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 processorvery 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 worryI 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 PCnot 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.
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 interfacemore 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 (1024×600) 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 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 timeusually 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.
So the real question is: what does the Convertible Classmate PC’s tablet bring to the table? Intel went with a touch-screen design for a number of reasons. Handwriting is an important skill for children to learn, and the Classmate PC helps with that. Students can also draw directly on the display, making art projects that much easier. Lastly, touch screens provide a more intuitive interface than a mouse or touchpad. It’s hard to argue with that logic when you look at the unparalleled success of Nintendo’s DS console, which relies on touch input for gameplay.
First things first: Intel chose to forgo Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. Instead, the company recommends Windows XP Home Edition and a Linux option. Licensing XP Tablet PC Edition can apparently be a tricky endeavor, and while it isn’t impossible, it has to be done between the educational institution and Microsoftnot through the Classmate PC’s vendors.
Not to worry, though. Intel includes a myriad of applications to make use of the Classmate’s touch screen, and those apps can prove even more useful than what Microsoft offers in XP Tablet PC Edition. For example, MyScript Stylus 3.0 provides a number of input options in tablet mode, including handwriting recognition and an on-screen keyboard. I’ve never had great luck with handwriting recognition software in the past, so it was a welcome relief to see my printing immediately interpreted without any training. Thanks to a tool running in the system tray at all times, Stylus’ input window will pop up whenever a cursor appears on the screen, and it will fade away as soon as you change window focus. It could hardly be more seamless.
What about the hardware itself? One of Intel’s best design decisions was making the stylus big. It’s over 5″ long and almost feels like a #2 pencil in your hand. The hefty stylus goes a long way toward reducing strain and making interaction with the touch screen a lot more natural. The Convertible Classmate PC also has what Intel calls palm-resistive technology. In the past, writing on a tablet could prove difficult, especially if you were writing near the upper edge of the display. Resting your hand on the screen often resulted in false input, bouncing the cursor around the screen, or worse, messing up what you were writing.
Thanks to the palm-resistant tech, you no longer have to write with your arm in an awkward position just to ensure that the stylus is the only thing touching the display. That doesn’t eliminate the option of navigating the UI with your fingers, but you’ll probably have to press with your fingernail rather than the fattest part of your thumb. The palm-resistive technology does come with a trade-off, however: the Convertible Classmate PC’s touch screen requires a bit more pressure to register than other systems you might be used to. I never found myself getting a cramp in my hand, but I certainly wouldn’t write a term paper on the touch screen. For note-taking and drawing purposes, though, this design works just fine.
In an effort to reduce writing strain, I decided to give cursive a shot. Luckily, the MyScript Stylus software does a surprisingly good job of recognizing cursive handwriting, which helped me minimize the number of impacts I had to make on the screen and resulted in a much more fluid writing experience.
Switching between clamshell and tablet modes is surprisingly easy, too, thanks to the sturdy swiveling hinge. Intel found the right amount of resistance to keep the display in place without requiring so much effort to move as to feel like you’re going to break it. Small plastic teeth jut out from either side of the keyboard and catch the LCD’s bezel when it’s laid flat, guaranteeing that your writing surface won’t slide around in action.
A built-in accelerometer automatically switches the display between portrait and landscape modes, depending on the orientation of the device. So whether you’re holding the Classmate PC with your left or your right hand, upside-down or right-side up, the display will always be in the correct layout.
While the Classmate PC’s touch screen is the star of the show, it wouldn’t be fair to gloss over the other input devices. Intel touts the Classmate PC’s keyboard as water-resistant, adding another line of defense against common kid-induced accidents. The keyboard itself is rather small and clearly not designed for adult hands, but extended typing sessions certainly aren’t impossible. With time, I found myself getting used to the tight quarters while typing, and it eventually became almost second nature. Unfortunately, there’s no compensating for large fingers, so those with oversized digits will probably find the Classmate PC’s keyboard frustrating.
However, every design decision has a reason: Intel may have sacrificed keyboard real estate to strengthen the plastic bezel that surrounds it, which does wonders for the rigidity of the unit. The Convertible Classmate PC is one of the most solid netbooks I’ve ever felt, and its case is extremely difficult to flex. Good thing, too, because it will likely need every bit of that durability to survive in a classroom.
The touchpad is probably the least exciting aspect of the Classmate PC’s design. While the mouse buttons are surprisingly large, the tracking area is rather small, and the vertical scrolling area only limits it further. Fortunately, the touch screen helps to offset these limitations, supplementing the touchpad as a pointing device. In clamshell mode, however, you might find yourself wishing for a mouse.
Focusing on education
Intel strives to create a complete learning environment for students by pairing the Classmate PC with software tools that best take advantage of the hardware. We’ve already looked at what MyScript Sylus 3.0 does for the tablet, but there’s far more to find than just handwriting recognition. In fact, the first program you’ll probably notice immediately after starting up is Intel’s Blue Dolphin interface.
Designed by Easybits Software specifically for the Classmate PCs, Blue Dolphin replaces the Windows desktop with an interactive, completely customizable application launcher. While it’s not a complete shell replacement, Blue Dolphin really makes Windows easier to interact with via a touch screen. Oversized icons make navigation a breeze, and users are free to modify the selection of programs or program groups based on their needs. This interface certainly streamlines the application launching process for children, especially considering the alternativenavigating the Start menu with your finger.
Besides a simpler way to start programs, Intel includes more touch-friendly applications for other common mobile tasks, like switching wireless networks and managing power profiles. Those apps have high-resolution icons and easy-to-navigate menus, making the touch interface feel more like a native part of the Classmate PC than a simple mouse replacement. And thanks to the blue Home button along the edge of the screen, jumping back to Blue Dolphin is always just a button-press away.
Evernote is one of the more popular note-taking solutions out there, so it only makes sense for Intel to include it with the standard software loadout. While this software works perfectly fine on standard notebook computers, it shines with a tablet interface. Evernote makes it easy to maintain a variety of virtual notebooks and keep scattered ideas organizedmaybe I should start using it more often. With the ability to synchronize notes across multiple devices, including mobile phones, Evernote is a nice fit for the Convertible Classmate PC, even if it’s a bit more complicated than some of the other included programs.
I’m no artist, as you can see by my happy face above. (That’s about as talented as I get, folks.) For the more gifted drawers out there, however, Intel includes a customized version of ArtRage 2. With a variety of brush strokes, stencils, and other effects to use, ArtRage is a surprisingly powerful painting application for such a small package. The Classmate’s touch screen is a great match for ArtRage, and it should keep any child occupied for a while.
Perhaps the most powerful tool bundled with the Convertible Classmate PC is Smart Sync 2009. This software allows a single instructor to monitor, control, and manage all of the Classmate PCs in a classroom. Think of it as a custom-tailored remote desktop solution for educators. Not only can the teacher view each student’s display, but he can also restrict Internet access, lock screens when the students need to pay attention, broadcast content to every Classmate PC, organize groups, and even send messages back and forth. Students who would otherwise be too shy or embarrassed to ask a question in the middle of class can now simply send a message to their instructor when they need help.
Also included in the software bundle is an extension for Internet Explorer that brings touch-screen gesture support and numerous other tweaks. Surfing the Internet with only the stylus would normally be a chore, but on the Convertible Classmate, it’s a much more intuitive process. Educational software from Lego, Inspiration Software, and ePals rounds out the default configuration. Even with all of the extra software installed, the system comes with only 5GB of its hard drive in use out of the box, leaving just over 50GB for students to fill with homework and projects.
Intel’s not done yet, either. In the next few weeks, it will roll out the next wave of Classmate PC software, including a new user interface by Easybits. This UI will be based on Easybits’ Magic Desktop software, and it will act as a more restrictive shell replacement, substituting things like the Start menu and Windows Explorer with more streamlined elements. Not only should it help students find the apps and files they need more easily, but it should also prevent inadvertent access to sensitive areas like the Control Panel. Easybits is also designing a new, customized e-book reader made specifically for the Convertible Classmate PC.
In addition, the upcoming software update will bring better tools for system administrators, including management of system updates, virus scans, and anti-theft technology. Already implemented in the last-generation Classmate PCs, the anti-theft software uses Intel’s Trusted Platform Module to render a stolen system unusable. The only way to restore functionality to the unit is returning it to the system’s administrator.
Looking further ahead, Intel continues to work with a number of education companies, like McGraw-Hill, to provide locally relevant content for Classmate PCs. The goal is to digitize as much content as possible for children, hopefully eliminating a large number of the textbooks they carry around. Add one more to the list of “back in my day” stories for your kids.
No portable evaluation would be complete without a few battery tests. For normal use, Intel quotes four hours of longevity with the four-cell battery and around six hours with the six-cell version. In my first test, I opened up a pair of Firefox windows to The Tech Report and Shacknews, and I set each browser to refresh automatically every 30 seconds. Mixed with dynamic content, animated GIF banners, and even the occasional Flash advertisement, this test should approximate the typical load of surfing the web over Wi-Fi. After setting the brightness to two notches (out of seven) I pulled the plug and let the machine do its thing. Three hours and ten minutes later, the battery was dead. Although that’s certainly short of the estimated four hours, the system did have Wi-Fi enabled, and the display brightness wasn’t at the lowest setting.
In a second test, I attempted to see what battery life might be like in a note-taking or studying environment. This time, Wi-Fi was turned off and brightness remained at two steps out of seven. With an e-book open and me occasionally jotting down blurbs in Evernote, the battery lasted almost 4.5 hours. Considering both tests ended up on opposite sides of the four-hour mark, it’s fair to call Intel’s approximation reasonably accurate. There’s only one problem: school is in session for longer than four hours. While the six-cell battery might be stretched to last an entire school day, even it likely wouldn’t be enough. Teachers will have to recharge the Classmate PCs during recess or lunchor simply not use the laptops for the entirety of the day. Intel is working with several companies to design accessories like a recharging cart that should make it easy to charge several Classmate PCs at once without the need for AC adapters littered everywhere.
It’s hard to look at the Convertible Classmate PC and not think “netbook for kids,” but it’s really much more than that. Intel has obviously put a lot of engineering time into every aspect of the new Classmate PC, with the touch screen being the most obvious example. Rather than simply slapping a touch interface on a standard netbook, Intel looked for ways to improve upon touch-screen use in Windows, with a strong focus on educational tools.
Finding fault with the Convertible Classmate PC’s hardware has proven difficult. I’ll be honest: I didn’t think one could build a tablet capable of surviving the proximity of kids for an extended period of time. But the device is surprisingly rugged despite its small size, especially when you factor in the added complexity of the swiveling display. The keyboard and touchpad are slightly cramped, but making them any larger would likely hinder the unit’s durability. A larger 10″ screen might also be a good improvement, but again, that big bezel provides much-needed structural support.
The Classmate PC’s weakest point is its 1.8″ hard drive, which does its best to remind you this is still just a netbook-class device. Given the expected usage scenarios and the amount of space Intel had to work with, I can’t blame the company’s engineers for going with the smaller, slower storage device. And at the end of the day, the Convertible Classmate PC should still provide more than enough horsepower for K-6 students.
You can’t overlook what Intel has done with the software bundle, either. If you tossed a Classmate PC into a classroom with a clean install of Windows XP, teachers and students would probably have no clue where to start. With a diverse and well-thought-out software package, however, the Convertible Classmate PC makes it easy to create a curriculum based around computers. And it only looks to get better.
Judging by its hardware and software, the Convertible Classmate PC might very well be the ideal netbook for kids. Adults who are simply looking for a durable, ultra-portable tablet may find the system interesting, as well. The Convertible Classmate has garnered interest from a number of other folks, including nurses and census takers, for good reason. Compared to the $800 Gigabyte M912 we reviewed not too long ago, the $500 Convertible Classmate PC seems like a stealas long as you can live with a diminutive experience similar to that of other 9″ netbooks, of course.