[sugar] First impressions of a B4 machine

Ivo Emanuel Gonçalves justivo
Mon Jul 23 01:29:50 EDT 2007

Hello Sugar and Devel lists,

I finally got my hands on a B4 machine, which I will be using for Xiph
compatibility tests, among other things.

However, I got so many things to say about the system presently that I
might as well just post a First Impressions thread.  Hopefully, some
of my points will be considered to improve the XO laptop.

The first thing I noticed is how tiny the laptop is.  I'm really
enjoying the hardware, and I believe it's a real killer combination
for a durable and powerful machine for children.  The laptop is
perhaps too heavy for a child, though.  I can notice the weight, so I
imagine how a badly nourished child will deal with the weight by
him/herself, perhaps for 1 or 2 km's to the nearest school.  Maybe the
components will be more and more miniaturized in following versions?
It's still a valid concern.

Speaking of the components, I have a few environmental concerns, but I
think I will save them for a future thread.

Being able to rotate the display of a screen that can already rotate
360? is pretty useful, not to mention awesome.  Congrats to whoever
designed the system.

Booting XO was fast for a Linux system, but very likely not fast
enough for a child expecting it to turn on immediately.  I guess it
can't be helped.  What could be done, however, is hide the diagnostic
dialogs with a simple splash screen stating POWERING ON, or LOADING,
or whatever.  It's cute and would not confuse the children.  I mean,
we don't want them to think: "Hey, what's all this alien garbage on
the screen?", instead of paying attention to class.

I have to say that Sugar looks pretty neat.  Really neat.  It's simple
to understand, efficient, and easy to use.  What's not so obvious is
that you have to push the square button on the top right to be able to
go back to Sugar after loading a program.  Took me a while to figure
that out.  It's a no-brainer afterwards, though.

I don't understand why the XO asks for my name after I turned it on
for the first time, as it has never greeted me by my name since, nor
does it seem that my name has any importance for school work.  It
doesn't even show up on the /home folder.  I suppose this may change
in the future of the XO development, but right now it makes no sense
to be there.  I have really seen no point to the color switcher of the
XO logo, either.  It seems my "version" of the XO logo stays in
Sugar's background, but otherwise seems to have no other use.  It
doesn't seem we may switch the color afterwards, either.  Useless

Before going over the software choice, may I question why the choice
for Fedora?  Yes, I understand the OLPC has some kind of agreement
with Red Hat, and it's all fine and well, but Fedora is known for its
"bloatness".  Why not look into smaller and more XO-adequated distros
like Damn Small and similar?  Is it because of SELinux?  SELinux may
be put on any distro.

One of the big issues I have found so far should be easy to solve.
And that's the file system.  Pretty much every program under the XO
with an Open/Save File dialog displays the entire mess that is the
Linux filesystem.  Are children supposed to even see that?  Why not
use a .hidden file?  Most GTK and Qt applications that I know of obey
its rules and hide every file marked that shouldn't be seen.  And that
kind of behavior makes sense.  They should only see /home and /media
-- maybe not even those two; I have a better suggestion further below.

Let's go over the programs, shall we?

Paint, is this the famous Tux Paint?  I have heard that it is a very
neat drawing app for kids, but what I saw so far was an Open/Save
interface more awful than the one used by the other porgrams.  What
the Niflheim where the developers thinking?  It doesn't make any sense
for the children.  Heck, it doesn't make any sense to me.  Somoene,
please fix it.

One of the export options allows one to save the work as a ICO file.
ICO file?  Where, but where in the world are the children going to use
the Microsoft Windows Icon format?  It's better to remove this
"feature" for the sake of taking out clutter.

Editing large images in Paint is a nightmare since the direction keys
are of no help and the Sugar scrollbars are so thin they are almost
invisible.  The thin scrollbars are a good idea, so I suggest instead
to make the direction keys work to scroll through the image.

I liked the e-Book reader.  Simple and efficient, especially
considering the XO's e-book mode.

I haven't yet looked into Tam Tam.  It seems like fun.

I have looked into Tetris, though.  Tetris?  It was a fun game back
in, what, the 80's.  I don't think it offers much as educational tools
go.  I believe a bit of research on what games other educational
distros (like Edubuntu) are using may be helpful.  Look at GCompris,
for instance.  Now those are some fun and educational activities for
kids.  I'm not advocating the removal of Tetris, but it should be
something to consider to replace it with something better.

I have read on Wp that there's going to be a Sim City clone for XO.
Now that would be awesome.

RSS Reader.  I don't have WiFi around here to test it, but it seems
it's PenguinTV according to the OLPC web site.  PenguinTV is a neat
app, but it's locked in RSS and offers no support for XSPF, which is
an Open Media format.  I contacted its author on this matter, but he
says he has no plans to support XSPF in the near future.  I call to
boycott this program entirely until it does.  It's a radical approach,
I know, but making sure the XO is powered by OM formats and not
proprietary ones should be a top concern.

Well, the thing about free software is that someone may patch it
before the author himself does.

Next comes the browser.  It's based on XULRunner.  I have to ask why.
XUL is a resource-hog.  I think only Java can beat XUL on resource
a-hungry, and even then, by little.  Do you know that Gecko-browsers
have the slowest Javascript parsers of any other modern browser?  If
the project insists on a Gecko browser, do take a look at Epiphany: no
XUL!  KHTML browsers are a good alternative, too.  Any browser that
will include support for the upcoming <video> and <audio> elements of
HTML 5 is a good choice, anyway.

SeaMonkey, while XUL-based, is an entire Internet suite, so it may be
another interesting choice.  Small distros like Puppy OS use it.

Next is AbiWord.  Why was it not stripped of support for most file
formats?  Microsoft Word .doc is proprietary and should be removed,
not to mention it's useless for children using XO -- none of their
classmates or teachers will be using Microsoft Word.  AbiWord's own
format should be removed because its useless for interoperability and
ODT does a fine job by itself.  RTF?  Who uses RTF these days?  This
is all bloat and has no point for the children.

OpenDocument should be the default format for saving new documents and
open older ones.

HTML support makes sense if children will put stuff on the Web, and if
so, HTML should be kept in its simple form, no Multipart HTML crap,
which doesn't even work on XULRunner, anyway.  Plain text support is
always a good idea, after all, Linux is all about editing text files
:)  However, I have no idea what "Encoded Text" is.  Other character
sets besides ANSI?  Useless.  It only confuses the children.
Appropriate handling of character encodings should not force seperate
text formats.  Actually it's not even a problem anymore with Unicode

If it could export PDF as OpenOffice does then Abi would become quite
useful.  That's not the case, right now.  I heard there's an
unofficial plugin to do this.  Maybe worth looking at?

Finally, there's no Media Player right now.  How will children see
educational videos?  Or hear audio lectures?  Or analyze images
outside of Paint?  There are plans to add something based on
GStreamer, and that's great, but keep in mind the three aspects of
media: video, audio, and image.  All in one place to make it easy.

Oh, and let me talk about the shell.  Is this really bash?  Why, oh
why?  BusyBox is so much better suited here, especially considering
the limitations of the XO, so why put bash here?  It's not like the XO
will be used by bearded UNIX users and their emacs.  The shell's there
to rescue the system in case something goes wrong, am I right?  Avoid
clutter.  BusyBox will provide a more efficient shell for XO.

Next thing I know and someone's gonna tell me that the XO software is
not compiled against uClibc or dietlibc. . .  It is, right?  Right?

And what's the point of /home/OLPC?  What's the point of the home
folder at all?  I don't reckon XO allows a multiuser environment, so
it just makes sense to create a /Documents folder of some kind.

/Documents and /Media.  Hide everything else.  Seems wise to me.

Speaking of /Media, which would be for media devices, where's the
device manager?  How am I supposed to use a USB key?  I don't see how
to mount one outside the shell, and the system doesn't mount it
automatically, either.  How are children supposed to work with files
on USB drives?  We can't expect them to know shell commands.

Following this line of thought, a very simple file browser may be a
good idea, too.

Bug: Anytime an Open/Save dialog shows up, the program cannot be
closed.  This may confuse children.

Battery: Drains too fast, even while the CPU is idle and the display
is set on B&W mode.  How long are the children supposed to have XO
turned on?  2 hours a day?  Three?  More than that seems unlikely
right now.  Or is it just my battery?

And that's it for now.  I have to say that while I'm impressed with
the hardware, I am not impressed with the software.  There's still
space for a lot of improvements, although I hear the launch day is
soon on the horizon.  Probably not a good idea, but everyone knows how
these things tend to turn out.

I release this little review under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0
License, just in case my little (read: big) rant will help improve XO.
 Don't want Copyright to get in the way.

Before I go, does anyone know who I have to contact to get a developers key?

Thank you for your attention,
Ivo Emanuel Gon?alves,
Xiph.Org Foundation

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