XO Laptop as PDF eBook Reader: A First LookJanuary 7, 2008
The laptop from the (OLPC) project is a distinctive little machine. It invites children to come and play with its whimsical form: big rounded corners, bright colors, personality-laden rabbit ear (wi-fi) antennas and kid-luggable handle. With tools ranging from musical composition to writing, painting and programming, it’s intended to foster learning-by-doing and collaboration. But along with these active modes, it also is designed to be an effective ebook reader, promising inexpensive or free reading content for developing world areas where print books are often considered too expensive and rare to entrust to children’s hands.
I recently took a first look at the XO in the book-reading realm, viewing several WOWIO non-DRM’d PDFs to get a general sense of its display quality, performance and usability. Along the way, I also compared the little green guy against some of the other ebook-capable devices, including laptops, the Sony Reader and the iPhone.
Happy Surprises on Display
The XO uses a specially-designed twist on the standard LCD technology found in laptops. This variation combines high resolution, very low power consumption (the laptop is designed to run on alternative energy sources, including a human-powered hand crank), full color and low cost. The laptop seamlessly transitions between two display modes — standard backlit color (like a laptop LCD) and unlit monochrome for use in bright ambient light (similar to the E-Ink used in the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader, but with an even higher ).
As you can see from the photo above, the XO’s screen actually fares pretty well in comparison with a MacBook Pro and its designer-grade display (a machine which costs about 10x more than the XO). While the XO’s screen can’t match the Mac in brightness, crispness or color fidelity, it still does a very respectable job in rendering the PDF’s text and graphics. Typography is clear and well formed and images display with good detail. I’ve seen much more expensive laptops with far inferior displays. I suspect that the XO might actually outperform the Mac in bright light outdoors, thanks to its special screen — stay tuned for that test in a later post. From what I’ve seen so far, the OLPC team did a great job in hitting its multiple design objectives with this display.
Given its modest, power-sipping hardware specs and child-like form, I didn’t really expect blazing speed out of this cute little machine. It lived up to those expectations and exceeded them in some ways.
Launch of the various task-oriented apps generally took a bit of patience, with load times taking many long seconds. Once loaded though, performance of apps including the PDF reader were quite acceptable. Scrolling and screen update performance were reasonably peppy, even for a large 310-page document with many embedded photos (like , pictured above).
The fully variable (and responsive) zoom and scrolling controls, selectable display orientation and Transformer-like adaptability (from standard laptop configuration to a tablet-like reader) together make a very functional package for reading a PDF ebook. , the ability to zoom in on PDF pages is particularly useful, since it allows the book text to be enlarged to fill the screen. This is in sharp contrast to the limitations of the Sony Reader, which has a very limited zoom that leaves some books with uncomfortably small text by wasting valuable screen real estate on blank margins.
Interestingly, XO’s reader software actually seems to be more compatible with some PDFs than that in the Sony Reader and the iPhone. For example, the latter devices (as well as other third-party PDF readers on the Mac or Windows) choke on displaying certain embedded images while the XO renders them just fine (just as Adobe Reader does).
As I mentioned above, PDF paging and navigation are fairly snappy. Several options are available for navigating including physical buttons for scrolling and paging along with on-screen equivalents and a jump-to-page control. In keeping with the multi-purpose nature of the machine, the physical buttons aren’t specifically labeled. As with the rest of the interface and applications, these functions are best determined through learn-by-playing-with-it trial and error, and that’s a mostly straightforward process. Bookmark functionality is notably absent. Oddly, there appears to be no way to control the cursor when the machine is in tablet configuration, so many of the onscreen controls aren’t accessible without unsnapping the screen and fishing around on the trackpad. Perhaps more experimentation will glean a more usable approach to cursor control, but in the meantime, the hardware buttons accomplish the essentials.
I tried to view the XO’s interface in terms of its intended audience — young children unburdened by the baggage of established OS conventions. Perhaps it’s impossible for me to reach such a state of innocence, but even after many of the required trials and errors, I found that the seemingly simple act of opening a PDF file was still terribly obtuse and required too many steps to accomplish. I hope to find a more direct method, since this complexity is the single biggest bump in using the XO as an ebook reader. Once the file was actually open, the reader software was easy enough to use and seemed to work well.
I haven’t yet had an opportunity to read full books on the XO. In my initial play, though, it’s clear that a tremendous amount of design and thought went into creating a machine that is physically well adapted for use by children in the developing world. The biggest weaknesses are in OS usability — the all-new paradigm for a simple, task-oriented system needs some rethinking and refinement. As an ebook reader, though, the XO shows enormous potential and I’m looking forward to future developments.