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Intel's Convertible Classmate PC

Prepare to get schooled

Remember Oregon Trail? That's pretty much how I spent the majority of my computer time in elementary school. I can't count the number of afternoons that I spent driving my caravan further West, fulfilling my own digital Manifest Destiny. Unfortunately, I'm not convinced that having computers in the classroom had a positive impact on my education.

For all of the hours I spent on those Macintosh LCs, do you know what knowledge I have to show for it? You can't carry all of the meat back after killing a bear, typhoid was a dangerous disease, and you should always choose to ford the river. I also learned a good number of swear words from the epitaphs left behind on the gravestones of previous players. I think it's safe to say computers were not very practical for education purposes, at least not in my early years.

However, thanks to the more widespread availability of technology and the rise of the Internet, students are finding new ways to learn in the classroom. High schoolers are assigned PowerPoint presentations via online syllabuses, and a notebook computer being toted around with textbooks is no longer an uncommon sight. As the trickle-down effect brings more learning tools to younger children, the need for more specialized hardware becomes apparent. After all, a 17 year-old can effectively use and be responsible for a full-fledged computer, but how about a seven year-old? K-6 students need their own kind of PC with hardware and software adapted for their use. One of the companies answering the call for education-centric PCs is Intel.

Intel laid the foundation for its Classmate PCs in 2005, when it formed its Emerging Market Platform Group to experiment with product ideas for new, growing segments. The group quickly identified education as an area where technology could improve efficiency, since students have been taught using the same methods for decades. In early 2007, Intel launched its first Classmate PC reference design, a small laptop with a 7" display and a mobile Celeron processor—very much like first-generation netbooks. Not content simply to design a rugged netbook, Intel also packed the device with software designed for educational environments. Pilot programs proved successful, and after a subsequent revision in April 2008 that brought a larger screen and more storage capacity, Intel went back to the drawing board for its next-generation Classmate PC.

What the heck is micro-mobility?
The company spent a large amount of time researching how its PCs were used in the classroom, and it worked on an entirely new design based on what it learned. Perhaps one of the largest lessons Intel took away from its research is what it calls "micro-mobility." Intel designers frequently saw students carrying their Classmate PCs over very short distances: from their desks to the floor, from the floor to bean bags, and from bean bags to the teacher's desk. Based on these observations, one of the key focus points for the new Classmate PC had to be creating a device that was not only lightweight enough to be moved around often, but also rugged enough to withstand that much travel. In January 2009, the Convertible Classmate PC was born.

At first glance, this doesn't look all that different from any other netbook. Sure, the pastel color scheme looks slightly juvenile, and the carrying handle might raise a few eyebrows, but everything else looks awfully netbook-like. Flip the Convertible Classmate PC open, however, and the difference suddenly becomes clear.

Don't worry—I didn't break it! It's supposed to do that. As you can see, the biggest addition to Intel's latest Classmate PC is its new tilting and turning touch screen, a trick we haven't seen from many other netbook-sized devices.

The display can even rotate 180 degrees and fold down, transforming the Convertible Classmate PC from a clamshell notebook into a tablet. Now you can see where the word "convertible" comes from. Combined with the handle, the tablet design adds to the micro-mobility concept, allowing a user to carry the machine securely with only one hand and still be able to work.

Just in case you're not sure how small the Convertible Classmate PC really is, here's a comparison shot with a standard CD case. It's smaller than a textbook and certainly a good deal lighter. Students should have no problem tossing this into their backpacks without adding much of a burden.

Where can you get one?
By now, you might be wondering why there isn't a big Intel logo stamped on the lid of the notebook. The answer is that Intel doesn't sell the Convertible Classmate PC—not directly, at least. Intel worked with an original design manufacturer (ODM) to create the reference design, and it relies on third-party vendors to sell it. Intel continues to market the idea and improve the software package that comes with each Classmate PC, but the vendor has to decide on the final configuration and provide service and support.

For example, in the United States, several different firms sell the Convertible Classmate PC under different names. You can choose from CTL's 2Go PC, Equus' NOBi-Convertible, or M&A's Companion Touch, depending on who's got the best offering for your needs. For the sake of consistency in this review, we'll simply refer to this unit as the Convertible Classmate PC. If you're interested in checking availability in other regions, just head to Intel's official Classmate PC website.