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The original NES sold 62 million units.  (Source: Nintendo)

One of the $12 "TV computers" -- basically an NES clone -- plugged into graduate student Derek Lomas' TV. He plans to use the design to create an internet-ready OLPC competitor.  (Source: Derek Lomas)

An Indian retailer proudly displays the NES knockoff.  (Source: Derek Lomas )
Students are convinced they can beat the OLPC product with a modified version of the original Nintendo console that is internet ready

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project has yielded a mix of success and failure.  On the positive side, it has managed to put together a relatively low cost, fully functional laptop; the XO.  On the downside many features were left out, including the sometimes criticized, sometimes praised idea of crank power generation.  Also on the not-so-good front, the laptop, which was supposed to be a $100 laptop, ballooned to a cost of $188.  Other bad news came when chipmaker Intel pulled out of the project, launching a potential competitor -- a second generation Classmate notebook.

Now a group of MIT students look to add to OLPC's woes by offering up a functional computer at a far lower price -- around $15 to $20 USD.  American graduate student Derek Lomas was inspired on how to design the device when he came across a "TV" computer selling for $12 USD in India.  The computer was nothing more than a clone/rip-off of the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), with more functionality added.  The device was so similar it accepted NES cartridges.

The computer features the same technology as the NES -- a muscular 1.78-MHz 8-bit processor, a gargantuan 2k of video memory and the ability to display 256-by-240 pixels in 25 colors.  Originally launching in 1985 in the U.S., the console went on to sell 62 million units worldwide, and was a runaway success that remained a culture icon into the 1990s.  Its games still sell through the Nintendo Wii's Virtual Console legacy system.

The popularity led to many knockoff models, such as the Victor-70 that Mr. Lomas encountered.  Many of these models were unlicensed machines manufactured in China.  Mr. Lomas states, "A lot of the Srishti Design students who saw me playing with this used to have one themselves, several years ago. Back then, this cost nearly 3,000 rupees [$75 U.S.]."

Unlike the NES, though, all the hardware including the memory, processor and cartridge case are not contained in a plastic housing, but rather inside a large keyboard.  Game controllers and a mouse can also attach to the keyboard, which plugs directly into the television.  Online retailers in India sell the Victor-70 for a slightly higher price of $23.99.  The product may actually be legal as in the U.S. patents expire after 20 years. 

One potential benefit of a modified Victor-70 is it would feature the Basic programming language, to make programming easy for new users.  At the Development Design Summit held at MIT yearly, Mr. Lomas plans on presenting his findings.  He and a group of other international graduate students and designers hope to transform the Victor-70 into a modern computer.  They are confident they can add internet access and other perks while keeping the price low.

Another alternative to the Victor-70 is a laptop Mr. Lomas encountered in Indian markets which retails for $15 USD, and comes with a blank and white LCD screen.

Whichever the team chooses, if they are able to keep costs beneath $20, they may have a hit on their hands.  Despite the lower capabilities and the inability to use a modern OS, you could buy 9-10 units of their device for the cost of one OLPC, given these prices.  The OLPC may be more powerful, but the MIT team's computer may prove more practical.

The OLPC project was actually founded at MIT, in a slight irony of history.



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1000 times slower than today
By Visual on 8/8/2008 11:25:04 AM , Rating: 2
I honestly doubt a 1.78MHz CPU can be enough for anything useful... hell, that's 5 times slower than even my 286, the first IBM compatible PC I had...
Granted, it is similar to the Apple II clone that started my interest in computers 20 years ago... and back then it did seem good enough to me. But it just can't be enough by today's standards...

Even games were severely limited those systems - anything that required scrolling of a substantial portion of the screen was considered revolutionally and high-tech, redrawing the screen completely each frame was probably impossible.

How would that thing decompress a GIF or JPEG for a web-page? Or how would it display it on a 200 pixel resolution?

And what about storage? NES didn't have any, did it?




RE: 1000 times slower than today
By BZDTemp on 8/8/2008 12:29:51 PM , Rating: 2
I earned my first money in the computer business creating a small database program which let sports clubs keep member lists and print out simple letters for them. That was on a 1 Mhz system with 5 KB ram and a cassette recorder for storage.

Sure functionality is limited with a slow CPU and little memory but if you consider non-graphic webpages, usenet and simple office applications it is all possible.

And as for games. Check out Angband and maybe Empire (if there is a little server somewhere). One is a RPG kindda like Diablo and Empire is like Civilization multiplayer - both of course with "graphics" done using just ascii characters and maybe colours. Anyway both are pretty good fun. Think of games like that as reading a book while the current one are like Hollywood action movies.


By StevoLincolnite on 8/8/2008 4:15:52 PM , Rating: 2
Storage can be done several ways, Flash memory in carts, or by storing them online.

The thing is though is that the primary language used is BASIC - Which is, well... Basic. - Thus there is no software bloat in the middle and is highly optimized for the given platform, and because it can support Carts it is highly expandable from a performance perspective, you can add memory, Co-Processors anything in a cart to improve performance.


RE: 1000 times slower than today
By ajdavis on 8/10/2008 11:22:49 PM , Rating: 2
My smartphone has a 320x240 pixel screen and it displays lots of things just fine.


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