A few months back we had the opportunity to test one of the first machines produced by the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Association, the OLPC XO. But OLPC isn't the only project intent on bringing ultra-low-cost, rugged computers to children in the developing world. Intel has been working on a unit, dubbed the Classmate PC, for its World Ahead Program. As with the XO, compared to even a $399 Sam's Club special, the Classmate is wanting. But given its low price (around $230 to $300, depending on the configuration and currency-exchange-rate fluctuations)--and the fact that it's either this or nothing for a Classmate's intended users--the machine has a lot going for it. As with the XO, we decided to hand the Classmate off to a user in the target age range of K-12 students: Nicholas, an 8-year-old second grader.
More PClike Design
As with the XO, Nick appreciated the Classmate's colorful blue and beige exterior and integrated handle ("Hey, you can carry it. Nice idea," he said). The machine has a compact footprint (9.6 x 7.7 inches) but is thick (1.7 inches) for a machine without an optical drive. But part of the reason is that the machine's extra chassis material protects internal components from bumps and drops. A USB port graces each side, and an SD Card slot is located on the back spine under the blue vinyl snap-off cover.
Flip the lid and the Classmate seems much more like a petite traditional laptop than the XO. The Chiclet-size keys on the QWERTY keyboard have some travel, unlike the membrane keyboard of the XO. Intel claims the keyboard is water-resistant; that's a far cry from the XO's sealed keyboard, which is impervious to spills, sand, and dust. Nicholas found the size of the keyboard just right for his hands, though high-school kids will find it cramped.
Display Too Small?
We are impressed with the LCD panel's brightness and clarity, but the small size and 800 x 480 resolution are sticking points. There's just not much screen real estate, so viewing applications and Web pages requires a lot of scrolling.
We asked Nick if the screen was too small, to which he replied, "No, it's fine," as he leaned in to just a few inches from it to read some text. Intel has included a Display Switcher icon in the Taskbar that lets users switch from Normal to Compressed Mode, Pan Mode, and Super Pan Mode, but these settings don't really solve the problem. What will is a larger screen, and after our testing Intel announced the immediate availability of a model with a 9-inch LCD.
The Classmate PC's components include a single-core 900-MHz Celeron M ULV processor (with a 400-MHz front side bus and no L2 cache), 512MB of RAM, a 1 or 2GB solid state drive (though there is an option for a less-rugged 30GB 1.8-inch hard drive). It also has 10/100 Ethernet, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, and a 7-inch LCD screen with an LED backlight.
Classmate OS Choices
Turn it on and the Classmate seems even more like a regular laptop than the XO. You're greeted by the familiar Windows XP Pro splash screen on the vibrant, crisp LCD. Two flavors of Linux, Mandriva Discovery 2007 and Metasys Classmate 2.0, are available (a third, Ubuntu, is expected in April), but Intel also wanted to provide a Windows platform to give teachers and students access to the world's vast library of software and learning tools.
That's a stark contrast to the proprietary Linux-based OS and Sugar user interface of the XO, which is easier to use without training but hobbles expandability beyond a handful of apps. Of course, one could argue that the Windows and off-the-shelf Linux operating systems are less than kid-friendly--especially for a child who has never touched a PC before.
Nick had no trouble navigating with the touchpad and opening applications from the desktop (though he's used to working on a Windows PC), but the inscrutable Windows icons in the Taskbar will be a mystery to kids who have never used a PC before. And opening up the platform to Windows apps also opens it up to the world of Windows viruses.
What About the Apps?
Intel says that it is working with software vendors to create applications particularly for the Classmate, (ideally) distributed on SD Cards. Applications written for the screen's resolution, like those on the XO, would be a big help. Also on the subject of content, Intel says it is working closely with the local integrators who will ultimately be the gatekeepers for the Classmate's OS and applications. That way children will receive the applications deemed necessary and appropriate by the ministries of education and other agencies responsible for the project at the local level.
One such bundled app could be Intel's eLearning Class tools. The master program gets loaded on the teacher's PC and lets the educator set up a virtual classroom. Upon boot-up, students' Classmates can automatically search for a teacher on the network and connect with her. A function bar at the bottom of the teacher's screen displays icons for initiating a voice chat with a student, sending a file, displaying the teacher's screen content on connected Classmates, broadcasting a particular student's desktop to other users, and more. Intel has also included the Parent Carefree utility, so adults can set restrictions on usage (time limits, Web sites, and so on).
What's the Pen For?
The teacher can also monitor students' activities on the Classmate remotely and step in if help seems to be needed. A pen tool lets teachers annotate screen contents (to circle items, for instance) and jot notes that appear on the connected Classmate screens.
There's also a NoteTaker utility for use with the bundled digital pen. Clip the matchbook-size receiver onto a piece of paper and plug the cord into a USB port. Then what you write appears in the NoteTaker app. The toolbar gives you choices to save notes, e-mail them, or send them to another PC on the network. During our trials the pen was fairly responsive and accurate, though Nicholas had to press harder than was natural for him for his strokes to register completely.
In terms of power the Classmate is appropriate for its mission, as long as third-party software makers keep in mind the slow CPU. The machine booted to XP in an acceptable 1 minute and 15 seconds, but it scored a low 702 on PCMark05. It completed the CineBench 9.5 rendering benchmark in two ticks under 5 minutes. To put those results in perspective, a typical budget notebook with a 1.73-GHz Core Duo CPU and integrated graphics scores around 1,200 on PCMark05 and completes CineBench in about 2.5 minutes.
Wireless throughput is fine for Web surfing and downloads, though the antenna isn't as sensitive as on full-size laptops we've tested; we had to be closer to our access point to get a strong signal than with other machines. Battery life for surfing and the like should fall between 4 and 5 hours, more than an hour longer than OLPC's XO.
The Classmate is fine for Web surfing (again, the screen-size limitations notwithstanding), and the Internet Explorer browser in the Windows version means the vast majority of Web sites will display correctly, unlike on the OLPC XO, which gave us a lot of trouble while surfing. Web videos also played back well, with just some intermittent stuttering as the video buffered. The small stereo speakers below the screen are anemic, as is to be expected; headphones are the way to go in anything other than a quiet room.
Verdict: Classmate PC vs. OLPC XO
The Intel Classmate PC takes a very different tack from the OLPC XO. Nicholas decidedly preferred the Classmate to the OLPC XO, saying, "It's really great. This one is totally better." Given the choice between the XO and his LeapFrog learning handheld, Nick preferred the LeapFrog; given the choice between the Classmate and the LeapFrog, he said he would choose the Classmate.
Ultimately, it will be up to local agencies to decide which model--a more proprietary yet approachable PC (the XO) or a more open but less intuitive machine (the Classmate)--works for their charges. But as long as both companies can execute on the mission of getting machines to the children, we won't complain about either.
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