By now, most of us would have heard about the One Laptop Per Child XO initiative and its counterpart by Intel, the Classmate PC, or previously known as Eduwise. The whole premise of these large scale projects is to provide low cost and rugged PCs to developing countries, promising greater education opportunities for the young. Though both projects have a similar goal in mind, the US$200 Classmate PC does take a different approach, and here's the breakdown.
Fit for a Kid (and the Environment)
At first glance, the striking thing we noticed about the Classmate PC is its child friendly design. With three available colors such as pink, blue and white (our review unit came in pink), it comes in a size that fits perfectly for its younger audience, but then, the Classmate PC wasn't designed for adults. A leather cover encasing the plastic build of the Classmate PC gives it greater survivability in rugged environments and it also comes with a water resistant keyboard.
It has a 7-inch display with a resolution of 800 x 480. Based on our first impressions, we felt that the supported resolution may be a little restrictive in a Windows environment. Mainly, the dialog windows seem too cramped for comfort, and hampers modern web browsing experience since most sites are built for standard resolutions. In contrast, the OLPC XO has a high 1200 x 900 resolution on a 7.5-inch LCD, which is also non-standard. A standard SVGA (800 x 600) resolution would have been ideal for such a small screen. The plus point with the Classmate PC though, is its round touch pad mouse which is easy to use and sensitive to the touch.
Petite but Powerful
Though our preview unit was preloaded with Windows XP, Intel has expressed that the Classmate PC has the option of being installed with either Windows XP or Linux, specifically Mandriva Linux. Intel's aim is to provide the Classmate PC with capabilities that are similar to existing PC architecture, software and usage. This is unlike OLPC's custom hardware and commitment to its open source aim by utilizing Linux as its sole operating system.
Looking at its 900 MHz Intel ULV Celeron M, 915 chipset and 256MB of DDR2 RAM, it may be hard to believe that the Classmate PC can run smoothly on even the most basic version of Windows XP. We were half-wrong. The Classmate PC was able to handle itself well on Windows XP, one application at a time.
But as expected, the Classmate PC wasn't intended to be able to perform intensive multi-tasking, media or entertainment tasks. Nonetheless, it is running on Windows XP proper, which means that it can be used like a generic notebook outside of the classroom.
Its performance is sufficient for its tasks and loading time was quick since the whole OS is loaded on a 2GB flash module – no HDDs in here. With extensive usage, the Classmate PC lasted up to 3 hours before we found the battery dried to the core.
Connecting the Kids to the World
First up, the Classmate PC features two USB slots (one on each side), two external speakers located on the top of the keyboard and a speaker out and microphone jack on the left. Well hidden at the back, underneath the leather casing, is a SDIO slot for expanded memory capacity through additional flash devices.
The true purpose of the Classmate PC is brought out by the embedded e-learning software, which is a centralized system used by a teacher to host and monitor students' work or broadcast it to the class, sending text messages right to the children's system and even set all the client systems, i.e. the Classmate PCs, on silent mode to allow the teacher to continue with his/her lessons.
Perhaps the most interesting feature is the NoteTaker application and the digital pen attachment that allows students to digitize notes penned down on any piece of paper right into the Classmate PC and saved as a JPEG file. Essentially, the NoteTaker program requires the embedded software and an external scanner connected to the USB slot working in tandem with a digital pen. This is a good move on Intel's part to get students who are unfamiliar with the digital document concept to gradually move on to it.
Summing It Up
Up to this point, if you find yourself wishing you could own a Classmate PC for your child's personal use, here's the deal: the Classmate PC is intended to be an education notebook for purchase by developing countries only. Since its launch, Intel has supplied Classmate PCs to Brazil, Mexico, Libya, Nigeria and Pakistan among others. Aiming to be a well built system, in terms of both ruggedness and functionality, we find the Classmate PC to be of sound quality, and would serve its purpose well in the education and improving the quality of life for – as Intel puts it – the 'next billion people'.