2nd-generation Intel Classmates reviewed

I just love these little laptops, so here's another repost while I've "gone fishin'".Intel recently sent me two examples of their second-generation Classmate PC for testing.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

I just love these little laptops, so here's another repost while I've "gone fishin'".

Intel recently sent me two examples of their second-generation Classmate PC for testing. The Classmates include numerous improvements on their already well-thought-out first-gen machines and mark the first versions that we can expect American and European OEMs to begin distributing in so-called mature markets.

My students, kids, and I spent quite a bit of time with the first generation Classmates, and all of us were impressed. Mini laptops (or "netbooks" as Intel has dubbed them) have their quirks and certainly aren't for everyone. However, there are few of us in education who couldn't find a lot of uses for cheap, highly portable, really rugged computing devices that get kids online, collaborating, and creating content. Frankly, there are a lot of adults (me included) who would rather toss a $300 semi-ruggedized netbook into my bag to take everywhere than always carry around my $1400 MacBook.

That being said, the second-generation Classmates were unveiled today at Intel's Developer Forum in Shanghai and, based on the few days I was able to spend pounding away on a couple of early machines last week, I think Intel (and the OEMs that end up distributing these machines in mature markets) are going to have a serious hit on their hands, especially in the educational and home markets. I've created a gallery of pictures of my two test machines and a video highlighting new features. Intel 2nd-gen ClassmateFirst off, let me give you the highlights of 2nd-generation models, including some extra details provided last week during a conversation with Intel spokeswoman, Agnes Kwan, and engineer, Jeff Galinovsky, who took a few minutes to speak with me about the new netbooks and answer some questions I had about their design choices.

Both machines I received were running Windows XP; we'll see how this evolves come June, but Intel will also be shipping me a Classmate loaded with Edubuntu shortly (the Edubuntu version was also unveiled at IDF). Previously, I had tested first-gen Classmates running Mandriva (loved it) and Metasys Linux (this was fine, but I didn't feel like it could compete with the look and feel of Mandriva). Performance from the 900MHz Celeron M's was quite acceptable, but no anti-malware software was running or installed. A Norton-style suite would not be advisable on these little guys; a combination of Windows Defender and Clamwin or AVG run periodically would be a much better choice (these have all been tested by Intel developers on the Classmates).

The netbooks also had half a gig of RAM installed; one of the features of this generation will be the ability to select from multiple SKUs depending upon your needs and the market, including larger or smaller amounts of RAM. Doubling the RAM from the previous first-gen Classmate provided a welcome performance and multi-tasking boost. I was able to capture video on the built-in webcam (another new feature), surf the web with multiple open windows, move files, and launch the built-in educational applications with no problem. It didn't multitask quite like my loaded MacBook, but that's not the intention.

Perhaps the most significant upgrade was the introduction of the 9" screen. While the 7" screen is still available, I found myself using the 9" model much more. 9 inches seems to be a real sweet spot for these machines, allowing them to retain the same form factor, but making the screens much more usable. 9? vs. my MacBook Herein, however, lies my only complaint with the Classmates. The native resolution is the same for both screens (800x480), leaving the 9" model feeling as if it wasn't being used to its full potential. Kids have good eyes - crank up the resolution so that they can make better use of the extra screen real estate. You can actually set the resolution to 1024x768 and pan across the screen, but this can get cumbersome. According to Intel, higher resolutions are in the works for Generation 3.

The 30GB PATA driveThe Classmates are still available with 1, 2, and 4GB solid state drives. However, the model I tested included a 30GB PATA drive. This was also a welcome addition, especially with the built-in webcam that makes it all too easy to fill up storage space. I asked the Intel engineer if this had compromised durability at all; he noted that as the computers get dropped from higher and higher locations, other things break before the hard drives. Check out the drop test at the end of the video embedded above.

Another particularly cool feature is the inclusion of full 802.11s (mesh networking). While this does not yet work on Windows XP, the Linux models support it now, enabling immediate collaboration among users, with or without an access point. It should be noted that Intel's primary intention here is not connection sharing, but easy ad hoc collaboration, file sharing, and even gaming as new software is added.

More details to come as additional announcements come out of IDF. For now, get ready for invasion of the Classmates.

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