Gadget speak

Low-cost PCs compared, and ten questions to ask before buying a smartphone.

Separated at birth

XO-1 and Classmate PC

Computer chip maker Intel and Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) programme have been fighting a very acrimonious turf war since their messy divorce on the eve of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas at the beginning of this year.

At its biannual Intel Developer Forum (IDF) held in Shanghai this month, Intel announced the second generation of the Classmate PC and it's clear that it's gunning for the first world markets as much as the rest of the developing world. In fact, it can be bought in the US on Amazon with the first shipments expected in May for $489.

This is far more expensive than Negroponte's XO laptop, but this comes loaded with Microsoft's Windows XP operating system, a 4 gigabyte flash storage, built in webcam and one gigabyte of memory.

The Classmate's PC is clearly designed for tiny fingers and there are parental controls designed to limit access to certain websites. Also, teachers can take control of the machines via Wi-Fi and steer kids to various files and websites. Other than that, it feels like any budget laptop.

The XO, on the other hand, has been built from the ground up to access applications and the Web from a child student's point of view. It features a unique child-friendly interface that allows classroom collaboration in real time on applications and on documents. All the software is built on the open source ethos. Eventually, its creators hope that kids in Kenya, for example, will be able to develop their own software for the XO.

For all this idealism, the Intel machine has a far higher spec and is more closely related to a machine which children in the developed world would do their homework on. Therefore, on performance, the Classmate wins out

Sales of the XO has so far been disappointing. Last year's scheme to allow American consumers to buy one and give one free to the third world netted only 100,000 sales in total.

Recently, Negroponte has had to scale back his initial prediction that 150 million XOs would be sold in 2008.

Also, another very important issue which many pundits are asking themselves is: 'Who will fix them when they break?' Certainly, the OLPC Project has been keen to emphasise how rugged the machines are, but no classroom tool can truly attest to being unbreakable - especially where children are concerned.

Additionally, it has been argued that the developing world desperately requires transferable skills for the real IT world - and this means being able to navigate and gain a deep understanding of Microsoft Windows and its main applications.

Technology clinic

Standard DEF on HDTV

I have noticed that standard definition broadcasts on my HDTV looks worse than when we had a CRT television set. Why is this, and can anything be done to upscale the signal?

J Hughes MIET, by email

Typically, high definition television will use four or five more pixels than standard def to generate the same image. Therefore, the manufacturers have two options. Either they reproduce the standard definition faithfully, which would result in a very blocky image, or they fuzz the image to make it more palatable to the eye.

Most TVs that we have reviewed appear to do the latter. Most Blu-ray and HD-DVD players tend to upscale standard DVDs, but they are already working with a higher resolution signal than standard terrestrial signals.

Noise pollution

I travel on the Underground and want to use headphones that are loud enough for me to hear my music, but not too loud to disturb other passengers. What type should I opt for?

D Fentiman, by email

You have two choices. Firstly, you could invest in a pair of good quality headphones which emit less noise pollution than the ones usually supplied with most MP3 players.

However, the best option would be to invest in a pair of noise cancelling headphones. These work by reducing unwanted ambient sounds by means of active noise control (ANC). This involves a microphone, placed near the ear, which generates a sound wave with the opposite polarity of the sound wave arriving at the microphone. Thus the ambient noise produced on the Tube would be significantly diminished allowing you to lower the volume settings which would be good for your long-term hearing as well.

License to download

I have not owned a TV for five years, but I do occasionally watch video news reports on BBC online and I am considering downloading the BBC iPlayer. For either of these uses, would I need to purchase a TV license?

David Morris MIET, by email

We have spoken to the TV Licensing Authority and the current position is that you do not need to purchase a TV license if you are downloading or streaming content from the BBC iPlayer, as long as the programme you are watching is not a live stream that is also being televised. In practice, this will mean that you will be able to continue watching individual news reports on BBC News online. Additionally, you will also be able to download the iPlayer and watch programmes on the BBC's seven day catch-up service. 

How the BBC will be able to enforce this is open to question. However, it could theoretically compel ISPs to hand over information through the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

More questions will be answered next month. Send your queries to

Going, going, gone

Signed Marconi photo

A signed photograph of Marchese Guglielmo Marconi (25 April 1874-20 July 1937) will be coming up for auction at Bonhams.

Marconi is best known for his development of a radiotelegraph system, which served as the foundation wireless radio communication technology. His links with the recently formed Institution of Electrical Engineers were established when William Preece sponsored him to travel to the UK in the 1890s to begin work on his radiotelegraph system.

In 1892, before Marconi became a household name (even in many engineering households), he became a fully paid-up member of the IEE. His original membership can be viewed by IET members and the general public at the London home of the IET, Savoy Place.

At the time of going to press, the signed and framed photograph was not available to be published, but this original photograph (above) is from the IET's own archives, which can also be viewed.

The photograph on auction appears to have been taken in the 1920s when Marconi was far more celebrated. [new window]
Guide price: £500-£800
Auction date: 2 June 2008

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