What's behind my Classmate PC problems?

Summary:Regular readers will know that I'm completely enamored of Intel's Classmate PC products and the software and hardware ecosystem the company has built. Recently, our district purchased 60 of these machines to replace aging stationary labs in two elementary schools and, after a few bumps making the transition from stationary lab to rolling cart, all seemed well.

Regular readers will know that I'm completely enamored of Intel's Classmate PC products and the software and hardware ecosystem the company has built. Recently, our district purchased 60 of these machines to replace aging stationary labs in two elementary schools and, after a few bumps making the transition from stationary lab to rolling cart, all seemed well. The kids responded well, our software worked wonderfully with the touch screens, and it served as a great proof of concept for the use of well-implemented netbook technologies in K-6.

Then, a few reports started trickling in from one of our schools that they were having troubles with keys popping off, consistent wireless connectivity, boot problems, etc. This seemed so unlike my previous experiences with Classmates. You can drop them, spill on them, and generally do all the things that kids do to electronics, just by virtue of being kids.

I'm headed out to the school tomorrow to assess for myself; my tech who covers our elementary schools has already spent some time reimaging and working with hardware/driver issues, but our second deployment at another school has been trouble-free. So what gives?

The lost key issue seems like simple vandalism, which irritates the heck out of me and is a pain to fix. While the computers are designed to withstand harsh conditions in developing countries, they aren't designed to withstand kids intent on mischief. If examination of the machines and discussion with teachers reveals problems inherent with the machines, I'll report back. However, it seems that a single-piece rubberized keyboard would go a long ways towards solving this problem. Here's a design cue that Intel could take from OLPC.

The wireless problems? I have a few thoughts on this one. We started by attaching a wireless access point to the cart to ensure that all students always had connectivity when the cart was in use. However, this was one more step for teachers who were short on time to begin with and often network drops or power were not readily available. We moved on to just deploying more access points, which seemed to help, but the standard install of Windows XP home isn't nearly as smart as it could be about picking up the strongest signal, rather than the last-used signal. This will require a bit more work in terms of setup, both on the machines and on our access points. While it's tempting to just toss on Ubuntu (I've gotten our RTI software to run under Wine), it just doesn't make sense to have a group of dissatisfied teachers climb that learning curve right now. Even a Windows 7 upgrade would not only be costly, but certainly wouldn't win me a lot of friends at the moment.

I'll write what I find out during my visit tomorrow, but I have to wonder if we might not solve some problems just through additional training for students and teachers.

Anyone else experienced reliability issues with their Classmates? What sorts of problems have you encountered? And were most cured by training or setup tweaks? Talk back below and let us know, since this is really the first time I've hit serious usability problems in extensive testing with the machines.

Topics: Hardware, Mobility, Networking, Security, Wi-Fi

About

Christopher Dawson grew up in Seattle, back in the days of pre-antitrust Microsoft, coffeeshops owned by something other than Starbucks, and really loud, inarticulate music. He escaped to the right coast in the early 90's and received a degree in Information Systems from Johns Hopkins University. While there, he began a career in health a... Full Bio

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