Intel unveiled a new iteration of its Classmate PC today, featuring a touch screen with tablet mode, a new wedge design, and motion-sensing internal hardware. According to Intel's press release,
“Our ethnographic research has shown us that students responded well to tablet and touch screen technology,” Ibrahim added. “The creativity, interactivity and user-friendliness of the new design will enhance the learning experiences for these children. This is important for both emerging and mature markets where technology is increasing being seen as a key tool in encouraging learning and facilitating teaching.”
What does that boil down to? We all like touch screens and they really help mitigate the shortcomings of traditional keyboard/mouse input for students, especially in math and science.
This version of the Classmate supplements, rather than replaces, the second-generation Classmate already in use and available from several OEMs (again, according to Intel, "Intel-powered classmate PCs are being sold to end-users under OEMs’ brand. Examples of these OEM-branded classmate PCs include: HCL MiLeap (India), Olidata’s JumPC (Italy), FTEC’s SmartBook (Malaysia), Neo’s eXplore (Philippines), and CTL’s 2Go PC (United States)."). The second-gen machines now feature both Intel Celeron M and Atom processors. Click here for a review of the second-generation machine.
I had a chance to speak with Intel spokesperson, Agnes Kwan, and one of the Classmate engineers, Jeff Galinovsky, today about the new models. A video highlighting some of its features is embedded above later this evening, but here's the key points from our conversation.
The tablet-enabled Classmates will be available to OEMs at the end of the year; several OEMs around the world are already onboard to launch the latest incarnation of the Classmate. Of note is MPC's (formerly Gateway) announcement Monday of its distribution of the second-generation Classmates under the name of "TXTBook".
The touch-enabled Classmate will feature an 8.9" screen with a built-in webcam that can swivel 180 degrees. It will also feature the latest Atom processor from Intel, allowing the Classmates to see a 50% performance increase over previous generations with Celeron M processors and up to 6.5 hours of battery life (the Celeron model is being phased out across the board as supplies of Atom processors increase).
I asked about the durability of the new models, given the introduction of the touch screen (previous iterations were really rugged). While Intel is still in a prototyping phase, Jeff Galinovsky assured me that serious durability was still one of the design parameters. While the touch screen might represent a minor compromise, the extra functionality at a similar pricepoint (they expect pricing to be competitive with existing models) is probably worth it. However, for applications where durability is of the highest concern, the regular "clamshell," non-touch model will still be available and developed in parallel. Intel did note, however, that their research in the classroom with existing deployments suggests that kids naturally move around, collaborate, and huddle with their computers in a way that can really be facilitated with a touch interface.
The touch interface itself is appropriate for single-finger or stylus input. It also features palm-reject, so that kids can write and draw naturally with their palms resting on the screen without experiencing the problems associated with most tablets (that tend to require a fairly unnatural hand position). As might be expected, the screen does not use multitouch, as this technology simply isn't mature enough to be accessible at this pricepoint.
Intel also just launched its "Ecosystem Vendor Alliance Program," bringing together software and operating system developers, hardware developers, etc. (Vernier, for example, to integrate support for their scientific probes) Since Classmate strives to be "OS-agnostic," it will continue to support open source operating systems as well as Windows XP on both second-generation and touch-enabled Classmates. In particular, Intel expects support for Edubuntu on the new Classmate by the time it launches. By the way, Sugar has been ported to the Classmate, according to OLPCNews.
They have also provided an API to software vendors for the integrated accelerometer. The accelerometer is designed to rotate the screen when the laptop is switched to tablet mode and allow both landscape and portrait input. However, by opening up the API, Intel has enabled physics experiments, science games, and even gesture-controlled actions (a tilt of the laptop to transfer a file, for example).
This diversification of the platform (netbook and touch-enabled, different screen sizes, etc.) is great news for both mature and emerging markets. The touch-enabled Classmates are probably going to be high on my wish list for next year and certainly on my younger kids Christmas lists.