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Cheap Laptops for Children

I was recently browsing an electronics store and noticed some laptops designed for children advertised at $50AU. These machines were vastly different from what most of us think of when the term laptop is used, they had tiny screens, flimsy keyboards, no IO devices, and a small set of proprietary programs. It was more of a toy that pretends to be a laptop than a real laptop (although I’m sure that it had more compute power than a desktop machine from 1998).

After seeing that I started wondering what we can do to provide cheap serious laptops for children running free software. The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) [1] program aims at producing laptops for $100US to give to children in developing countries. It’s a great project, the hardware and software are innovative in every way and designed specifically for the needs of children. However they won’t have any serious production capacity for the near future, and even $100US is a little more expensive than desired.

Laptops have significant benefits for teaching children in that they can be used at any time and in any place – including long car journeys (inverters that can be used to power laptops from a car power socket are cheap).

A quick scan of a couple of auction sites suggests that laptops get cheap when they have less than 256M of RAM. A machine with 128M of RAM seems likely to cost just over $200 and a machine with less than 128M is likely to be really cheap if you can find someone selling it.

So I’m wondering, what can you do to set up a machine with 64M of RAM to run an educational environment for a child? KDE and GNOME are moderately user-friendly (nothing like the OLPC system, and even Windows 3.0 was easier in some ways) but too big to run on such a machine (particularly when GIMP is part of a computer education system). This should be a solvable problem, Windows 3.0 ran nicely in 4M of RAM, one of the lighter X window managers ran well in 8M of RAM for me in Linux 0.99 days, and the OS/2 2.0 Workplace Shell (which in many ways beats current KDE and GNOME systems) ran nicely in 12M). I think that a GUI that vaguely resembles Windows 3.0 should run well on a machine with 64M of RAM – is there such a GUI?

I have briefly scanned the Debian-Edu [2] site but the only reference to hardware requirements is for running LTSP.

12 comments to Cheap Laptops for Children

  • fig joe

    easy answer, Open GEM for FreeDOS :)

    lightning fast with less than 4Mb of memory

  • Having apparently not skipped the entire 90s like you, I remember KDE 2 running fine on 64Mb workstations of the time. I also know that Windows 95 screams on 32Mb machines and is two orders of magnitude better than 3.0, should running Red Hat 6 not sound palatable.

    Or, rather than taking the subject from a position of absolute ignorance of the modern world, one could use a distro like Puppy Linux, which is specifically designed for the use case where a well-meaning Linux user wants to impose GTK2 onto a ghetto laptop and have it run reasonably well. People seem to rave about Puppy Linux.

    – Chris

  • Xfce runs nicely on machine without that many ram, too, while staying user friendly.

    And you could find cheap second hands laptop.

  • etbe

    fig joe: Interesting answer, I hadn’t considered that option. I think that it’s a good idea to teach children about modern multi-tasking OSs rather than DOS. However for the basic stuff DOS would probably do OK if you can find the right freeware.

    Chris: If you had been using KDE in the 90′s you might have noticed that I was involve in maintaining the Debian packages, so I have a pretty good idea of the memory requirements of old versions of KDE. The problem is that maintaining older software makes some things more difficult. An old distribution will not run rpm or dpkg packages of recent educational software.

    Puppy Linux sounds like a good idea, thanks for the suggestion, I’ll have to investigate what it offers.

    Corsac: Thanks, I’ll check out Xfce. As for a cheap second hand laptop, I haven’t discovered a way of getting one cheaper than about $200.

  • Hmm, I remember trying out Athene a while ago. As long as you run it independent of an XServer (you can also run it inside an xserver) you can have a damn nice interface that is really responsive and that takes under 20MB of RAM. That’s about the lowest I’ve gone. Good luck :)

  • Anonymous coward

    You could consider installing CentOS 2.1, or maybe CentOS 3.9. CentOS 2.1 (RHEL 2.1) was derrived from Red Hat Linux 7.2. Security updates will be provided until May 2009. Since RHL 7.2 was released in 2001, it should work well on 2001-era hardware.

  • etbe

    Anon: Great idea! I’ve got some machines that I bought to run Fedora Core 1 which have run increasingly badly on newer versions. CentOS 3 should run well on them.

  • IceWM is a nice and small window manager, if you don’t want a complete desktop.

  • Netto

    To be honest… I think is the most stupidest idea ever giving children a laptop….! just like letting them all use calculators in school, the barely got through the end of year exam without one… Just like the no smacking your children, most children are becoming menaces by the age of 10 if not less! and what do they say… it’s ADHD lets just fill them with drugs and they will settle down… There was no such thing as ADHD back in the day…. BECAUSE THERE WAS DISAPLINE!!!! I remember getting flogged with a jug cord when i was younger, but i knew not to do it again cause it hurt. These days we are told to give them a pat on the bum and then go and buy them an ice-cream so they know that you still love them…. If we give every child a laptop to work wit at school it would be pointless even trying to teach them, which is probably why teachers will approve because that would be more money for less work they will have to do yet again!!!

    I mean, come on… in all honesty what are we allowing to happen to our future? why don’t they just supply every family with an at home desktop (decent at home desktop) for them to use after school and just incorporate a computer lesson once a week for the students…! every school has a computer room. They will still gain the computer skills. Just my opinion…

    Netto (age 24)

  • etbe

    Netto: Giving children calculators doesn’t mean not teaching basic arithmetic.

    Prohibiting the beating of children is only a problem for the sexual sadists who used to work as teachers so that they could get their jollies by hurting children. A good teacher can control a class without the use of violence.

    http://etbe.coker.com.au/2007/08/11/is-hand-writing-necessary/
    Teaching children how to write well (in terms of spelling, grammar, and effectively conveying ideas) does not require good handwriting (see the above URL).

    It seems strange to me that people want to ban laptops and calculators in school when they are common in the work-place (and everywhere else that you might desire them). Is school meant to prepare children for work or university or is it meant to train them for the 19th century bureaucracy?

    Of course this is all entirely irrelevant to the issue of whether toy laptops running proprietary software should be replaced with laptops running free software that the children can modify.

  • Netto

    OK… I do see where you are coming from, don’t get me wrong, But…
    1) I wasn’t talking about the cane at school or whatever you were talking about with sadistic teachers…? I was talking about the right for parents to smack there own kids for discipline at home which has been taken away… and mate, i have no idea where you got the idea that i was speaking otherwise but sorry for standing on your toes with that one…

    2) Yes of cause they will be able to spell properly, all that time as a matter of fact… it is only a click away to use spelling and grammar check. hey and even a thesaurus… they will be the brightest kids in the nation (with a laptop at hand).

    3) School can and do train them for the work force at the moment (some teachers are a bit lazy about it but just because they have laptops doesn’t mean the teacher is going to teach any better)…
    Not only will it apply extra weight to their carry load (which was what was being argued just a couple of years ago with children’s posture with the different style backpacks and whatnot), but it also helps define the financial differences between families (as if a parent who has money is going to make their child have a cheep $50 laptop when there is new one coming onto the market for only $5000… if you catch my gist) and also putting them at risk of been done over by some stranger that wants quick cash when seeing them on there way home from or to school with a laptop… as well as the replacements that is going to cost the parents because a laptop will be a necessity for school work and the older style will soon become out of date (weather it be just a strait out crap laptop that doesn’t last, not enough ram to store new updates (the school will want to introduce new programs that are easier for them to get there point across, we all download the newest software due to updating reasons), It just gets old, it gets dropped, it gets wet in the rain, it gets stolen…etc)….

    But with all said… it is just an opinion, and it doesn’t have the slightest to do with toy laptops and everyday software.

  • etbe

    Netto: I’m not aware of any laws that prevent parents from smacking their own children. Can you cite references to back up your claims? There have been attempts to ban smacking but none have been made into law AFAIK. Flogging with a jug cord is getting into S&M territory IMHO.

    One key to learning is to have mistakes correctly quickly. Having a word-processor indicate a spelling error immediately instead of a teacher underlining it in red when returning the assignment a week later will help children to learn correct spelling. My own spelling improved dramatically when I started to use such software.

    As for schools, I’ll write a new post about this. Incidentally none of this discussion is related to my blog post.