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Design and features

While one might believe Intel simply added a swiveling touch screen to a plain netbook, quite a bit more thought went into designing the Convertible Classmate. Just above the display is a 1.3-megapixel webcam that's capable of rotating 180 degrees to the outside of the display. Students can use the camera to record video projects and interact with learning software that takes advantage of imaging capabilities.

Below the screen are the Classmate PC's two stereo speakers, but the last area of the bezel worthy of attention is on the left side. That's where Intel put a number of status indicators, including Wi-Fi, battery, power, and hard-disk activity, along with the blue Home button.

What makes the Home button so special? It's a quick way to jump from whatever program you're in to Intel's custom Blue Dolphin user interface—more on that later.

The Convertible Classmate PC's left side is where you'll find the VGA output port, a sole USB 2.0 port, an SDHC slot, and finally, the power switch. Placing the power switch on a notebook's side isn't always the best idea, but for a tablet, it makes sense not to hide it under the screen. Accidentally powering on the device is a legitimate concern, but the spring-loaded, recessed switch proves difficult to get caught on other objects. An inadvertent power cycle certainly isn't impossible, but Intel has made it reasonably foolproof.

The right side of the unit is where you'll find the touch screen's stylus stashed away, along with microphone and headphone jacks. Moving past the Classmate PC's exhaust area, we can see an additional USB 2.0 port and an Ethernet port. The exhaust area's location on the right side guarantees a constant stream of air where most people would use a mouse, but in my experience, it's never warm enough to be distracting.

Intel designed the Classmate PC to withstand abuse, and the base of the unit demonstrates that. Along the front edge of the netbook is a rubber lining designed to minimize impact damage. The Classmate PC's carrying handle at the back of the chassis also protects the more sensitive components in the event of a fall. As a matter of fact, Intel tested the unit's survivability by subjecting it to a number of 50 cm (19.7") drops. It's worth pointing out, however, that school desks are typically a lot taller. The Classmate PC does seem sturdy enough to survive greater falls, but it's unfortunate Intel doesn't guarantee survivability from more realistic heights.

The last thing you want is kids taking apart or destroying their learning tools, which is why you won't see any visible screws on the bottom of the Classmate PC. Getting access to its internals, however, is as simple as removing two adhesive screw-covers and breaking out your trusty Phillips-head.

Removing the large panel from the base of the Classmate PC grants access to the rubber-insulated 1.8" hard drive and a single SO-DIMM slot. The zero-insertion-force hard drive interface can make finding compatible upgrades difficult, so the initial configuration is generally what you're stuck with. Depending on the vendor the Convertible Classmate PC is purchased from, 4-16GB flash storage options may also be available.

Since not all of the components are visible, here's a complete breakdown of the Convertible Classmate PC's hardware:

Processor Intel Atom N270 1.60GHz
Memory 1GB DDR2-533 (1 DIMM)
North bridge Intel 945GSE
South bridge Intel ICH7M
Graphics Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950
Display 8.9" ITO touch screen with SWGA (1024x600) resolution and LED backlight
Storage 4200RPM 60GB 1.8" Samsung SpinPoint ZIF
Audio Stereo HD audio via Realtek ALC269 codec
Ports 2 USB 2.0
1 VGA
1 RJ45 10/100 Ethernet via Realtek RTL8102E
1 analog headphone output
1 analog microphone input
Expansion slots 1 SDHC
Communications 802.11n Wi-Fi via Ralink RT3070 (USB)
Input devices Water-resistant keyboard
Touchpad with vertical scroll zone
Camera 1.3-megapixel rotating webcam
Dimensions 9.5" x 8.2" x 1.1" (241 x 209 x 28 mm)
Weight 2.8 lbs (1.25 kg)
Battery 4-cell Li-Ion 4800mAh

The Convertible Classmate PC uses the same Intel Atom N270 processor found in almost every other netbook out there (although it's admittedly the first in the Classmate line to receive that CPU). Continuing down the list, the rest of the Classmate PC's specs are standard fare for the netbook market, save for the touch screen. As you'd expect, the system performs comparably to other netbooks on the market. It's certainly got enough horsepower for basic schoolwork, but don't expect to be editing 1080p video projects on this thing.

As we've already noted, Intel also chose to break rank by using a 1.8" ZIF mechanical hard drive. No doubt this was done because of space and energy concerns, but the smaller, slower drive induces a noticeable performance penalty. Windows doesn't take an eternity to boot, but launching applications is hardly what I would call snappy, and shutting down can take a noticeable amount of time—usually over 30 seconds.

Finally, the Classmate PC's dimensions are somewhat flexible, since the removable handle adds a large amount of depth to the unit. The optional six-cell battery can also add a small amount of bulk if equipped.