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Cheap - but not dumb

Far from being a dumbed-down, bare-bones machine, MIT's upcoming cheap laptop will incorporate several bold innovations to cope with the harsh conditions facing students and teachers in the developing world.

Anticipating that they will be used outside in countries where classrooms are scarce, the computers will be able to switch between a colour screen display and a power-conserving black-and- white mode with four times the normal resolution, so characters can be read more easily in the sun's full glare.

When one of the computers is turned on, it will automatically form a wireless "mesh" network with any others nearby. Even if only one machine is connected to the internet, the rest can piggyback off it to get online too, using wi-fi technology.

Multi-purpose features will minimise bulkiness. The machine's electric flex also serves as a handy carrying strap, for example, while the detachable hand crank doubles as a carrying handle when the laptop is closed.

Students must pump the handle for one minute to generate 10 minutes' worth of electrical charge in areas lacking power. A durable rubber casing is intended to protect the laptop from the weather and clumsy children.

Engineers are also working on a "child-friendly "user interface that can help children learn how to use it without requiring special instruction from adults, project consultant Alan Kay, said.

Finally, to make them less of a target for theft and black marketeering, scientists plan to make the machines distinctive looking, so that they are explicitly identified with school use. It's also hoped that their cheapness and the fact that so many people will have one will deter thieves.

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