XO Laptop as PDF eBook Reader: A First Look

January 7, 2008

OLPC XO LaptopThe XO laptop from the One Laptop Per Child (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.

XO with Mac and iPhone

XO with MacBook Pro, iPhone.

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 pixel density).

XO vs. MacBook Pro: Displays Side by Side

The XO (in Tablet Mode, Portrait Orientation) and a MacBook Pro Display a PDF Ebook

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.

PDF Performance

View of XO Screen in Tablet Mode

XO Display in Portrait Tablet Mode

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 Letters from St. Petersburg, 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. As with the iPhone, 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).

XO compatibility vs. iPhone

XO displays an embedded PDF image while iPhone and other non-Adobe apps cannot.

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.

Head-Scratching GUI

The XO GUII 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.

Closing Bits

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.


  1. Nice review. I just got my XO laptop and have much the same reaction as you. It’s a great little device, but the interface certainly takes getting used to.

    By the way, I still haven’t figured out how to open PDFs. What’s the trick?

  2. My question exactly. (Same as above.)

    And do you have any great sources for books in PDF form? Thank you for this great post.

  3. I’m traveling and don’t have access to the XO at the moment, but here’s the process for opening PDFs that I used, as best I can remember…

    1) From the browser, I downloaded the PDF book from the WOWIO web site.

    2) I returned to the home screen and entered the journal.

    3) I copied the contents of the downloaded file to the clipboard from inside the journal (this is where my memory gets a little fuzzy… I can’t remember off the top of my head exactly how I did this).

    4) Going back to the home screen, the clipboard item appears on one side of the screen. From there, opening the clip causes the PDF to open in the XO’s reader program.

    I’m guessing that you could also email it to yourself and use this same procedure within the mail program, though I haven’t tested this.

    I’ll verify this procedure and post a step-by-step when I get back to my office in a couple of weeks.

    Let me know if it works for you, or if you find a better process!

  4. Thanks for the info.

    I’ve found that if you navigate to a PDF online, you can click on it and an “open” option appears, which is nice. If you’ve downloaded/opened it once, then yes it appears in the journal.

    I was initially frustrated because when I copied a file (PDF or other) to the XO, I couldn’t find it to open it. I finally discovered that you can type file locations into the Browser activity (like /home/olpc/) to navigate the file-system.

    So that’s another way of opening PDFs I guess: navigate to them and click!

  5. Linda, to answer your question regarding good PDF book sources…

    I’m naturally partial to my own company, WOWIO, which offers current titles and classics from many publishers, including the works of major modern authors — all for free. The collection is growing very fast. For example, we just received a big infusion of philosophy and other nonfiction titles. We also have what is probably the biggest collection of comics and graphic novels out there.

    Other sources include Project Gutenberg for public domain works (free downloads) and stores like fictionwise and Powell’s (not free).

  6. […] XO Laptop as PDF Ebook Reader: A First Look « The Reader (tags: xo laptop reader device pdf) […]

  7. Thank you for the review. We just purchased one for our daughter, we have yet to receive it and tool it out. I believe your experience will save us some time as we teach our daughter to use hers. Look forward to more info in the future.

  8. We used to call it “human engineering”—the design of technological devices to meet the requirements of people, not forcing people to adapt to technological creations. I wish the OLPC project great success. The technological approach is fantastic: child-sensitive design, ebook reader, and even art education. There’s great need for such technology among needy populations in America, Europe, and other world countries. But keep in mind that the cultural and technological infrastructure needed to support this technological solution may not exist in every country. And there is a resource tradeoff: not bullets for food, but books and education for technology. And now greed has raised its ugly head!

  9. MadSilence, it sounds like you have the same kinds of mixed feelings that I do about the OLPC project. Having had some very brief exposure to teaching in developing world public schools and witnessed the gaps that people still experience toward the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy, I can definitely see where the project’s detractors are coming from.

    On the other hand, the traditional incremental approaches to defeating poverty and the educational divide won’t be solving the problems any time soon. An obstacle-leaping effort like the OLPC — filled with fresh thinking focused on the empowerment of individual children — is very attractive…

  10. […] “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.” […]

  11. I don’t know if this is on the current stable build of the XO software, but you can switch Reader to fullscreen with alt+enter (actually, most activities support alt+enter). Very nice for reading ebooks.

  12. P.S.-No need to copy the pdf to the clipboard to open it. You can open it directly from the Journal, there is a Start/Resume button at the right of the entry on the list view, and in the detailed entry view there is the same icon on the right of the top toolbar.

  13. I just read this article and still am not able to get the pdf to open!!! Help!!!


  14. […] It just has to be given its place and chance. My husband, who works at an e-book company, has tried loading one with their books. I have yet to see how it works for this purpose but I am told that it competes […]

  15. […] my earlier first look at the XO, I was quite surprised by the display’s high quality, given the low cost of the […]

  16. […] OLPC’s oft-discussed organizational problems and the usability issues of the current incarnation of the XO, the hardware design of the current and future machines […]

  17. I was (by unreproducible trial-and-error) to get a .pdf book up on the screen and read it. The process seems to me to be far, far from intuitive! I would like to see (or come up with myself) a nice little cookbook series of steps which could be followed to accomplish this seemingly basic task.

    I am happy with the screen quality and it does give me a possible way to read .pdf books but the weight of the XO is somewhat off-putting.

    I downloaded Adobe’s digital book reader software but I am not at all sure that is what the XO is using when it presents a book on the screen, and I don’t know how to find out.

    Much more to learn!

  18. If you’re running the latest release of the XO software and activity bundle, it’s really easy to display a downloaded PDF.

    1) From the Browse activity click on the PDF link.
    2) At the top it will say “Downloading xxxx.PDF. Cancel/Continue.”
    3) Click Continue, and another dialog area will appear that says “Open in Journal.”
    4) Click Open in Journal to go directly to that file’s Journal entry. Click Play. Done.

    Once the XO’s screen has been rotated to the portrait orientation (and the display as well :)), the Up/Down game buttons zoom in/out, and the Left/Right game buttons go forward/backward (though the buttons are reversed IMHO).

    It’s in the documentation, but perhaps not widely known, but if you turn the screen brightness all the way down (using the dedicated keys on the keyboard) the screen switches to monochrome mode, and the effective resolution gets greatly increased. Text is crisper than just about any other display I’ve used, though there is no longer any backlight so you need a fair amount of ambient light to read it.

    If someone (Amazon?) could write a dedicated ebook downloader/browser/reader using the built-in application frameworks (e.g. browsing and PDF rendering are already done; they just need a wrapper with a real file/library browser), this could be a _very_ good eBook reader.

  19. […] the only way consumers may be viewing ebook content. Ultra-portable laptops like the Eee PC and OLPC XO are price-competitive with standalone readers. (I have an OLPC and reading by the pool in bright […]

  20. […] this over at The Reader.  It’s the first comprehensive review I’ve seen of the unit when used for this […]

  21. […] le blog The Reader, la conclusion est similaire. Le XO dispose à la fois d’un écran de bonne qualité et qui […]

  22. The power saving features are great – I particularly like the hand crank idea – such potential there.

  23. I like this blog. Keep on going 😀
    Please visit my blog at these topics business and entrepreneurship.

  24. wow, that’s a nice product. Attractive colors, low prices, and a must have gadget. Thanks for sharing

  25. Waiting this product launch. I think every people after try this will buy this reader.

  26. But how does one know if their XO has the latest software release? And if not, how does one acquire it?

    I agree with the early comment in spades, this cute little computer is certainly a long way from being intuitive.

    Some months ago I was able to display a PDF book by trial-and-error but was never able to replicate the feat.

    Our local library has PDF books available for checkout – maybe this is now becoming common around the country?

  27. Quite a moronish review. About having a device as a book reader, yet the reviewer hasn’t read a small library and shares the experience. Wasted bytes in the junkyard web.

    • The only thing “moronish” here is the above comment. Write your own net content if you’re such a genius.

  28. […] the only way consumers may be viewing ebook content. Ultra-portable laptops like the Eee PC and OLPC XO are price-competitive with standalone readers. (I have an OLPC and reading by the pool in bright […]

  29. Yo soy niño dinamisador

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