Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child initiative has historically been more about promise than fulfilment. But in the $US100 XO 3.0 tablet, OLPC may have its first product that's not just practical, capable or cheap. It's actually… good.
The first thing you need to know about the 8-inch XO 3.0 is this: it's not the paper-thin sci-fi wet dream slate first suggested by OLPC's renders of two years ago. But that's a good thing. That tablet would have been better suited for the Enterprise sick bay than the impoverished international locales the XO 3.0 is destined for.
Today's prototype, the one that actually exists, is thicker than we're used to tablets being, but with that thickness comes sturdiness, a sense of — if not indestructibility — extreme sturdiness. That sense of durability comes from heft and girth but also from thoughtful touches, like a playfully textured, rubberised, waterproof back, and a glass display that stands up better to harsh UV rays than OLPC's previously preferred plastic screens. There's a waterproof cover, as well, identical to the back, that smoothly slips over the display, protects the tablet's ports, and keeps the XO 3.0 dry in harsh conditions. It's cheap, but it's a survivor.
There's not much to say about the specs other than you wouldn't want to take them home with you — Marvell Armada PXA618 guts, 512MB of RAM, 4GB internal storage — but those ports are worth a second look. There's your standard USB, microUSB, audio in/out, sensor input. But there's also what makes OLPC products so crucial for places where energy comes at a premium: a charging port designed to accept a wide range of DC power inputs and, more importantly, to convert that power far more efficiently than the gadgets we're used to. You could, for instance, plug in a hand crank and get up to 10 minutes of power for every one minute of elbow grease.
In fact, as a piece of hardware the XO 3.0 seems perfectly suited to its target environs. The only possible trip-up may come in the software, which doesn't seem quite fully baked. It'll come with either Android or OLPC's own Sugar OS, and while we weren't able to check the Googleised version, Sugar was noticeably slow and not particularly intuitive. You're met with a swirl of icons, each of which opens a different educational app, but it's difficult to tell which icon does what, and the layout isn't very intuitive.
But ultimately, those are complaints that can either be addressed over time or brushed aside with the reminder that this isn't an iPad or a Fire or a Tab. Remember, OLPC's laptop project of several years ago is the progenitor of the netbook as we know it. The XO 3.0 seems inclined to play the same role for tablets. It's a product that recognises that a healthy degree of compromise is more than worth getting technology in the hands of people who need it most and can afford it least. It's a promise, fulfilled.