A £99 GNU/Linux laptop: is it just too cheap?

A £99 GNU/Linux laptop: is it just too cheap?


On 28 February 2008, Elonex launched the Elonex ONE--the first sub-£100 laptop in the UK. Clearly competing against the much in-demand Asus EeePC [2], Elonex say they are aiming at the school-student market. The thing is, I just can't stop asking: isn't £99 too cheap for a laptop?

Family ties

Elonex have denied that the ONE is a re-badged Fontastic A-view

Elonex kept the specifications very close to their chest until the announcement at the Education show--a conference in Birmingham. Some tech sites had managed to speculate based upon the apparent similarities between the ONE and the Taiwanese-made Fontastic A-view. Elonex have denied rumours that the ONE is a re-badged A-view. As shown below there are certainly similarities between the two though.

Elonex ONE Fontastic A-view
CPU LNX Code8 300MHz Aday5F-300 Mhz
RAM (fitted/max) 128/256 128/256
Flash Storage 1Gb/2Gb 1Gb/2Gb
Network 10/100 & 802.11b/g (Bluetooth option) 10/100 (802.11b/g & Bluetooth options)
Display 800x480 7" TFT 800x480 7" TFT
Ports 2xUSB, Mic, Headphone 2xUSB, Mic, Headphone
Dimensions 22x15x3 cm 230x146x33 mm
Weight 950g 950g
The ONE and the Fontastic A-view: apparently not relatedThe ONE and the Fontastic A-view: apparently not related

You can add to those the fact that both come with LinOS Linux 2.6.21, sport the same "mouse emulator" (two each in fact), have a similar 3-cell battery (which Elonex claim will last for four hours). The same rugged hardware design is in both. Finally both have a removable keyboard, enabling the screen section to be used tablet style. If the ONE is not a re-badged A-view then they appear to be very close cousins.

Cutting costs

The specifications show how Elonex can put the ONE out at £99. I can't remember when I last saw a new PC product with a 300MHz processor and it is the hardware specs which make me question whether this product will fly. Like the EeePC the 7 inch screen will bring its own cost (and power) savings. Of course using free software gives a whole host of advantages, including in this case cost.

A detachable keyboard turns the ONE into a tabletA detachable keyboard turns the ONE into a tablet

Software

Elonex have nailed their colours firmly to the free software mast on this--er--ONE. From their website:

The ONE's ground breaking price point has been achieved by using the open source software Linux. This operating system has gained popularity in recent rears as it brings back the freedom of software development back to the individual, rather than the reliance on the monopoly of large corporations. It is hoped that the children learning computing on the ONE nowadays, will have the skills to design the software we will all be using in the future.

Note the use of the words freedom and monopoly there and they should be congratulated for the recognition that using free software will introduce skills not always gained from using proprietary software. This kind of statement is one of the reasons I really want this product to succeed.

Some of the included applications are not named but we can work out what they are. The office applications can import and export Microsoft Office documents (the spreadsheet screenshot looks like Gnumeric to me). A "cross platform instant messenger" compatible with MSN, Yahoo, AIM & ICQ sounded like pidgin even before the A-view specs gave the game away. Multimedia (although no mention of codecs offered), web browsing and e-mail also get a look in and there are 11 games (coincidentally the same number as on the A-view).

Is it good enough?

I have to be honest: I like the concept of the ONE a lot more than I trust my instincts on its long-term survival. I am worried that 300MHz and 128Mb is not really going to be enough to be editing a text document whilst listening to some music. Additional storage is handled by an associated range of USB wrist bands: ranging from 1Gb to 16Gb.

The graphics and audio chips are not mentioned anywhere but the ONE is unlikely to be requiring 3D acceleration or 5-speaker surround sound. Perhaps this product will succeed because of the marketing strategy. Elonex have really aimed this at schools--not just school kids--and it's possible that will pay off: if schools see the potential of the ONE. Certainly its price could well be attractive schools fitting out classrooms with them and the tablet feature gives it an extended scope over an average PC. I just worry that the resources will struggle if (when?) someone throws something big at it.

Uses outside of schools

Ever since I saw the EeePC--and now the ONE--I have tried to envisage uses for it beyond the promotional material. The immediate one I can think of for either is as a cheap loan laptop for users who travel. I often have colleagues asking to borrow a laptop for a long train journey. The size and weight of the unit will make this an ideal candidate. Considering this loan would be for a short few hours, the 7inch screen might just be tolerable. Another option is for it to be loaned with a data-projector to colleagues giving presentations.

Conclusion

I have to confess, I like the ONE and Elonex have done a lot to pitch it just right at their chosen market. I do have reservations about some of the hardware involved; having said that I doubt a proprietary-based machine could be sold at that price without a huge loss.

If you are in the mood for a ONE, you can reserve it for ready for delivery in June. It comes in four colours too.

So come on Elonex, prove my doubting conscience wrong. Prove that a sub--£100 laptop is possible and that free software can actually help our kids learn to use computers and not just some proprietary software which happens to have a monopoly at the moment.

References

[1] Elonex ONE

[2] Asus EeePC

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Comments

Terry Hancock's picture

"I am worried that 300MHz and 128Mb is not really going to be enough to be editing a text document whilst listening to some music."

Don't be. I know for a fact that these specs are adequate for those tasks. I have run LyX and XMMS on a 150MHz processor with 64MB of memory, so I'm not worried.

Of course, don't even try to open OpenOffice.org on such a system, but you don't need to.

I was using fvwm, not KDE, but nothing says you have to run KDE or Gnome on one of these. There's a number of lightweight window managers available. Some of them even approach the look and feel of something like KDE (Puppy Linux shipped with one such, IIRC, but I've forgotten it's name. I think it was "Joe's Window Manager" or something similar).

I have no doubt that experienced computer users used to more modern computers will find the ONE pokey, but then they can say to themselves "Hey, I only paid £99 for it!"

Kids of course, are more likely to not even notice, if this is their first computer. They'll just notice how fast the bigger systems are when they get onto one.

Personally, I am thrilled to see OLPC-style computers appearing for the developed world marketplace.

I think the manufacturers took notice of just how many "first world" geeks were drooling over the XO, and decided there must be a market for these things.

Ryan Cartwright's picture

Actually I know you are right. I too have run several desktop boxes with a similar spec but I've also seen the way some of my users will have seven or eight MS Word documents open "just in case" as well as browser, databases and audio players. I know the intended audience probably wont do this but as I said I've been thinking of this in a working environment.

Kids of course, are more likely to not even notice, if this is their first computer. They’ll just notice how fast the bigger systems are when they get onto one.

I agree and--if I can persuade my wife to let me-- I would like to get one of these for my kids in the next year or so (heck at this price even two!). They are both under 5 but already love GCompris and Tux Paint.

cheers
Ryan

PS - you get the prize for what is probably the shortest time between a post being published and somebody commenting on it :o)

Terry Hancock's picture

Actually, the system I'm writing this on (a few years out of date) has only 256MB RAM, and I run 20 virtual desktops in KDE.

When writing an article, I usually have Gimp with between 3 and 4 documents open, Inkscape with 2 or 3 windows open, Mozilla with 3 or 4 windows (and up to 50 tabs) open, 3 or 4 gVim windows, 3 or 4 Gnome Terminal windows, a half dozen or so KNotes, one Mozilla Thunderbird instance, and XMMS playing music (I used to play "Run Rabbit Junk" from the GITS TV soundtrack every time I edited the news, it really helped me focus. I usually play calmer music when writing columns).

I do just start to see a slow down with that kind of load, but it's well within my tolerance.

I think the CPU on this machine is in the 500-1000MHz range, but really, that isn't the big limit on running simultaneous apps.

Which leaves me to wonder what you have to be doing to actually need modern computer hardware. :-)

I can think of some examples of resource-hungry software: Blender 3D modelling, CAD, video editing, video streaming, some games. Also, if you're running a lot of servers on the same system, that can really weigh it down (Zope is kind of fierce on RAM requirements, for example).

The thing is that free software apps are really that much more efficient. Even though KDE is relatively "resource hungry" among GNU/Linux software, it's still nothing compared to MS Windows. You can do a lot more with a lot less hardware.

I used to have a laptop that I ran FVWM on, which I think had 16MB RAM, 150MHz Pentium processor, and a 2GB hard drive. Which was pretty usable (I couldn't really run multiple large apps at once on it, but it was fine for word processing and I did presentations with K Presenter or Mozilla on it). When I compare these tiny computers to that, I realize that either the ONE or the Eee would actually be an upgrade from the last laptop I owned.

Ryan Cartwright's picture

Which leaves me to wonder what you have to be doing to actually need modern computer hardware. :-)

Run the latest offerings from Microsoft? :o)

Do bear in mind that the ONE has 128MB RAM as standard and it is probably that which makes the difference. This will never be a machine for doing serious image editing or handling large documents (or .ppt files ;o) ) but I suppose it will handle most things--only time (and getting my hands on one) will tell.

melinko2003's picture

Gents I think we are really seeing the change of our linux culture always... I think these UMPC's will obviously give us the edge to develop more embedded OS/App and port to Mips/Arm processors/Alternative Arch's.

I think a few things could be addressed:

RAM/SWAP: make another Swap Partition on a USB 1GB.
Space: 8GB USB stick for storage.

Lets face it tech is getting extremely cheap and it probably wouldnt take much to find out the max ram the board can support and open it up and max it for 15 to 20$ more.

I do agree that this would be ideal for children or actually businesses as a way of putting a PDA like device on your with out shelling alot of cash.

If it uses Bluetooth likely you could find some one who could hack a PAN interface for it for cells and actually use this thing with out having to connect to a public network over say Edge or 3G.

Just a food for thought.

david-goodwin's picture

It does have some novel features (wrist strap, memory strap) that do set it out from the competition (EeePC) as far as I can see. Of course, it could be that in 2 months time we're all coo'ing over the next great UMPC offering that's cheaper/larger/faster/flashier.

Without having seen one, I do wonder how well they will take to the typical child battering - if they are only 100 quid - will they be durable to last more than a few months or years (i.e. how good is the build quality)?

My personal inclination would be to buy a 9" EeePC as it would have a large enough screen to be 'usable' (by my standards). Having said that, my 10 year old niece is thinking of buying a laptop and I said to her yesterday "Wait a few months, and you'll be able to buy a new one for 100 quid".

(As a side point - Elonex appear to be based in my home town, Bromsgrove, so perhaps I should get them involved in our LUG!)

Ryan Cartwright's picture

Without having seen one, I do wonder how well they will take to the typical child battering - if they are only 100 quid - will they be durable to last more than a few months or years (i.e. how good is the build quality)?

Well their site mentions a "splash-proof" keyboard a few times and the A-view site mentions rugged design. It would be foolhardy of Elonex to target that market and not build some kind of toughness into it. Still it does only weigh 1kg>

(As a side point - Elonex appear to be based in my home town, Bromsgrove, so perhaps I should get them involved in our LUG!)

Absolutely - I would have thought a ONE talk--not a sales pitch--from someone at Elonex would go down a storm at most LUGs :o)

Ryan

Terry Hancock's picture

I should like to point out that with the exchange rates as they are, the £99 ONE isn't that much cheaper than the $299 "Eee 2G Surf". Based on today's exchange rate of about US$2.01/GB£, that's about US$199 versus $299.

IOW, it's about 2/3rds of the price of the Eee.

Given that the ONE is indeed slightly lower spec than the Eee, and is being released several months later, there's no need to look for more reasons to explain the price difference.

I do wonder if the ONE will be available in North America (and for how much).

Which raises another question -- how much is the A-view, and where can you get one? I've seen this comparison before, and it's probably true that it's a rebadge, whatever Elonex says, but if you can't get the original, it's not really so much of a "rebadge" as it is a "badge". ;-)

Ryan Cartwright's picture

I should like to point out that with the exchange rates as they are, the £99 ONE isn’t that much cheaper than the $299 “Eee 2G Surf”. Based on today’s exchange rate of about US$2.01/GB£, that’s about US$199 versus $299.

Well as a UK resident I can buy the Eee 2G Surf for £249--there's a well known history of manufacturers simply using a 1:1 exchange rate when selling products that launched in the US. So much so that most Brits (in my circle anyway) seem to automatically assume a USD price will be the same in GBP. So for me the ONE is 40% of the price of the Eee. Also the sub-£100 price tag will be a key marketing factor methinks.

Which raises another question — how much is the A-view, and where can you get one? I’ve seen this comparison before, and it’s probably true that it’s a rebadge, whatever Elonex says, but if you can’t get the original, it’s not really so much of a “rebadge” as it is a “badge”. ;-)

True but Elonex are a manufacturer so I guess they don't want to be seen as merely an importer. I assume/hope that they also put a British keyboard on it as well.

Before writing this post I could have pointed you at the Fontastic site where it was possible to import one for around $120 (I think) but the product seems to have been removed from the site now.

Author information

Ryan Cartwright's picture

Biography

Ryan Cartwright heads up Equitas IT Solutions who offer fair, quality and free software based solutions to the voluntary and community (non-profit) and SME sectors in the UK. He is a long-term free software user, developer and advocate. You can find him on Twitter and Identi.ca.