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Intelligent Machines

A Hand-Cranked Tablet Unveiled at CES

The rugged eight-inch tablet comes from the One Laptop Per Child team.

  • by Tom Simonite
  • January 9, 2012
  • People power: This eight-inch tablet is designed to bring education to poor regions of the world.

More than 50 new tablet computers are expected to debut at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week. But only one is meant for people in the poorest regions of the world, and comes with a hand crank as an accessory.

Known as the XO 3.0, the rugged green and white device has an eight-inch screen and was designed by the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child, which in 2008 launched the XO laptop, a device for people who are normally far from the minds of most computing companies.

At a press preview held before the official opening of CES on Tuesday, OLPC’s chief technology officer, Edward McNierney, told Technology Review that the new device could be used by children as young as five.

“We’re trying to provide a low-power, low-cost environment for education,” he said. “One of the things we’re working on now is software experiments to see if children in completely illiterate communities, who don’t go to school, can teach themselves to read.”

A tablet’s touch-driven interface is better suited to that kind of use, said McNierney, adding that the tablet was also cheaper to make than a laptop. He wouldn’t say the cost of the device, but if it matches its predecessor ($199), it could reach many people worldwide.

The tablet demonstrated was running Sugar OS, the Linux-based operating system developed by OLPC for its laptop. However, the tablet can also run Google’s Android mobile operating system, and buyers can choose which they want installed on their tablets. The demonstration tablet used an LCD, but, McNierney says, the final device could be shipped with the same kind found in the laptop, which featured a low-power monochrome mode.

McNierney also showed a nonfunctional prototype case for the tablet. The case had a built-in solar panel and battery—each hour the case spends in full sun can deposit enough energy for two hours of tablet use into the case’s battery.

Although the OLPC’s laptop never lived up to the project’s slogan—”$100 laptop”—roughly 2.5 million of its laptops have been shipped so far, said McNierney. Most were bought for schools. As with the OLPC laptop, the new tablet is made by mobile chip and device manufacturer Marvell.

Power play: The tablet can be powered up using a separate hand crank.

The exact price of the XO tablet will be determined by who buys it. “We’re not like RIM or HP, where we build a ton of these and hope somebody buys them,” said McNierney. “These are really built for a country wanting a large deployment, [who will] say ‘we want this many.’ “

No orders have been made yet, but as of last Sunday night, OLPC is ready to take them. “We’re just introducing them today,” he said. “We’re ready to go and really excited.”

Buyers will be able to choose certain specifications of their tablets—for example, whether they have a display visible in daylight, as the OLPC laptop does, and how long the battery lasts. McNierney said the tablet could be built with a 10-hour battery life, although some buyers might want just six hours, which would be cheaper but still sufficient to last a full school day.

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