Classmate PC: Faster, stronger, more

Netbooks may be losing ground to tablets, but Intel's newly announced Classmates are one segment that keeps the upper hand.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Intel announced upcoming upgrades to their Classmate PC reference design at IDF yesterday, along with significant momentum for its "Learning Series Alliance" (a group of vendors with products and services aligned with Classmate PC initiatives worldwide). Perhaps most significantly, Intel announced that 5 million Classmates had shipped since the company introduced the first competitor to the One Laptop Per Child XO in 2007.

The upgrades will start appearing from OEMs soon, although since it appears that the key component of the improved hardware, Intel's Cedar Trail Atom chipsets, has been delayed until November, I don't expect to start seeing updated Classmates until December. Cedar Trail should be worth waiting for, though. The current generation of Atom processors are fairly snappy in their dual-core incarnations and the new chipsets promise more than just a performance bump. As Tom's Hardware describes,

Cedar Trail is the first netbook platform based on Intel’s 32nm technology, and will bring ultra-thin, fanless designs with new capabilities such as Rapid Start technology, which provides fast resume; Smart Connect Technology, which enables always updated experience even during standby; and Wireless Display and PC Synch, which let users wirelessly update and synchronize documents, content and media across multiple devices. In addition, Intel claims the new platform will enable more than 10 hours of battery life and weeks of standby.

While not all of these features will be enabled in the base Classmates (Intel has promised an actual price drop in their convertible tablets, necessitating the exclusion of some features from the lowest cost models), the most important (8-10 hour battery life and full HD capabilities) will be standard. Rapid startup and resume will also help the Classmates remain competitive with Google's Chromebooks which have generated quite a bit of enthusiasm in education, in large part because of their nearly instant boot.

Although the clamshell model was always quite durable, the convertible model is now further ruggedized. It can survive longer drops, can resist far more than the standard juice-box reference amount of liquid to which the last generation was designed, and now has keys that can't be removed by malicious kids armed with the included stylus. This last bit makes me particularly happy since I rolled out a couple labs of Classmates 2 years ago and slowly watched them be disabled due to key-removing 5th graders.

Of course, I had to ask Intel reps about true tablets. This is, after all, the year of the iPad, for better or worse. While Intel is investigating a keyboardless tablet that may become part of the Learning Series (and actually showed a non-working proof of concept under glass at IDF), they continue to promote the idea of convertible tablet/netbook as the ideal form factor for schools looking for tablet functionality. I have to say that I actually agree with them - I've seen great things done with tablets and kids are remarkably adept with virtual keyboards, but given the option, the ability to use a keyboard to create content (rather than primarily consume it on a true tablet) is pretty compelling.

In addition to the platform improvements, Intel announced that its Learning Series Alliance is now 500 companies strong. The Alliance spans 70 countries, enabling local service providers to customize Classmates and associated hardware and software to meet the needs of individual countries, ministries, and curricula (by way of disclosure, my company is one of the recently joined members of the Alliance, as is its parent company). Alliance members range from OEMs to scientific equipment manufacturers to SaaS providers.

A last-minute addition to the IDF announcements was a teacher edition of the Classmate PC. While the exact specifications and software stack for the teacher machine are still evolving, the teacher software available through the Learning Series has always been fairly strong (SMART Notebook Software, classroom management utilities, notebook management, etc.). The creation of a dedicated software/hardware spec for instructor use makes a lot of sense and contributes to the ability of OEMs to sell turnkey classroom and 1:1 solutions.

As usual, when I get my hands on a test unit, I'll post a full review. With 5 million Classmates in the field, though, it's clear that Intel doesn't expect these particular netbooks to fall victim to the attack of the tablets (even if it is hedging its bets with a potential tablet of its own).

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