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Published Feb. 12, 2008

Little, cheap and sturdy, laptops are bringing technology to children of developing countries. But don't expect them to do much for high-tech kids in the United States.

This winter I handed one, Intel's Classmate PC, to my 14-year-old son, who has been pestering us for a computer to use at school.

My sister and her husband in Seattle bought their kids an XO laptop from the One Laptop Per Child Foundation, telling their 10-year-old daughter Rebecca to "have fun, figure out how this works, and teach the rest of us." Rebecca was thrilled.

Within a few weeks, however, both computers were barely being used, benched by lackluster performance and frustrating bugs.

The Classmate PC and the OLPC are the leading players in the emerging market of rugged, low-cost laptops designed to educate children. Analysts at Gartner say more than 6-million of the ultra low-cost PCs will ship by 2012. Fewer than 100,000 are circulating. Neither the Classmate PC nor the OLPC is for sale in the United States.

The OLPC is a tutor, designed to educate a child who may not have a teacher; the Classmate PC comes with software for classrooms.

One Laptop Per Child is a nonprofit founded in 2005. The concept was to offer a "$100 laptop," but prices have crept up on the low-power "XO" computer, now selling for closer to $200. My sister and her husband bought theirs for $400, but it was part of a deal offered during a six-week window that allowed them to keep one and donate one to a child in a developing country.

The OLPC runs on the Linux operating system and a chip made by Advanced Micro Devices. The software was complicated and buggy. For weeks neither my niece nor her parents could figure out how to get it online. They had to reconfigure and upgrade the operating system, a complex process. Pity the child with this instruction from the Web site: "At your root prompt, type: olpc-update (build-no) where (build-no) is the name of the build you would like."

Upgraded, the OLPC has been slow, requiring repeated attempts to log in and balking at opening more than a few programs at once.

My niece Rebecca is defensive about her "cute" computer: "It has really fun games and it's easy to carry around and it's fun to figure things out on it," she says. She said she was pleased with the "small keyboard with really squishy keys that are fun to type on." The battery, she notes, lasts all day, but she had trouble printing a class assignment.

Meanwhile, my son Raymond was getting to know the Classmate PC, which runs $230 to $300. The rugged blue cover proved to be tough enough for the daily bike commute.

The computer operates at a moderate pace using a stripped-down version of Microsoft Windows. Raymond could stream short videos or play simple games.

But the small, odd keyboard was particularly hard to type on. He tried writing a history paper, but found the computer couldn't power up several Web sites and a word processor at the same time. For physics, he downloaded bridge-building software and was stymied by the undersized monitor. At school he deemed it "okay" for taking notes, but it took so long to boot that he had to carry it open between classes or miss the first few minutes of a lecture. But the battery lasted through a full day of school.

Raymond said he supported computers for needy kids, but said a school might be better off with a dozen really good computers.