Installing Ubuntu on OLPC XO

A few months ago I procured an OLPC XO laptop on eBay.  It’s a cute looking green thing, about 9 1/2 inches across.  It’s got a small but usable keyboard, and a great screen, which is readable even in direct sunlight (useful in Texas).  It has wifi (the “ears” on either side are the antennas), and a trackpad.  All in all the hardware is very cool.

The software is a different story.  They started well, basing it on Linux, the powerful and extremely flexible operating system more commonly found on servers, but then they decided that they needed to invent an entirely new type of user interface called “Sugar”.  The result is slow, unreliable, and not especially convenient.  For example, they threw away the concept of windows, meaning that the laptop could only display one program at a time, much like many cellphones.  I’m sure they thought this would be easier for children, but frankly I think this was a patronizing decision.  The OLPC project has been widely criticized for the mess that Sugar has become, it’s a real shame.

Fortunately it is possible to install other operating systems on the XO, and I decided to go for Ubuntu, a flavor of Linux that is extremely popular these days.  I found a tutorial explaining how to do this (there are a few different tutorials, I think that is probably the best one).  I needed to purchase an SD card so that I could install Ubuntu while keeping the original Sugar operating system intact.  Ubuntu apparently would have required less than 1GB, but I wanted to ensure I had plenty of room to install other software so $80 later I had an 8GB SD card, which slots discretely into the underside of the XO screen.

The instructions also said that I needed to obtain a “developer key” to “unlock” my XO before I could install Ubuntu.  Unfortunately this process takes 24 hours, and actually proved not to be necessary – I guess only some XOs require this.

The process itself was surprisingly straight-forward and painless, and required about an hour – much of which was just waiting while stuff downloaded or while it formatted the SD card.

Most people use the Xfce user interface, its fast, attractive, and convenient.  Here is a screenshot taken directly from the XO which shows the Xfce user interface along with a few apps including the Pidgin IM client, and Firefox (click for full size):

A few tips: Getting the XO to talk to your wifi network can be tricky, I recommend installing Wicd (“sudo apt-get install wicd”), a great utility for automatically configuring Wifi networks.  Additionally, after installation follow these tips to fix a few annoyances.

Anyway, I’ve got to say that I’m very happy with my XO running Ubuntu, my XO went from being a novelty toy to a useful tool.  It’s much easier to bring to a coffee shop and do some web surfing or read and reply to email than my 15″ (soon to be 17″) Mac.  I’ve even installed Xemacs on it so that I can play with Haskell, a programming language I’m currently learning.  All in all the OLPC XO is the best gadget I’ve purchased since the iTouch.

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