiti, India, Mexico, Mongolia, Peru, and Uruguay -- and they're poised to make a real difference in the lives of their recipients. In Peru, for example, where the primary education system was ranked last among 131 countries by the World Economic Forum, the delivery of 272,000 devices has revitalized the learning process. Children whose only options had previously been the agricultural lives their parents had known were suddenly excited about being videographers, lawyers, and musicians.

Approximately 200,000 more machines are scheduled for shipping soon. In Iraq's Muthanna Province, where officials decided to invest in education, children and teachers alike eagerly await the imminent arrival of some 200 laptops.

The OLPC did garner some criticism when the price of the system reached $200 (with shipping) -- twice the original promise. OLPC project managers say the price of the XO should ultimately dip below $100 when the machines can be mass-produced, thereby making them even more affordable to any educational system with budgetary constraints.