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Printed Electronics World
Posted on July 31, 2007 by  & 

Super Cheap Laptops for the Third World

The idea of the super cheap laptop for the Third World originated with Professor Tom Negroponte and his team at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They have had an on off relationship with Intel in making it a reality - currently on again, though the competing product from Intel called Classmate is not necessarily abandoned.
The MIT product "gives learners opportunities they have not had before. Tools such as a Web browser, rich media player, and e-book reader bring into reach domains of knowledge that are otherwise difficult-or impossible-for children to access." It also "helps children build upon their active interest in the world around them to engage with powerful ideas. Tools for writing, composing, simulating, expressing, constructing, designing, modeling, imagining, creating, critiquing, debugging, and collaborating enable children to become positive, contributing members of their communities." And, of course, it plugs into limitless global sources of free education when it is able to access the web.
In February 2007, the MIT One Laptop Per Child OLPC not-for-profit project appointed Quanta Computer Incorporated as the original design manufacturer for the first model called XO-1, with a one million laptop order. The Taiwan company is the largest manufacturer of notebook computers in the world with around one third of the world market according to some reports. Initial designs owe little to printed electronics and it is remarkable how much cost has been removed using the older technologies, though clearly there is much more to come.
Technically most of the OLPC design objectives have been met. Used as an eBook text display and with low power consumption modes, it can run for up to 24 hours between charges. In normal use such as web browsing and word processing, etc the battery should last for 10 hours. Power consumption is 3 watts, one tenth of the power used by most laptops. This means less reliance on mains supplies and opens up the possibility of using it with child-friendly hand or foot-operated generators and solar panels. A ripcord is now preferred to a crank handle for this, because it is less exhausting.
The XO-1's modest power requirements are due in part to an efficent central processing unit with onboard graphics processor and memory, and by using microchip memory instead of a hard drive to store data and the operating systems - in this case a version of Linux, the open-source platform.
Most of the savings come from the 7.5 inch, 1200 x 900 pixel dual-mode, daylight-viewable LCD screen, which consumes less than 15% of the power of a normal laptop display. The screen is backlit, however, instead of high-voltage fluroscent tubes, it uses a bank of bright white LEDs. Wasteful colour filters in front of each group of picture elements or sub pixels have been replaced with a diffraction grating splitting the light from the backlight into red, green and blue components. The backlight can be switched off and the screen then changes to a crisp, high-contrast mono display using reflected ambient light.
Instead of the lithium ion (Li-ion) battery packs found in most laptops which can burst into flame (eg the Dell problem) the XO-1 uses lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) cells. More robust, safer and less toxic, they have a lower energy density than Li-ion cells and perform better and last longer in hot conditions. A built-in wireless adaptor and clever mesh networking allows multiple XO-1 users to communicate with one another and share an internet connection at slow data rates to save power. The "bunny ears" antennae, fitted to the side of the screen, provide stable, reliable wireless connections. PC to PC links of up to 550 meters are possible.
According to BBC News the final design will bring together more than 800 parts from multiple suppliers such as chip-maker AMD, which supplies the low-power processor at the heart of the machine.
BBC News also states that although the XO currently costs $176 the eventual aim is to sell the machines to governments for $100. The names of the governments that have purchased the first lots of machines have not been released.
Rivals are planned. Asus (which was going to build the Classmate for Intel) has announced a model called "Fee PC" due out later in 2007 with a 7 inch screen it uses Intel's Ultra Mobile CPU chip, comes with a choice of 2GB, 4GB, 8GB or 16GB of flash memory storage, has built in Wi-fi and ethernet, and a camera, for a projected price of $200 for the basic model.
The third option is "The Indian Institute of Science" working with the Government's Semiconductor Complex and the Vellore Institute of Technology to make a laptop that is as cheap as possible. They claim to be able to slash the price to $47, beating the $100 objective of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Daily Telegraph has recently claimed that the Indians aim for $10 but, as the paper notes, such reports should not be used to dismiss the effort in India . "No one is taking any bets."
IDTechEx believes that there will be more contestants, some of them not at all interested in the plight of the poorer countries but seeking to create a new under market in the rich ones. The contestants will probably add other printed technologies to the current partly printed interconnects and the current printed touchpad by ALPS Electric. This is a dual capacitive/ resistive pad that supports written-input mode. They will add printed antennas and printed flexible displays such as colour electrophoretics with printed inorganic compound or organic compound driver TFTs to replace the current glass LCD with aSi:H TFTC driver. Wide area multilayer batteries and photovoltaics will be employed. Then they will print logic, memory, microphones, cameras and loudspeakers. That is the IDTechEx view. A disposable laptop that a five year old can use as a hammer and drop in the toilet but it works afterwards? It will come.
References: -
Source top image: Telegraph, UK
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