Though the focus remains on durability instead of style, the newest generation of Intel's Classmate line--the 2go Convertible Classmate PC NL2--looks more like a netbook and less like a toy than previous models. And that's a good thing, since even kids want to look more grown up. Aimed at the education market, this tablet combines great software with a sturdy build and ease of use, all the elements you need for a kidtastic netbook. However, the NL2's short battery life and hefty $599 price tag will give some parents pause, as should its occasionally unresponsive touchscreen. So is this netvertible worth the investment?
Like previous Classmate PCs, this netbook's kid-friendly elements take precedence over aesthetics. However, gone is the leathery, Velcro-attached cover. Instead, the gray, rubberized layer encases the whole 10.5 x 7.6 x 1.2-inch system, giving the Classmate a classier air. The rounded corners and tapered edges keep the netbook looking sleek even though it's bulkier than regular netbooks and only slightly smaller than Dell's brick of a student netbook, the Latitude 2100. The Classmate NL2 isn't exactly fashion-forward, but it's an improvement.
Under the hood, the white, gray, and black palette continues to dominate with light blue accents here and there. The matte bezel around the 10.1-inch display is filled with buttons and lights, giving kids access to key functions while in tablet mode. The speakers also sit on the display bezel at the bottom.
A somewhat cramped keyboard (which should be fine for the target audience) and fairly small touchpad take up most of the deck, which is otherwise bare except for Caps and Number Lock indicator lights and two small indentations at the top. These help keep the display from wiggling on its swivel hinge when the lid is closed. The triangle-shaped stylus is more comfortable to use than the previous convertible Classmate and stows away snugly in a port on the left side.
The ruggedizing touches add weight: the Classmate is 3.6 pounds, almost a pound heavier than the average netbook. The integrated handle also adds to the heft, but since it's retractable it doesn't ruin the netbook's smooth lines, and makes it easier to carry. While its rounded edges and rubber coating made it comfortable to hold either in portrait or landscap mode, it usually ended up on the table or our lap; we quickly tired of holding the NL2 in the crook of our arm.
Off or on, the Classmate can survive drops from up to 70 centimeters--about 4 feet--whether it lands flat or on its edges. The rounded corners are reinforced to minimize damage, just as the rubber coating absorbs some of the shock. We dropped the Classmate several times from a height of 4 feet so it landed flat and on edge, and the machine suffered no damage.
The Classmate's ruggedized case isn't the only protection the netbook has against the accidents and incidents it may encounter in the classroom. An accelerometer protects the hard drive, parking it safely if the Classmate shakes or falls. The LCD touchscreen is scratch and water resistant and shock mounted. Plus, the keyboard and touchpad are both spill-resistant; if the keyboard gets dirty, parents or teachers can wipe it down with a wet cloth worry-free. The antimicrobial coating will keep germs to a minimum, too.
While using the Classmate in tablet mode we noticed an uncomfortable level of heat on the right side near the vent. After playing a Hulu clip at full screen for 15 minutes, we measured the temperature here at 99 degrees Fahrenheit. Otherwise, the netbook stayed pretty cool--the touchpad only measured 92 degrees, the space between the G and H keys reached just 84, and the middle of the underside 90 degrees.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Click to enlargeCompared to the previous version, we were glad to see that the Classmate's keys are now (mostly) larger, and that tactile feedback remains excellent. However, the right Shift key is jammed in next to the arrow keys, as is the Fn key on that side. Touch typists may find this annoying, especially if they're just learning; we would have preferred smaller arrows or the elimination of the Fn key altogether. Granted, not all kids know how to touch type, but we think even the hunt-and-peckers will be annoyed by the Up arrow being so close to the tiny Shift key.
The 3 x 1.5-inch multitouch touchpad is wide and clearly demarcated from the matte deck and wrist rest. We were able to zoom from one side of the screen to the other on the low-friction surface and didn't have to pick up our finger that often when dragging or painting in Art Rage. The two mouse buttons underneath are large, springy, and very easy to use. Unfortunately, the touchpad's very close position to the bottom of the keyboard often caused us to accidentally move up a few lines when typing.
Display and Audio
Click to enlargeThe 10.1-inch, 1024 x 600 resolution matte screen has fairly narrow vertical and horizontal viewing angles. Despite this drawback, watching video on the Classmate was pleasant overall . Colors are bright and blacks deep, but we noticed some distortion when we pushed the screen back about 15 degrees while watching the final episode of the BBC's Jekyll. This was only an issue when viewing video-while surfing the web or writing in WordPad the usable range was wider.
The NL2's speakers aren't among the best we've heard from a netbook. At 50 percent volume, U2's "Vertigo" barely filled a small room and was easily drowned out by a high-speed fan. Sliding volume up to 75 percent provided enough power for most music, but Hulu video (which tends to be softer) needed the full 100 percent.
Tablet and Touchscreen
Click to enlargeThe gray buttons that line the display's bezel come in handy once students swivel the lid around and convert to tablet mode. The power button and battery, Wi-Fi, and CPU lights sit on the left; Home and Webcam buttons are on the right. There are also buttons for turning pages in the eReader application next to the left speaker. Overall, we found the rubberized buttons stiff but usable; we wish that the eReader controls were better placed; they're only convenient in two of the four possible screen orientations. Otherwise, we appreciate the access these provide once the physical keyboard is hidden.
In tablet mode, an accelerometer automatically changes the screen's orientation. Students can turn auto rotation off and manually switch orientation from the Quick Controller menu (accessed by clicking the Home button twice in tablet mode). From here kids can also control volume, brightness, calibrate the touchscreen, or connect to a second monitor.
Touch Computing Experience
The Classmate runs Windows 7 Professional, so pen and touch functionality is built in. The latter on the resistive display favors a pen input/writing experience, so you'll want to keep the stylus handy at all times. When using just a finger, we often had to press hard to launch a program (or use a fingernail).
While using pen input-optimized programs such as MyScript Studio Notes Edition, we found that the screen didn't record strokes evenly. MyScript corrected any tiny gaps most of the time; our writing came out smooth when we were deliberate, and tolerable when we wrote quickly in cursive. However, Windows 7's handwriting recognition had a tough time interpreting even our most careful lettering because the pen stroke seemed to drop out in the middle of letters, sending a false signal to the program. This issue hampered us when scrolling, but not as often, and it didn't affect other aspects of the touch experience.
Click to enlargeThe Classmate comes with several programs aimed at kids and parents, foremost of which is the Blue Dolphin user interface. The latest version of the UI improves on the look and integrates well with Windows 7. Blue Dolphin doesn't try to push the base OS into the background, but instead covers the desktop and leaves the taskbar at the bottom of the screen. Programs are divided into sections--Quick Launch, Common Folders, and Desktop--and users can easily add new sections or icons. Each time we clicked an icon it did a somersault, briefly showing the dolphin logo outline to indicate that the program was loading. This feature isn't so precious it gets old, and we liked having an acknowledgment that our click registered.
Educational software includes MyScript Studio Notes Edition, Smart Notebook SE for creating projects and reports, and Foxit Reader SP for eBooks. Foxit can read ePub, PDF, Text, RTF, CHM, and HTML eBooks and files. Though there are no games preloaded on the netbook (including default Windows 7 titles), there are several recreational apps. As with previous Classmate models, the NL2 includes Art Rage 2, a painting program much more interesting and fun than Microsoft's offering. We found painting with the pen just as much fun as painting with our fingers. ArcSoft's WebCam Companion 3 will not only capture stills and video, but also offers simple editing tools and YouTube uploads.
Ports and Webcam
The Classmate's port spread is typical for netbooks. On the left sits the VGA and one USB port alongside a mic input and two headphone jacks (so that multiple students can use the netbook at the same time). A port for the pen/stylus also sits on this side, and the included tether loops through the Kensington lock so students won't lose it.
On the right there's one more USB port, Ethernet, and the memory card slot. These last two ports have rubber covers to keep dust out. Our SD Card slid all the way into the slot, and the rubber cover fit right over it. We don't think kids will mind the lack of a third USB port. The port on the left labeled GPS isn't functional now, but future 3G models will use this for an antenna attachment (more on this below).
We like that the barrel-mounted webcam swivels 270 degrees so students can either point the camera toward them or turn it around and capture images in front of them. The internal mic is also mounted on the swivel so it can pick up audio from the same direction the camera faces. We weren't impressed with the quality of the 1.3-megapixel webcam, as it captured images that were somewhat indistinct. At first, colors were washed out, but some adjustment of the camera settings brought our skin tone and shirt color closer to normal. While chatting on Skype our friend noted that there was quite a bit of blur each time we moved.
The 1.67-GHz Intel Atom N450 CPU and 1GB of RAM earned the Classmate NL2 a score of 1,090 in PCMark Vantage, almost 200 marks below the netbook category average (1,231) and the Lenovo IdeaPad S10-3t convertible (1,227). The Classmate's Geekbench score of 848 is only 20 points below average (868) and more than 40 points ahead of the Viliv S10 Blade convertible (803). Unfortunately, it lags far behind the IdeaPad S10-3t (961) and the ASUS Eee PC 1001P (908).
This performance delta was most noticeable when multitasking. While writing this review in Open Office Writer, we switched between Art Rage, Windows Media Center, and Google Chrome with up to 8 tabs open. The browser began to slow once we created more than five tabs, and background tasks like streaming audio made the system more sluggish.
By contrast, the 5,400-rpm, 160GB hard drive is speedier than the competition. It completed the LAPTOP Transfer Test in 3 minutes and 28 seconds for a transfer rate of 24.5 MBps. This speed is comfortably ahead of the IdeaPad S10-3t (22.1 MBps), the Eee PC 1001P (17.5 MBps), and the category average (16.7 MBps). The S10 Blade's score of 9.4 MBps doesn't even come close.
Though the hard drive is fairly fast, the boot time of 1:10 is slower than both the average (1:01) and the Dell Latitude 2100's speedy 35 seconds; this is most likely due to the Blue Dolphin interface that loads on startup.
Intel's integrated GMA 3150 graphics earned the Classmate NL2 a score of just 150 on 3DMark06, which is on a par with most other netbooks with this chipset such as the Eee PC 1001P (155) and far better than the Latitude 2100 (122). But the IdeaPad S10-3t trumps it with a score of 164, and the netbook average (which includes Nvidia Ion systems) of 214 is over 60 marks ahead.
We don't expect students to do any video transcoding on the NL2, and that's good because it took the netbook 8 minutes and 29 seconds to transcode a 5:05 MPEG-4 video clip (114MB) to the AVI format using Oxelon Media Converter. This is almost 2:30 longer than the netbook average (6:01) and well behind the IdeaPad S10-3t (5:51), Eee PC 1001P (6:02), and even the Viliv S10 Blade (6:42).
Despite the low graphics scores, standard definition video runs smoothly on the Classmate, though the system struggled with a 720p trailer for The Discoverers. And we were able to watch Hulu and YouTube video at full screen with minimal hitching.
Battery and Wi-Fi
The four-cell battery lasted 3 hours and 22 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, just ahead of the IdeaPad S10-3t's four-cell (3:12) and the three-cell netbook average of 2:54, but behind the six-cell Latitude 2100 (4:47). Most students won't use the Classmate NL2 away from an outlet for extended periods, but we'd still like to see longer battery life since most other netbooks average 6 hours or more. A six-cell battery will be available for the NL2 in June for $69.
The Realtek 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi radio delivered throughput of 37.4 Mbps at 15 feet from the router and 16.5 Mbps from 50 feet away. Students will have to stay close to the router if they want to stream music or video reliably, but this radio should provide plenty of connectivity within a classroom setting.
The Classmate took 1 hour and 34 minutes to reach the 80-percent mark while charging and 2:44 to get to 100 percent. During that time, it used an average of 22 watts. Its LAPTOP Battery Efficiency Rating of 17.9 is not too far above the 16.5 average, and this is more efficient than the IdeaPad S10-3t (22.4).
Configurations and Warranty
Click to enlargeThe 2go Convertible Classmate PC NL2 has multiple configuration options. The base unit starts at $598 retail, though it's available online for $499. It includes the same RAM and hard drive as our configuration, but comes with Windows XP Home. Upgrading to 2GB of pre-installed RAM adds $69 to the price. Tacking on Windows 7 Starter Edition adds just $23. But if you want to take full advantage of the NL2's touch capabilities, you'll have to upgrade to Windows XP Professional or Windows 7 Professional, both at an additional price of $100.
A six-cell battery that sticks out from the chassis a little costs $69. In June CTL will offer a Performance Model of the Classmate NL2 that will include a hi-res 1366 x 768 display and the six-cell battery for $40 over the base price.
CTL Corp. covers the Classmate with a one-year parts-and-labor depot/mail-in warranty.
For the online price of $599, the 2go Convertible Classmate PC NL2 is steep for a netbook but reasonable for a durable convertible. Plus, the kid-friendly (and kid-proof) features make much of the extra cost worth it. If durability and educational value are your highest priorities, the Classmate is worth a look. We just wish a longer-lasting battery were included standard and that you didn't need to use the stylus for better touchscreen accuracy.