The NorhTec Gecko Edubook is unlike pretty much any other netbook on the market right now. Sure, it has an 8.9 inch. 1024 x 600 pixel display and a small keyboard. But it has an unusual 1GHz XCore86 CPU which can be popped out and easily replaced. The entire OS runs from an internal SD card, which is also removable. And while Lithium Polymer battery packs are available, the system is also designed to run on normal NiMH rechargeable AA batteries.
All of this means that this low cost laptop is modular, easy to upgrade and easy to fix. If your batteries run down, you can just go out and buy some new rechargeable AAs to replace them instead of sending away for an expensive battery pack from the manufacturer. NorhTec advises against using alkaline batteries, since the power cable is designed to charge the batteries while plugged in.
Although a number of Linux and open source hackers have expressed an interest in the Edubook, it’s aimed squarely at education markets in developing nations. A single Edubook costs just under $200. If you order $10,000 units, the price drops to $145. If you happen to be in a position where you can order 100,000 you can get the price down to under $100. although it’s also proving popular with Linux and open source hackers.
OK, that’s the cool part. Here’s the less cool part: It’s slow. Very, very slow.
Now, to be fair, the NorhTec Gecko Edubooks is not designed as a laptop replacement for users in the developed world. As such, it’s probably not surprising that it’s slow to boot, applications are slow to load, and multitasking performance is subpar. The question is: are these things OK for a child in Africa? If it means getting access to a computer that might not otherwise be available, perhaps. And because you’ll be able to pop out the system-on-a-chip CPU and replace it with an updated model when they’re available, we could see faster versions in the future.
The demo system that NorhTec sent me shipped with WattOS, a light weight Linux distribution based on Ubuntu. I had a chance to experiment with WattOS on the Edubook for a little while, and then I decided to install Windows XP using the driver disc that NorhTec provided. You can check out video overviews of each OS after the break.
WattOS takes a while to load, and once it’s up and running, it takes a surprisingly long time to move from the login screen to a usable desktop.
While the version of WattOS that ships with the Edubook does come with a number of media players, video playback is pretty much a non-starter. I had a difficult time getting local video to play, let alone Flash video.
I installed Windows XP using a USB DVD drive, and while I wasn’t keeping an eye on the clock, the install process probably took somewhere around 4 hours. That’s not a good sign. The notebook does run Windows XP, and I was able to install the drivers and several other applications including the Google Chrome web browser and VLC media player.
But VLC crashed when I tried actually playing videos. I was able to get a few videos to load using Windows Media Player, but they tended to be choppy at best, and play at half speed at worst. It’s possible that some video formats, bit rates, and resolutions may play better than others, but the Edubook is sluggish enough that I don’t feel like spending more time experimenting. And again, it’s not really designed for multimedia playback.
Using the Google Chrome web browser, I was able to visit Google, the New York Times, and Liliputing. I was able to load Gmail, but performing simple tasks like reading or composing email messages was excruciatingly slow.
I also had an easier time getting the WiFi working under Windows, using the Realtek driver provided by NorhTec. For WattOS, NorhTec included a set of command line instructions that were quite honestly, a bit beyond me. I have some experience using Ubuntu and other Linux distributions, but I’ve been spoiled by graphical user interfaces over the last decade or so.
As far as the computer’s other hardware, the keyboard is quite small, but it should be large enough for a children’s hands. The screen is about part for the course, offering decent but not spectacular brightness and color.
Update: I go ta chance to try Puppy Linux on the Edubook, and man does it fly! Video playback is still troublesome, but the computer is much more responsive and web browsing performance is quite acceptable with Puppy.
For nostalgia’s sake, here’s the unboxing video and a second short video I shot the same day taking a look at the netbook’s hardware:
Some comments: The heat is not from the CPU but from the batteries charging. If you run the units on battery, the unit will be barely warm to touch. We have modified the circuit. The first units charged the batteries in 1 hour. We are slowing that down to 2 hours which is cooler. We also added a circuit to monitor the temperature of the batteries. This will stop charging if the temperature is over 60C and start up when it is under 55C. As for speed, we have made many suggestions in the manual how to tweak XP. We also suggest which video players to use with which type of files and we do tell people that the unit is not designed as a movie player but is more intended for web browsing.WattOS has a GUI for setting up the WIFI. In our manual we suggest the people run videos in .flv format when possible and we suggest mplayer for Linux and smplayer for Windows. We have a new video driver for Linux which improves video playback. We are constantly trying to tweak the performance. Once again, the target market is the same market that has been using OLPCs and simalar fanless computers. The XO 1.0 ran at less than half the speed, has half the RAM and 1/8th the storage and sold for more money. We have also been shipping some units with Puppy Linux. We put a video up and this is the fastest OS we have tested yet.
The screen brightness can be adjusted using the function keys. The screen is rated 400NIT and most people have commented how much they like the screen All of the photos we have posted with the screen are untouched.
A faster SD will improve results. There are two SD slots so users can use the SD card with whatever speed SD they choose.
The SD Card is a major bottleneck, check which class it is. They’re probably using a class 2-4 card, so you can get more video playback by just upping to a class 6 to 10 card.
But a real SSD, instead of just a Flash Memory Card, will make a significant difference.
It’s too bad that the Haiku OS project (open BeOS) isn’t more developed. I remember using Be OS 4.5 and 5.0 and it _screamed_ on 300-400 mhz pentium ii class hardware.
I’d be curious to see some benchmarks of this Xcore CPU vs. an N270.
I figure Puppy Linux would actually run quite well on it considering it runs completely in RAM?
Yes – exactly… not the CPU but instead I/O maybe is the problem. The frequent “overhead” small files being used or stored, could be something of interest? Maybe yry the suggestions in the link that will follow, and with the suggestions then move some of the stuff suggested to RAM… and once done, then maybe the system would appear to be quicker from a “user” point of view with changes? See:
USE TMPFS TO PROTECT SSD!!!
I commented in a previous post that often with these “slower CPU” designs that when speed is an issue that you have to look at all the factors. I experimented with a $299 HP 2133 with Novell SLED Linux and golly was it slow (seemed to hang up due to the SSD being SO SO SO SLOW and cheap that the OS ran into “wait state” problems maybe and kept hanging or locking up, needing a reboot). I fixed this with several changes. ONE was a “lighter weight LINUX – Crunchbang worked but was also slow, then I also tried a faster SSD and that worked wonders). Have you tried a super fast SSD like the PATA one from RUNCORE in this Gecko Edubook to see if that speeds things up (search google for JKKMOBILE RUNCORE PRO IV… and you will get an idea from the video what kind of changes that a fast SSD can do for a netbook, in JKK’s video even the video processing was much much better as he points out).
The Gecko Edubook has a PATA connector in it, have you given a regular hard drive or a faster PATA SSD a try?
I’m really tempted to get one and try running Mer on it: https://wiki.maemo.org/Mer
The 400MHz ARM CPU in my Nokia N810 is great for surfing the web with Mozilla Fennec and playing small games; I think this thing could be a lot of fun with a stripped-down OS.
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