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Portables Education

XCore's EduBook, a Netbook That Runs on AA Batteries 217

Posted by timothy
from the when-simplicity-is-key dept.
I'm typing this on a netbook with no hard drive, not using a chip from Intel or AMD, and powered by AA batteries. Eight rechargeable AAs, to be precise, in a bank of cells right where a Li-Ion battery would sit in a conventional laptop. The batteries charge in place, too (regulation prevents overcharging) meaning that the power cord is a simple three-prong-to-cloverleaf cord, no wall-wart required. It's the EduBook from Xcore (see that page for some photos of the internals, too), and it's a cool concept. Despite some warts, it's one of the most interesting things I ran into on the CES show floor last month (Xcore's Michael Barnes kindly supplied the laptop, straight from the display case). Read on for my review.

Yes, it runs Linux.
Before diving in to anything else, note that this is a laptop built for running Linux; the one I'm using is running Ubuntu 9.4 (Jaunty), and others that I played with briefly on the show floor were running instead Barry Kauer's lightweight (around 100MB by default) Puppy Linux. Though Puppy's quite a nice OS, I stuck with Ubuntu on the EduBook, because that's what I'm most used to.

Why 9.4, now nearly a year out of date? Because a few bits of stock Ubuntu caused hiccups, which Barnes blames on packaging goofs by Ubuntu. Xcore has tweaked the default drivers to get working two important subsystems -- networking and sound. (Puppy Linux apparently works on these fronts just as supplied.) Until I know that an upgrade won't result in a disconnected and mute machine, I'm sticking with what works. (Other distributions, including Ubuntu derivative Linux Mint, are reported to work well, too.)

Purpose, Philosophy, and Ingredients
The EduBook is what you might get if you gave the OLPC team a simpler mandate in their quest to provide laptops suitable for educational use: it's small, cheap to produce (currently, the retail price for this 512MB RAM/8GB SD version is about $200, depending on order size), fairly sturdy, modular, and upgradable — after a fashion. And like the OLPC project's XO, it's intended as an educational tool, and for distribution in places around the world where computers have long been too expensive to be common. To that end, the company's shipped machines (besides "quite a few" to the US, Canada and Mexico), to South America, Asia, the Middle East, and six countries in Africa (Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Uganda).

Modularity means the EduBook can be readily assembled inside or outside of an importing country, which can make a huge difference in the local price of a computer because of the vagaries of import duties and other taxes. Some countries charge higher import duties for importing un-assembled computer parts, though often the opposite is true. According to Barnes, "Indonesia now allows people to import computers with no tax. Thailand does as well. However, in both countries, they will apply taxes on the components if you bring them in as components. Both countries have programs where you can build in tax free zones and export but if you import the parts to assemble and sell locally, it is cheaper to buy it already assembled."

The machine's guts are made for flexibility. Unlike the all-in-one approach of Intel's Centrino line (incorporating wireless as part of a motherboard+processor package), the EduBook uses a x586 system-on-chip core (block diagram) to provide processor, video and 512MB of main memory, but farms out wireless and storage; for wireless hardware, there's essentially a USB slot and a niche carved out of the motherboard. That way, the latest and greatest wireless interface (or the cheapest and most readily available) can be added at assembly time, keeping the three external USB ports free. Any USB wireless device small enough to fit will do -- it just has to work with the OS. (The company also runs a development and support site for working with the quirks of running a slightly offbeat processor.)

The EduBook is upgradeable, but not user upgradeable. Instead, the parts are modular enough that new chip generations, larger SD cards, or improved wireless modules can be readily swapped in by the maker (or by local manufacturers) while preserving all the user-facing parts (screen, keyboard, ports).

For storage, there's another (internal) slot for an SD card — an 8GB card in my sample — presented to the system as an IDE device. No conventional hard drive (though it is possible to order one in place of the SD card) means that the EduBook lags even typical low-end netbooks for raw storage capacity, and SD cards aren't the speed demons that SSDs are. But this isn't a machine built for carrying a road-warrior's movie collection or sticking into a data-center rack, and XCore86 have snipped out probably the most common failure point for laptops. (And SD cards are easier to source and simpler to replace than hard drives.) In practice, and considering that the system-on-a-chip processor is also aimed at frugality rather than speed, it's hard to fault.

The outside of the case is typical (but tough-seeming) netbook: the only port on the back is the AC inlet to power the laptop and charge the batteries; on the right side of the chassis are two USB ports; on the left, one more USB port, along with ethernet, a VGA out (which I didn't test), microphone and headphone jacks, and a 10/100 ethernet port.

Facing the user is a perfectly nice, perfectly standard, 1024x600 LED-backlit display. A Pixel Qi daylight-readable one would be nice; maybe one will show up in a future iteration.

Fit, finish, feel
The input devices on a laptop with 9" screen are small, of necessity — but for me, even a small keyboard beats a touchscreen or thumbboard. The keyboard is of the "nearly full size" variety. The touch-pad, also constrained by reality (about 2.5" x 1.5") is smooth and responsive — perhaps too responsive. My hands aren't big, but I've still had some curse-inducing frustration and backspacing at typing on this.

One problem I have with touchpads generally (and most laptops are saddled with them) is that an inadvertent tap of the thumb while typing can lead to an accidental cursor jump or text swipe -- and suddenly you're typing in the middle of the wrong paragraph or wiping out a chunk of what's already been written, and scrambling for Ctrl-Z. On the EduBook, this happens far more frequently than I'd like, though it's teaching me slowly to keep my thumbs hovering a bit higher. In use, and knowing that this is a machine built for other than high-end multimedia use, the twitchy keyboard and pointer are my biggest complaints. Another nitpick: the trackpad's buttons work, but they're chintzy, and ever-so-slightly misaligned, catching the skin on my thumb slightly when I move from left button to right.

The case seems strong — a little brick-like, even, at slightly more than an inch thick. The bottom of the case (not metal, but heavy-duty plastic) features two large areas of corrugation for an additional bit of rigidity. I am skeptical of Barnes's claim that it compares well with the durability of the OLPC XO, but that's a very high bar: the sturdy case and solid-state storage sure make it seem more drop-safe than my 10" Asus Eee or most other laptops I've owned over the last 18 years.

What's missing
Going in, I knew this was a small laptop built for getting online and as a tool for school kids, rather than a high-end machine (in which case I'd have a different set of complaints). Taking the EduBook on its own terms, though, I'd like to see a few things:

- Better Battery life indicator. Though the reader can gather from an LED at the front edge of the case whether the machine is charged, charging, or drastically low on charge, it would be nice to have a better-integrated on-screen indicator for remaining battery life.
- An external SD card slot. After first dismissing such a slot as a novelty, owning two laptops with built-in SD slots has spoiled me for the convenience. And on a storage-lean device like the EduBook, its absence is notable. An external SD slot would make this machine a lot more flexible.
- An easier system to change the batteries. The bank of AAs lives behind a small door secured by a pair of small Phillips-head screws. It's a small thing, but one reason I like AA batteries as a power source is that if you really needed to, it would be cheap to buy a few hours' worth of power, or to keep a spare set of Eneloops or other charge-retaining rechargeables around. (No heavier than the wall-wart you don't have to carry.) On the other hand, the batteries aren't soldered in place, and carrying a mini-Phillips driver around is no great burden. And, since this is a device intended for schools and children, the company has no intention to make the batteries or other internals easier to get at. Having accidentally tried to recharge some alkaline batteries recently (in a wall-charger, not the EduBook), I concede this has some merit.
- Working Suspend/Resume. The great bugaboo of Linux laptops raises its head here, too; shutting the lid or selecting Suspend from the Gnome menu triggers the error message that "Suspend is not available on this computer." A shame, when power savings are part of the overall appeal.

Performance, and the Takeaway
The 2000ma batteries in my sample gave me between 3 and 3.5 hours unplugged; that's about an hour less than the best performance I get from my Eee laptop's 4-cell battery, but still a respectable netbook battery life (though falling behind the new generation of all-day machines). Charging (until the light on the case indicated a full charge) took between 4 and 6 hours.

Wireless performance was quite good at Seattle coffee shops and in hotel rooms in Las Vegas and Portland, but I've hit an odd hitch: it's finicky on the (Apple-based) network at my home — I can see a fairly strong signal, but sometimes can't connect. (Gremlins?) An ethernet port on the side means I'm not totally out of luck.

The practical outcome of using a processor that's proudly taking up the rear of the performance curve is that startup takes over a minute (I timed 1:05 from hitting the power button to the Ubuntu login prompt, and another 45 seconds to a Gnome desktop). The low-power chip means that it doesn't do Flash either (no Facebook Scrabble for you!), but using the EduBook for most Internet tasks, typing notes, creating scripts or other light programming, and even using The GIMP is acceptably, usably quick. But note: applications work fairly well once they've started, but that startup can be a bit painful; more than a minute for OpenOffice, for instance. A faster chip would be nice (and bumps to the processor speed are expected), but as a connection to the Internet with a real keyboard and a decent screen, capable of running standard versions of word processors, programming languages, graphics packages and more, it strikes me as less obviously innovative but more flexible than OLPC's machines. It's impressive to me that an x586 can run Ubuntu and Gnome as well as it does; though there are lots of promising developments in the world of non-X86 chips, too, right now X86 is still the target architecture for the bulk of Linux distros, including ones built for education.

All of this means that the EduBook is slow, but useful, not just in its intended classroom application, but as a knockabout netbook generally.
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XCore's EduBook, a Netbook That Runs on AA Batteries

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  • Should I be scared that the default country for the order form is Thailand?
  • It runs XP (Score:5, Informative)

    by shutdown -p now (807394) on Tuesday February 09, 2010 @06:18PM (#31078974) Journal

    One thing that review did gloss over, but which is right there in TFA, among the first things listed.

    "It can support Microsoft Windows XP." [norhtec.com]

    So Linux is one of the options for this thing (they actually list a bunch of distros that work, apart from the one they specifically designed for the thing), not the only option.

    Given the cries of how OLPC had sold out when they said they're going to support XP, I thought it would be kinda relevant...

    • If it doesn't start with windows then they aren't paying a windows tax so who cares?
      • by westlake (615356)

        If it doesn't start with windows then they aren't paying a windows tax so who cares?


        Where the Windows install = sales the seller cares a lot.

    • by iamhassi (659463)
      If I'm going to put windows on it I'm better off just spending $30 more and getting this [liliputing.com] with a intel atom, one gig ram, 160gb hard drive and windows 7.

      drop the price to $100 and I'll consider it
  • I got one of these! (Score:5, Informative)

    by hatten (1640681) on Tuesday February 09, 2010 @06:18PM (#31078976)
    I got one of these, and I were very surprised that it was covered here! I certainly don't think the case is very sturdy, a few millimetres plastic was easy to crack, and I've done that. I've got some evil pixels on the screen too after dropping it once. I got mine with ubuntu, but I managed to thrash X and have not taken my time to fix it, I use it on daily basis exclusively with vim, but being the CLI junky I am I almost like it more that way than with a gui. I carry it around for all my lessons in school and I'm very happy that I bought it. A little weird thing with it is that the usb ports are upside down, no clue if that's a feature or something stupid =p A big downside for me was that it is i586, something I didn't think off when buying it, meaning that distros such as Arch Linux won't run on it natively.
  • $199 too high! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jbridges (70118) on Tuesday February 09, 2010 @06:20PM (#31079002)

    You can buy a Lenovo S10 with 1GB of ram, 1.6Ghz CPU and 160GB harddrive for $249, and that includes WinXP.

    The AA batteries sounds interesting, but since all the netbooks come with a battery, and they are cheap enough to buy an entire new netbook with new battery when anything breaks or wears out.

    If this unit was $150 or less, it's slow CPU and AA battery power might make sense. But at $199 it's not worth it.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Weezul (52464)

      Two big reasons you're wrong. First, that $50 discount might be essential for many poorer kids, even in the U.S. Second, that $50 puts downward price pressure upon other netbooks.

      • Re:$199 too high! (Score:4, Interesting)

        by jbridges (70118) on Tuesday February 09, 2010 @08:26PM (#31080412)

        Except four things:

        The $199 price does not include WinXP. The $250 Lenovo S10 price does.
        The $199 price does not include 1GB of ram (only 512mb). The $250 Lenovo S10 price does.
        The $199 price does not include 160GB harddrive (only small flash drive). The $250 Lenovo S10 price does.
        The $199 price does not include batteries (AA or otherwise). The $250 Lenovo S10 price does.

        What does the $199 unit cost with a copy of WinXP Home, 1GB of RAM, a 160GB harddrive, and a supply of AA batteries?
        A lot closer to $250 than you imply.

        (and you have the much slower CPU in the AA battery unit)

        • by rahvin112 (446269)

          The "netbook" price MS charges for XP is $8 in volume. At that price it's inclusion or not doesn't mean much to the price.

        • Not everyone wants XP. Why does anyone would want to use an eight year old OS?
          RAM is cheap
          A flash drive may be preferable on a device like this
          AA batteries are cheap.
          AA batteries are easy to replace if you run out.

        • Re:$199 too high! (Score:4, Insightful)

          by Kris_J (10111) * on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:52AM (#31083522) Journal
          A small, fast flash drive is preferable to a big slow hard drive. I know, because someone at work bought one of the newer EeePCs with a 160Gig drive and it was basically unusable until we swapped in an expensive flash drive as a replacement. Until the extra money was spent on it, my 4G Eee was much better, even if I do have to manage my use of the system drive very carefully.

          Since I'm posting, the AA batteries are a HUGE advantage. I've refused to buy any digital camera that doesn't take AAs for ages now and the result is that the last three cameras I've bought are all still perfectly usable. Meanwhile, I'm onto the second battery for my Eee (which I effectively got by buying an entire 2G Eee fairly cheap), and my early digital cameras (which I spent quite a bit on) are glorified paperweights. There are some very, very nice rechargeable AA options [eneloop.info] out there and some seriously good chargers [thebatterywizard.com]. I've invested in some of this stuff and would love to be able to use it with my netbook.
    • Re:$199 too high! (Score:4, Informative)

      by MichaelSmith (789609) on Tuesday February 09, 2010 @06:47PM (#31079392) Homepage Journal

      The price is determined by what they can get for it, which is determined in part by the price of the Lenovo. If they don't sell enough the price will come down.

      • by westlake (615356)

        The price is determined by what they can get for it, which is determined in part by the price of the Lenovo. If they don't sell enough the price will come down.

        But not by much.

        You have to meet the costs of production and distribution. You have to show a profit. Your distributors have to show a profit.

        WalMart shed all its Linux inventory.

        When product doesn't sell, it may just be because no one wants to buy. Even at the deep discount price.

    • You'd be surprised at how many people will go out and by a Laptop simply because its $199. They don't care what it runs, how fast it runs, or even battery life. They want a computer they can carry around that they can plug in somewhere, and use it to type up stuff while they watch TV.

      And a $199 desktop, while probably more powerful, is too clunky to carry around, especially when you add the monitor on top of that.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      This is about damn time. Using standard rechargeable AA would be awesome. Right now, each laptop, netbook, and mobi has unique and expensive to replace battpacks, cords, and warts that have to be specially ordered instead of purchased off the shelf. You could replace AAs easily and inexpensively. Hopefully this will start a new open power revolution.

  • Charging AAs (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    AAs are typically charged in series by in-device chargers. That is significantly worse than single-cell chargers because small differences in the capacity of the single cells result in over-charging which kills the batteries. Li-Ion batteries on the other hand are always charged individually because they are actually dangerous when overcharged.
    There isn't a good reason to use AAs for a device which goes through one charge in a matter of days, especially when an unsophisticated charger is used. What we reall

  • by laing (303349) on Tuesday February 09, 2010 @06:29PM (#31079104)
    Somewhere in the bottom of one of my closets is a TRS-80 model 100. It also ran off 4 AA batteries. It sported a LCD display which could do 8 lines of 40 characters each and was likely the last computer that Bill Gates actually wrote any software for.

    See here [wikipedia.org] for more info.

    • by vlm (69642)

      I also had a model 100. Its important to note that the FOUR AA batteries literally lasted weeks. Perhaps 50 hours of continuous use? I know I went thru a set of batteries every month or so. Also the ancient static ram drew enough current in sleep mode to drain the batteries in about one year.

      This thing drains its EIGHT AA batteries in the traditional laptop 3 hours or whatever. Lame.

      My palmIII ran for weeks on two AAA, my ipod touch runs about one day per charge.

      • Yes, but your Model 100 doesn't run Linux.

        (I have a 102, and it was a great machine to learn machine language on, and hardware interfacing... I still have it a few feet away, for hardware interfacing and stuff)

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by ColdWetDog (752185)
        Yes, 4 AA cells can do wonders with an 8 x 40 coarse pitch B&W LCD screen with a refresh rate that barely kept up with it's 300 baud modem (maybe it was a 1200, mine is buried somewhere in the junk pile) and everything essentially in ROM.

        You do realize that your watch is more powerful than that computer?
    • I loved it. I'm sure it still works. I also have the acoustic (300 baud) coupler for the built-in modem.

      Also, there's the Newton.

      Some day maybe 2 week battery life will be back.

      • I loved it. I'm sure it still works. I also have the acoustic (300 baud) coupler for the built-in modem.

        For a moment there I thought you were talking about the edubook.

  • by Ukab the Great (87152) on Tuesday February 09, 2010 @06:45PM (#31079366)

    because critics would have lambasted the "XCore E8"?

    • by tool462 (677306)

      I'm personally more excited about the XCore System. Guaranteed to get the bugs out!

  • From TFA: "There is no bulky power adapter. The power supply is built inside the Gecko so that all you need to carry is a power cord."

    I've had enough ATX power supplies and laptop power adapters go bad... one of the latter even threw sparks and smoke. Never damaged the actual computer, and they were all easy to replace.

    The power adapter for my netbook is smallish, but bigger than I'd want embedded inside my netbook. And what about RF noise? What about safety? Sounds crazy, but I've had a waterfall (from a l

    • Toshiba made laptops like this for years. I don't recall it being a problem for them, I DO recall it being very convenient.

      I think I have a Satellite 100CS with Win95 on it around here somewhere like that...

  • I did RTFS, and even went to their site
    - $200 is a lot, there's netbooks for $250
    - the datasheet lists an external SD slot, the summary says there aren't any ?
    - available with up to 1 gig RAM
    - optional "real" batteries instead of 8xAA
    - Vista certainly not supported, otherwise they would say so.

  • by Fantastic Lad (198284) on Tuesday February 09, 2010 @07:03PM (#31079600)

    Soon on Slashdot, we will not longer be discussing laptop computers because they are going to be as ubiquitous and cheap (as in 'Toys R Us' cheap) as the humble pocket calculator.

    My Dad's first calculator cost $300 and it took a full pack of AA's and it had glow-y red numbers inside tiny light bulbs or vacuum tubes or something. And it came with a power cord. And it was the most exciting thing in the world! If there had been an internet back then, there would have been feverish discussion and hardware hacks and all kinds of 'boy' chatter regarding it and other devices competing for the same market.

    But nobody talks about pocket calculators much these days. We've solved them. They're done. They work perfectly, and most of the time the build-quality is somewhere between "Fischer Price" and "Dollar Store G.I. Joe reject".

    This is the second computer on a chip I've seen this week. ARM had an even smaller system which out-powered the one in this article by many orders of magnitude, all destined for the same market.

    Yeah, it's kind of cool that portable computers are about to be Capital-S SOLVED; that we'll have long battery lives combined with high computing power in a small form-factor, all for $29.95 (or less). Great. Computers are going to be no more exciting than a new binder, pencil case and protractor set. -And probably about as durable, because stuff that lasts doesn't make money. Welcome to the Industrial Age.

    Sigh.

    So stop and look around. These are the last of the, "Good old days". Breathe it in, folks. It's never going to be the same again.

    Of course, I'm sure we'll all find something new to get geeky about. Maybe radio-control cars will come back into vogue. Who knows?

    -FL

    • by mrfrostee (30198) on Tuesday February 09, 2010 @07:28PM (#31079888) Homepage

      My Dad's first calculator cost $300 and it took a full pack of AA's and it had glow-y red numbers inside tiny light bulbs or vacuum tubes or something.

      Those were Nixie Tubes http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nixie_tube [wikipedia.org]

      And it was the most exciting thing in the world! If there had been an internet back then, there would have been feverish discussion and hardware hacks and all kinds of 'boy' chatter regarding it and other devices competing for the same market.

      We mostly talked in person back then, but it was just as exciting.

      But nobody talks about pocket calculators much these days. We've solved them. They're done. They work perfectly...

      Why can't I find one as good at being a calculator as my nearly 30 year old HP-15c?

      • Why can't I find one as good at being a calculator as my nearly 30 year old HP-15c?

        xcalc -rpn on a linux smartphone?

        I still use my 23+ year old HP-15C at home, though.

        • by Chelloveck (14643)

          Or any of the dozens of HP emulators available for almost every platform that has two transistors to rub together... I use Free42 [thomasokken.com] on my n810. (Yeah, I know, it's not technically an emulator, but you'd never know that it wasn't running actual HP ROMs.)

          Though I also have the 25 year old HP-15C that got me through an EE degree, as well as a 42S and a 16C that I acquired later. They all work great and see almost daily use. Especially the 16C which is, without question, the best damn programmer's calculator ev

    • Even among pocket calculators there's a huge variety of different devices. Some are for complex scientific work, others are just for adding up your weekly grocery expenses. Surely the complex scientific calcs are going to continue to evolve, just like laptop computers will continue to evolve. Either that or they'll be replaced by all-in-one devices like smartphones running specialised software.

      I agree with the gist of your post, I think we'll see more and more "appliance" type computers which will be so sim

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 09, 2010 @07:14PM (#31079704)

    I purchased an Asus 900 model for $180 over six months ago that runs an intel atom at 1.6 GHz and has 1GB of RAM with a 4GB SSD, all for less than this slower model that has a higher cost and runs a smaller subset of the available software. Can somebody explain how this machine is worth the money?

    • by maitas (98290)

      I also payed 150 USD for my 900A, but it was refurbished on Ebay. A new one is 350 USD and that is what you need to compare this laptop against.

  • Wireless (WiFi) should be built in. Otherwise you're guaranteed a configuration headache to use a feature that should work right out of the box. Built-in camera is pretty much expected on these machines too. And, quite frankly, I'll stick with the "proprietary" battery packs that give another 2-4 hours of run-time, thanks.
  • My Bluetooth-enabled Tandy Model 101 runs on four AA batteries.

  • That would accelerate startup times of programs. (But at the expense of RAM, if not properly done.)

    One question: If the chip forces you to use Linux anyway, then why did they not use a ARM chip, and save even more energy?
    There are so many easy-to-solve problems in this one, that it boggles the mind.
    Batteries: Use a normal lid. Maybe with a locking mechanism. But not with screws.
    SD: cut a opening in the case, and you have a SD slot.
    WLAN: Same thing. Just make it so it has one smooth surface with the case, wh

  • Solar? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by AVryhof (142320) <{moc.bawag} {ta} {fohyrva}> on Tuesday February 09, 2010 @10:37PM (#31081476) Homepage

    12 Volts, 1.2 watts .... my eee needs 36 watts (12V * 3A = 36 watts) according to the power adaptor.

    For 31.65 + s/h I can make this Solar powered

    http://www.altestore.com/store/Solar-Panels/1-to-50-Watt-Solar-Panels/Kyocera-12W-12V-Mini-Solar-Panel/p718/ [altestore.com]

    I can see the application in this.

  • Hi,

    I liked that review. It was interesting enough for me to read it in full, and you seems to have covered everything I wanted to know, with no uncalled for overhyping or bashing.

    One minor gripe I have, not necessarily with your review per se but in general:

    Sure, GNOME and OpenOffice.org take a long time to start up, and Flash runs like molasses unless you have a beast of a CPU, but let's not hold that against the devices. It's the software that makes it that way. Every time a low-power device is introduced

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