Is it possible to build a $20 laptop?

Is it possible to build a $20 laptop?

Summary: The unveiling of the $20 laptop-the result of a major project involving the government, universities and the private sector in India-so far hasn't done much to clear up the mystery surrounding the ultra-inexpensive notebook. All we really know about the device is that it will have a low-power chip (it consumes about 2 watts), 2GB of memory, and Ethernet and WiFi connectivity.


The unveiling of the $20 laptop-the result of a major project involving the government, universities and the private sector in India-so far hasn't done much to clear up the mystery surrounding the ultra-inexpensive notebook. All we really know about the device is that it will have a low-power chip (it consumes about 2 watts), 2GB of memory, and Ethernet and WiFi connectivity.

Like the OLPC's XO laptop, the Sakshat laptop (translation: "before your eyes") has lofty goals. But several reports have raised the obvious question: Is it possible to build a laptop for that price?

Currently 1GB of memory would cost a manufacturer about $8.50, meaning the 2GB of memory alone would cost nearly as much as the entire device. The processor and chipset, display and battery are all costly components as well. Even the most basic netbook sells for about $300, and the XO laptop ended up costing nearly $200 (though the foundation is reportedly working on a XO2 that it says will cost around $75).

There are a few ways a device like this might be manufactured for less than $100.

First, it's possible the laptop doesn't have its own display. According to a local report, the government's Secretary of Higher Education, RP Agarwal, stated the Sakshat will have "the capability to project on a screen." The trouble with this theory is that the photo accompanying the story-the first I've seen that claims to show the laptop-clearly depicts an integrated display. The device looks like a cross between a netbook and a convertible tablet PC.

Second, it's possible that the laptop is more of an e-book reader than a full-fledged PC. Major textbook publishers have reportedly been working with the government to develop content for the device. Still the fact that it will have Ethernet and wireless indicates it would need many of the same hardware and software components as a netbook. After all, the Amazon Kindle with wireless and a basic keyboard sells for $359.

Third, it could actually use 2 gigabits--not 2 gigabytes--of memory. A laptop with 256MB of memory may sound implausible, but if it uses a lightweight, Linux-based operating system and only a handful of basic apps, it could be done. In fact, the minimum system requirements for Ubuntu 8.10, a full-featured Linux distribution, include 256MB of RAM. Even so, other components would still push the laptop well north of $20.

Finally, there's always the possibility that the government will heavily subsidize the device, which is part of a broader effort to reduce the digital divide between cities and rural areas in India. That would make sense, but most reports say it's not the case. Though it hasn't announced a manufacturing partner yet, the government promises to begin selling the device in about six months, so I guess we'll have to wait and see whether (and how) it can deliver.

Christopher Dawson has more coverage of the $20 laptop on his ZDNet Education blog.

Topics: Government US, Government, Hardware, Laptops, Mobility

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  • It is a really silly question.

    It is not even remotely possible. There has to be a subsidy. You can't even build a 7 inch DPF for $20.00.
    • All a Subsidy Means...

      All a subsidy means is that someone else is paying the actual cost above the $20. Read: taxpayers.
  • Tax dollars would be $3000 for a $400 laptop

  • The Incredible Bread Machine

    Last line:

    Bread is half a cent. Taxes pay the rest.
  • Never say never.

    You can wholesale these for about $15/per. They have 1 GByte versions.

    You can find them on uBid and by the boatload in China.

    I have one (a 4gig version, pad $30 for it). It is a very basic touch based MP3 player, but it does play movies. So you have the ability to create a 1 gig "computer" for under $20.

    A few other points, a stock Puppy Linux install uses 28 MBytes booted up. I have run applications on 48 megs of ram (no not on this thing, a W98 era notebook).

    Newer versions have a webcam and I would bet you could add 80211b for max $5. Granted this is only a 4" screen, but it COULD be a computer.

    It has an flashable bios, so to turn it into a computer is the ability to tell the bios where to load the OS (on the 1 gig internal memory) and you have a really really tiny computer. :D

  • Why does it have to be Vista/Ubuntu?

    Here's a thought. How about a 500 mhz laptop with 64 meg of ram running Windows 95 or Windows 98, or the equivalent era Linux? Or even FreeDOS?

    Seems to me, if you make these laptops out of some more dated technology, the cost would be a great deal less. The expense would then go into creating / updating applications to go along with it.

    For example, say it's a 500mhz single core with 64 meg of ram and a 3 gig HD running Win95. If someone brought a browser that would handle the modern internet (Flash support, up-to-date tags, etc), or ported a browser, in the case of FreeDOS, you've got a machine fully capable of surfing the internet (heck, I surf it now on my 400mhz, 32meg phone).
    Office suites that would run under that environment already exist (including Works and.. uhm... Office).
    An advantage would be that these cheaper, older-tech systems could be augmented with longer battery life and better display technology than their counterparts of yesteryear.
    While they wouldn't be able to play the latest gore-fest 3D games, they *would* be able to play most of the games I play.

    After all, this is allegedly to bring the computer-less into the computer age, not bring the have-nots up to the level of the haves. I can't afford a $25k Macintosh, either; I don't see anyone developing a crash program to create a $300 Mac I can afford *that is as capable as that $25k Mac*.

    Aside from research projects, the demand for cpu power seems to come from media creation and gameplay. I don't see a gap between those who have PS3s and those who don't as a serious social issue. But the ability to use a computer for work can be augmented with cheap computers utilizing optimized versions of yesterday's technology.
    • Did it.

      233 MHz 48 megs ram ran Puppy Linux fine. I installed Seamonkey (you just can't watch flash with that low ram though). Abiword installed. I filled the whopping 6 gig HD with as many games as I could for my nephews.

      I did upgrade the memory with a 256 meg chip, and surfing was fine after that.

      You are right though, low end 800x600 LCDs, 233 MHz processor and 64 MBytes of the cheapest slowest ram, you could possibly come in under $20. :D

      • I doubt it

        Sorry, but I sincerely doubt your claim. To have "built" a sub $20
        laptop under the constraints implied in the article, all parts had to be
        new fabrications, including RAM and CPU. You can not use used parts,
        as this is not even remotely commercially viable. The idea that you can
        get a new LCD, CPU, motherboard, RAM, etc, and assemble them
        together in a housing for under $20, as a private individual is
        dubious, let alone having to prorate the costs of mass fabrication.
        This is not to say that is is not possible, but would most likely have to
        involve new chip design and fabrication to get all ancillary support
        functions including I/O onto only one or at most a few chips, so as to
        minimize fabrication costs, and a huge order of LCDs to prorate costs.

        If you are using used parts, I could build laptops for free.
        • No, I ran Puppy. I didn't build a $20 laptop.

          I ran Puppy on a decrepit totally outdated laptop. That's what "I did". Also, see the links I posted. You can get, brand new, a 4.5" touch screen player with camera and 1 gig of ram for $15. They are EVERYWHERE in China. Seriously, Onda's players are cloned 10 to 1 over real versions. This could be a limited computer.

          • OK

            Well, I'm not surprised you got a Linux distro running on minimal
            hardware. I was unaware anyone would even question that.
            As for the iPhone ripoffs being made in China, you have to keep in mind
            that many of those companies are GREATLY subsidized by the Chinese
            government, and as such their costs do not reflect true market value.
            Even the R&D to develop the SOC (systems on a chip) that these units use
            is paid for by Beijing, so there are few R&D costs to recoup.
          • It is no iphone ripoff.

            That would be extremely generous. They are absolutely minimal touch screen MP3 players. They function, but use 10 year old technology, and if anything, I would describe them as generic MP3 player knockoffs. I don't know how subsidized they may be though.

          • Of course they are iPhone ripoffs

            Touch technology (though not MultiTouch) was available for quite some
            time prior to the iPhone. And yet only a trickle of products, and few to no
            Chinese knockoffs. All of a sudden, post iPhone, they are everywhere. It
            does not take a genius to draw a conclusion from this.
    • Need latest codebase for support

      "How about a 500 mhz laptop with 64 meg of ram running Windows 95
      or Windows 98, or the equivalent era Linux?"

      The versions of windows are no longer supported. Good luck with that.

      Today's linux is better than it was 10 years ago, and can be configured to
      be as low a footprint (memory and disk). Crazy not to go with the latest
      kernel, add say busybox and be careful about what other packages you
      Richard Flude
  • OLPC - $100 laptop announced

    OLPC announced they were going to build a $100 laptop and I am sure there were 'Could it be done' articles. Okay - so it cost more than that, but helped stimulate interest in the whole 'Cheap laptops for poor people/school/toys' idea.

    Aim for $20, get some media coverage and keep it as cheap as possible :-)

    I agree with does it need to be Ubuntu or that other OS - but a variant with a light-weight Window manager (Damn small linux, puppy Linux or maybe Android?) could work.
  • "In fact, the minimum system requirements for Ubuntu 8.10, a full-featured

    Yes it would meet the minimum requirements, it wouldn't run very fast without a lot of tweaking though. Why not just use Xubuntu instead? It's much better for low end computers.
  • RE: Is it possible to build a $20 laptop?

    Well actually It is not a question of if it is possible but if it
    is profitable. And what is the true reason for it? I know
    they say they want to bring computers to those who now
    do not have them to give them access to technology and
    education but to what end?

    I say it is to speed development of the third world so that
    they can join the endless rat race of consumerism and they
    can then sell them even faster and more expensive
    computers? (and other things) I see this thing actually
    being built at a loss with the targeted goal to create a
    whole new source of consumers or is it simply the
    conspiracy theorist in me.
    Michael Fournier
    • Well they can't afford what they can't afford

      So probably just the conspiracy theorist in you.
  • Of course christopher dawson covers it.

    If there's two things that define christopher dawson, they are cheap and disposable.
  • Add an OS...

    Add Microsoft Windows to the $20 laptop, and you can get the whole package for just $420 !!!
    • Buy one, give one

      Third world and educational users can get items like Windows and Works from MS for well under $10 a copy. Some go out at $3 and $7.

      We pay $30 or so for the home version of Windows bundled with a new machine. That subsidizes the pricing for the rest of the world. You remember, buy one, give one