What's behind my Classmate PC problems?

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

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Classmate woes

    I've had a bunch go bad lately too. Hard drive seems to vanish (even in BIOS) and system hangs on boot before POST completes. Amazing, just Friday I pulled/reseated battery and RAM on a few, rebooted, and all is right again.

    Looks like perhaps a BIOS issue??? Even booting from external doesn't resolve it (but pulling RAM did???)
    • Memory controller

      Most likely not related, but my HP laptop would hang on occasion during boot. Power down & back up normally worked until it just stopped. On this laptop one of the memory slots became bad. Remove memory from slot & it worked, so I replaced the MB. (did swap memory modules to verify it was the slot & not the dimm.)
  • RE: What's behind my Classmate PC problems?

    You might want to change this to "inconsistent" as it makes
    no sense the way it is worded now:

    "consistent wireless connectivity"
  • The problem is deeper than the keyboard design

    "The lost key issue seems like simple vandalism"

    If someone is intent on mischief, they'll figure out how to
    cause mischief regardless of the design. The problem isn't the
    keyboard design, the problem is that too many kids are spared
    the rod today, and these computers were just given to them for
    free. That's the underlying problem here, and nobody
    appreciates something they got for nothing.

    These kids are getting a free education, and some of them would
    rather vandalize school property. There's just something truly
    sad about that.
    • character development

      we need to couple 1:1 with a lot of character
      development education.
      • You clean 100 bathrooms or classrooms, you get a classmate

        The rule should be: You clean 100 bathrooms or
        classrooms, you get a classmate. If you damage
        someone else's classmate, you get to earn them
        another classmate. If that were the case, I'd
        like to see just how many classmates are lost
        or damaged. I bet that people will appreciate
        their first laptop a whole lot more if they
        actually earned it.

        I know that when I got my first computer, I had
        to save up $1000 which is closer to $2000 today
        adjusted to inflation. I also had to learn
        what components to buy and figure out how to
        put it together. It wasn't easy to save up
        that much money back in those days. A friend
        of mine had to clean bathrooms in a retirement
        home (think bed pans used for #2) for a whole
        summer to earn enough money for his first 300
        baud modem.
    • Some truth here.

      I definately have found this to be true in a small percentage of kids / adults too. Unfortuantely just 2 percent can damage far more that there share. In my 1st year of supporting a school I was replacing mouse balls, cddrives with the gears stripped, cut keyboard cables, stolen parts etc. Teachers were bitching about us not being able to keep the comuters working, our budget was shot and we started becoming the whipping boy for every ill that affects education.

      We (the IT dept) solved it. How? We stopped fixing obviously vandalized items. Mouse ball gone? Bummer, learn how to navigate with the keyboard. Memory stolen? Try the library maybe they have the info you need. CD tray ripped out of the PC? Ah, thats a shame. Now you cant play your cd's. Sucks to be you.

      Teachers started getting the point, they are responcible for what happens in their class room. Kids started getting it, speak up or do with out because of the bad someone else is doing (instead whining because someone else is not doing enough good for you). In a week mouseballs started to mysteriously reappear. Teachers started orienting their PCs so they could be seen from the teachers desk and white board. Vandalism dropped to almost nothing. Go figure...

      It was a true Christmas miracle!
    • And even deeper than discipline


      School is quite boring, from my experiences and from observing people. They spend most of the day doing nothing. A class, then break, then class, then break, then class (which could just be continuing their footy game) then home. Break time is rivalling class time. :P And when you have that much spare time, you eventually get bored. Cue mischief.

      Yes, working for a netbook would be a good idea, but structuring school better in the first place would work better.

      In my opinion of course.
  • RE: What's behind my Classmate PC problems?

    My school has 40 classmate tablets...we have had a lot of HD failures. Some have had "lock up" problems that required sending the machines back to the manufacture. We haven't had wireless problems with the tablets, but the manufacture's laptop counter part gives us wireless authentication problems (we have 50 of these). I blamed the problems on non-school wireless router signal interferance affecting our radius authentication at the elementary school.
    Missing keys haven't been a problem with either the tablet or laptop.
    The HS has been 1 to 1 school for 3 years. We started with gateway M285s and have had to manage for 2 years without any warrenty support (baling wire and bandaids). The second year we purchase 50 HP 2730s for the incoming freshmen, they have been great and the support super. This year we tried classmate tablets for the freshmen, because of what we thought their rugged design and cost. But, for HS use the atom CPU even with 2 GB of RAM is slow. The classmates will be passed down to next years freshman and the sophmores who have proven that then can use and maintain their classmate responsibly will get new 2730s.
  • Teething problems (nt)

  • RE: What's behind my Classmate PC problems?

    There are three main reasons that computer slows down: registry errors, spyware and adware, viruses. Actually, however, according to the statistics, 90% of computer problems are caused by computer registry, so it is important to constantly clean up your computer registry to ensure that your computer runs in a good condition. Now there are two good software on the Internet: Tuneup360 and Norton systemwork, but the latter one is a little bit difficult. For the beginners, Tuneup360 is a good choice.