Click here to see images of the Classmate PC
It's been a strange year for Intel's Classmate PC. At first it was pushed as a competitor to One Laptop Per Child's XO Laptop. And then, when Intel joined the OLPC this summer, the purpose of the Classmate PC seemingly changed, almost as if it became a somewhat unnecessary complement to the XO.
But the Classmate PC is still out there providing a low-cost laptop option for children and school systems in developing countries, and Intel just recently announced the sale of 17,000 Classmate PCs to Nigeria.
However, the funny thing is that, other than both being low-cost laptops designed for children, the XO and the Classmate PC are completely different systems with different focuses and very different capabilities.
Strictly head-to-head, there really is no comparison. The XO is a radically innovative new system that could possibly change all future laptops, with groundbreaking capabilities in its display, wireless networking features, and power usage and management. The Classmate PC, on the other hand, is basically just a very standard small-form-factor laptop with few if any innovations.
However, this doesn't mean that the Classmate PC doesn't have worth. In many ways its simple familiarity will prove attractive in certain classroom environments and teaching scenarios.
Here at eWEEK Labs we've had the chance to put a Classmate PC through its paces, and while we didn't find it innovative, we did find some useful features.
Out of the box, the Classmate PC definitely looks like something designed for kids. It has a cute flexible blue cover that includes a handle and magnetized clasp for easy carrying. At nearly 3 pounds it was actually a bit heavier than we expected.
Once we opened it up we were surprised by just how small everything was. The 7-inch 800 by 480 screen was extremely small and difficult to use for some tasks, especially text-based applications. Also, the keyboard itself is very small. For younger kids this won't be a problem, but once they reach middle school age, most kids may find this keyboard to be too cramped.
The technical specs of the Classmate PC are fairly modest. The system we tested had a 900MHz Intel mobile processor, 256MB of memory and a 2GB NAND flash drive. The laptop came preloaded with Windows XP (which took up half of the drive space) though Classmate PCs are also available running Linux. Given the fact the laptop had a flash drive rather than a standard hard drive, we were somewhat surprised by how long it took for the system to boot up Windows, taking pretty much just as long as a similarly configured system with a traditional hard drive would have taken.
The Classmate PC has no optical disk drive but does include integrated 802.11g wireless. It has built-in speakers and a microphone, one USB port per side, an Ethernet port, and external speaker and microphone ports. The unit we tested came with a very standard laptop power cord.
Some of the best features of the Classmate PC were in the pre-loaded software. The Classmate PC is designed specifically for use in a classroom setting where students interact with a centralized teacher system via e-learning software.
To test this, we loaded the master teacher program, Mythware e-Learning Class V6.0, on a standard Windows desktop in our Labs environment. With this software loaded and a class defined within the management console, the Classmate PC on our network automatically detected the teacher program and was given the option to connect to the class.
Once connected as a teacher, we could perform quizzes, stream video and audio, do chats, and even share the teacher desktop. The teacher program also makes it possible to remotely control or view a student desktop as well.
One very cool optional feature that was provided with the Classmate PC that we tested was a digital pen system. This connected to a USB port and used a small clip-on reader that could attach to any notepad or piece of paper. Using the special pen provided, we could write or draw on any paper or notepad and have the drawings or text instantly appear on our screen. From here these notations could be e-mailed, shared with a teacher or exported as a JPEG.
Depending on whether the PC runs Windows or Linux and distribution requirements, after sales support, software and tax, a Classmate PC will range in price somewhere between $200 and $300.