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Was the OLPC XO-1 the worst laptop ever? (Part 2): Another Brick In The Wall

Posted 01-13-2022 at 01:07 PM by slackmensch
Updated 01-13-2022 at 01:12 PM by slackmensch


It was only after I was rescued--which gave me internet access among other things--that that I discovered why my OLPC mysteriously bricked on the eve of my solar power supply success and I ended up talking to Miseur Le Futbol for another couple years. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

After I had cobbled together enough solar panels from a box full of yard lights (I spared a few for cave lighting and the spikes they were stuck to were good for spearfishing, but that's another story....)

Planes have lots of wires, made more accessible when they crash. Stripping the ends of them was easy with a lighter. (If you try this at home, make sure to hold the wire with pliers or tongs and not your fingers.) Cutting wires proved troublesome thanks to post-911 security protocols having prevented anything sharper than a spork getting onboard. I had only to look to the shattered, charred remains of one of the engines to find all the sharp twisted metal I could possibly need. (I never did find where the other engine dropped.... Probably fell in the ocean or down a valley.) Alas, a soldering iron and flux was not to be had, but there weren't too many connections since each yard light contained a AA battery and a panel much bigger than my little calculator's 4 square cm panel.

I could go on and on about the hassles of trying to connect enough solar yard lights to charge a laptop with no tools except a Bic and some twisted metal scraps. But ultimately, none of that mattered thanks to an OpenFirmware bug which effectively bricked the laptop. Bear with, bear with.... Now, it took me a few weeks to get the charging system set up: there were other demands on my time like catching fish to eat and fetching mountain apples from the highlands to ward off the scurvy and constipation. Eating the lizards which are everywhere could have saved me some time, but they looked colorful in the way poisonous creatures often do so I never tried eating one. The point is that the OLPC sat for a while and that was my critical error. Goodbye French tutorials, music, and wikipedia, hello Mr Football.

I shit you not: a laptop intended for 3rd World distribution contained a firmware bug which effectively bricked it when the BIOS coin cell battery drained completely (or was removed by a curious tinkering kid) resetting the clock to 1970. None of the very smart people at MIT thought to check what happens if the BIOS battery goes dead before sending thousands of them to villages with no power?! Who was in charge of QC? Howard Wolowitz?

The screen stays completely black, the power LED lights up and that's it. No more laptop. At the time, I just shrugged and figured it must have been a dud. Or maybe the crash had jarred it a little harder than Negroponte could by throwing it across a room. At least I had found some good spears and night lights from the (intact) remaining yard lights.

Post rescue, I discovered that you could fix it pretty simply by connecting a USB to RS232 serial converter to the tiny debugging port, using minicom or screen (running on a second PC) in to send a command to the firmware to reset the clock to something reasonable, reboot, and immediately doing a firmware update from SD card or USB pen drive. The serial port is a tiny, weird connector with 4 wires, 3V, GND, RX, TX. The USB-Serial device is cheap and easy to get from SpockFun or whatever your preferred Radio Shack is. Connecting the 4 wires to the tiny connector is fiddly and difficult. I ended up using 2 old Palm battery connectors (each has 2 wires in a plastic plug that looks like JST but is smaller) which I still had to file down even smaller to make them fit in the OLPC serial socket. Guess this is why people gouge $100+ on eBay for the original serial interface cable from OLPC.

If my OLPC had not bricked, I might also have discovered that it has very little memory (256MB) and Sugar UI has a big memory leak. It might be interesting to see whether the memory leak locks it up before the battery runs out in a few hours. But Mr. Football has been nagging me to get a life, yum install WindowMaker, and stop acting like I still live on the island. Shut up, Mr. Football.
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