A Brief Look at SugarUI by RedHat

[ Tuesday, 10 April 2007, riklaunim ]

A few days ago Red Hat shared with the world the first ISO images of the system that is planned to be installed on the OLPC laptops. I suddenly felt an irresistible urge … I downloaded the 291 MB ISO, burned it on a CD and started testing. Here is what I got.

If you are looking for the technical details of OLPC project, take a look at our previous article: One Laptop Per Child: XO Phase 2 Progress which explains the technological progress made recently in the project.

Author: Piotr Maliński

A journey to the unknown

After booting the CD everything looks quite normal. GRUB lets us choose “OLPC Operating system SDK”. Then we see a lot of boot messages, even a “Welcome to Fedora” message. The system booted in 1:30 minutes — not too bad and not too good either (Pardus 2007.1 needed 1:36, but DSL 3.3 only 0:55). When the kernel is loaded, we see something like a session manager screen on which we can only enter our name (login) which can be anything. After “logging in” the famous Sugar UI appears. This is the very original window manager used on the OLPC laptops.

OLPC LiveCD boot-up
Pic 1. System booting… aren’t the colors nice? :P

Login screen in OLPC
Pic 2. Login screen in OLPC

Pic 3. SugarUI — default desktop

The applications

OK, so what applications has the OLPC team chosen for the kids? Well… there is a program named “Paint” that is a simple image editor. There is a Tetris-like game, Mozilla Firefox with Flash plugin, Abiword, RSS reader, a calculator and a few more simple apps. The development version has an option to switch to GNOME, but it doesn’t seem to work well.

The Sugar interface
Pic 4. The Sugar interface elements

Returning to the OLPC interface; it has to be noticed that the look and feel is… different. Different from what you are used to, and very original. There are no windows. No icons either. When run, the applications take the whole screen (full-screen mode). In order to get to the lower or upper toolbar, we need to point the mouse cursor to the edge of the screen. Each application has its icon on the top toolbar after being launched and we can use these icons in to close the app or switch between programs. The idea is quite nice and functional. The only thing that worries me is that the kids may not “get it” without being instructed in detail by a tutor.

Firefox and (even more) Abiword do not use their traditional user interfaces. They have new ones, tightly integrated with the SugarUI. The new interfaces have been simplified a lot. Instead of tons of menus, toolbars and other bars, there are only basic functions. In Firefox the address bar is hidden (it appears when pointed to the title). In Abiword, the functionality has been crippled to allow only simple formatting (bold, italic, underline, insert image). What is quite astonishing is that the files are saved… in Microsoft .DOC format.

AbiWord w OLPC
Pic 5. This is what Abiword looks like. The GTK+ widgets are not impressive…

What could be done better?

The capabilities of the applications that come with OLPC aren’t much better than those of modern cell phones. In the not-so-poor countries like Mexico or Brazil, when the kids usually have some idea about computing and High Tech, OLPC may have problems with being usable enough. In certainly has a potential to work for elementary/primary school children who have never seen a computer before. But for older ones or those more technical, the functions offered by OLPC in Sugar may be too little to impress. The problem will be easily solvable by providing alternative distributions for the OLPC laptops. XFCE, or even KDE with KOffice running on the Kdrive X-server should not have problems running on these machines (433 MHz processors, 256 MB RAM), and they offer way better functionality.

The main issues I see with the current SugarUI are as follows:

  • No handy file navigation. Using Firefox we can save an image to a folder and then search for it and open with Abiword… but… what about file copying and deleting?
  • The system is interesting and may be a nice toy for the kids, but it currently lacks the features to be an effective tool in school. No decent calc program, a very poor document editor and no PDF support make it quite unusable for a 12-year old.
  • What about multimedia? The Flash plugin is not enough. What about handling the audio and video streams?
  • The interface is not clear to me. What are these circles and dots doing on top of the screen? It would be nice to see some KDE-like tool-tips for the not-too-intuitive icons, as well as a simple desktop personalizer.

The SugarUI performance

I cannot give exact figures for the performance of SugarUI since the GNOME terminal would not launch. Basing on my observations, the RAM usage is not lower and not even comparable with the lightweight GNU/Linux distributions like Damn Small Linux (which needs only 31 MB of RAM when booted from the CD). However the performance testing should be performed when the final product is available and the unneeded components like GNOME are removed from the ISO.


The first publicly available version of the OLPC system works. But doesn’t impress a lot. Will it work for the kids? This depends mostly on the goals OLPC has and the target audience. If the laptop is supposed to be used by kids and adolescents together then I believe that enhancements and additional options will be needed in order to satisfy the different requirements of different user groups. Hopefully unofficial distributions will not be hard to install on the OLPC machines or/and extra applications produced by governments or schools will not be hard to integrate with the SugarUI. Only if this is true, do I predict that the OLPC program will be a success.

More resources

About the Author

Piotr Maliński

Programmer, journalist. Creator of the CMS, Linux and PHP libraries. Arch Linux/Gentoo user. Creator of a GNU/Linux distribution based on Gentoo: Plusiaczek Live CD.

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