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Ryan Cartwright [opinions]

A £99 GNU/Linux laptop: is it just too cheap? [gnu/linux] [education] [one] [elonex] [£99-laptop]

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
RAM (fitted/max) 128/256
Flash Storage 1Gb/2Gb
Network 10/100 & 802.11b/g (Bluetooth option)
Display 800x480 7" TFT
Ports 2xUSB, Mic, Headphone
Dimensions 22x15x3 cm
Weight 950g

The 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 tablet


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.


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.





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