I was surprised to see a FedEx truck pull up in front of our snowbound driveway Saturday. I had heard from Intel that they were sending out my test unit on Friday so that I could finally get my grubby paws on one of their convertible Classmates, but we're so far out in the boonies that even FedEx isn't terribly prompt about coming to see us. But there it was, begging to be opened and played with as soon as possible.
However, my wife and I were headed out on a date, so all I could do was yank it out of the packaging for a quick inspection. My first thought? Holy cow, a thin, light tablet that feels light years ahead of the second-generation "clamshell" Classmate I tested a while back. My second thought? I need to get these into our schools. This could be a game changer. I reserved judgment, though, until I could get my hands dirty with it on Sunday.
I'm actually typing on it right now. I'll be giving lots more details this week, especially after I talk with the good folks at Intel Monday to get a run-down on some of the new features and touch-specific software. However, I wanted to write a post of my first impressions, just playing with the little machine. In terms of typing, the keyboard is still quite small, but has great tactile feedback, making adapting to the small keys fairly easy. As with other netbooks, kids won't have any problems. However, as you'll see, this iteration of the Classmate has the potential to serve purposes for older students and adults looking for a cheap, light tablet.
Full specs are available here, but the new Classmate is really light. While it doesn't feel as bulletproof as the clamshell, I certainly wouldn't worry about tossing into a backpack or handing it to a Kindergartner. While the latches that hold the screen closed and keep the netbook in tablet mode are magnetic, they did not hold things closed as snugly as I might have liked. However, this particular tablet has seen duty at CES and with a lot of journalists, so I'll cut it some slack.
Of course I was grumpy about the choice of OS: Windows XP Home. Ubuntu Netbook Remix is ready to roll on the Classmate, but a few moments with the software stack made it clear why Intel was circulating the XP model. A lot of really compelling software is running very well on XP and the whole system was quite snappy. We'll see how the "Intel Learning Series Ecosystem" evolves, but this might actually give me a reason to look forward to Windows 7. If Microsoft can pull off an OS with a small enough footprint to run well on netbooks, then a whole lot of software is coming together around the Classmate. We'll also see how snappy the system stays when I install the needed anti-malware software, though, and I'll see where the Linux software stack stands during my call with Intel Monday afternoon.
A few more early thoughts: the art program, ArtRage 2, is probably the coolest piece of software I've used in a very long time. It is completely intuitive to use the touch input to mix oil paints on the screen and then paint with them. I'll post video of this sometime this week; it has to be seen to be believed, especially on such a low-power machine.
The handwriting recognition is also quite good. I type everything for a reason: my handwriting is horrific. After about 10 minutes of training/calibration, the software was recognizing my chickenscratch better than anything else I've ever used.
The real problem with the Classmates is probably going to be their price. There is no doubt in my mind that they are worth $500. In fact, I'm thinking very seriously about getting one for myself. In an age of budget cuts and $200 netbooks, though, can they be justified? It's going to take a little more time with the touch interface and software designed around the new tablets to know for sure, but I have the distinct feeling that these will genuinely be able to add value in the classroom, making the price premium over ultra-cheap netbooks a small price to pay.