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Solving my Classmate problems

Yesterday I wrote about a variety of problems cropping up in one of our Classmate PC deployments (a 30-computer rolling lab). I hadn't had a chance to assess for myself, though, so I took a trip to the school today and looked over the computers with the principal who, mercifully, is pretty savvy and had made a few fixes before I got there.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

Yesterday I wrote about a variety of problems cropping up in one of our Classmate PC deployments (a 30-computer rolling lab). I hadn't had a chance to assess for myself, though, so I took a trip to the school today and looked over the computers with the principal who, mercifully, is pretty savvy and had made a few fixes before I got there.

I also sent some inquiries to the Intel Classmate team once I'd had time to go and look more closely at the Classmates, deciphering user error, from vandalism, from hardware failure. I'll embed their responses (thanks to Jeff Galinovsky for getting back to me so quickly) as I describe what was really going on.

First things first, kids have taken to popping off keys with their styluses. I'd love to believe they were just really curious about how keyboards worked, but truth be told they were doing to same things their older counterparts do when the shuffle around the letters on keyboards in the media center. Unfortunately, because these keyboards are sealed to protect against spills and the elements, replacing keys is not a simple matter. In fact, I have a number of keyboards that now need replacing. Fortunately, according to Jeff Galinovsky,

First, the keyboard can be user replaceable, as long as you get the right keyboard from your LOEM [local OEM, in this case M&A Technology], also you may want to talk to your LOEM about if this is warranty covered. Replacement is easy and I can walk you through the process.

And, as soon as he does, I'll post video of the replacements.

Yesterday, though, I suggested that Intel consider OLPC's one-piece silicon keyboard design so that this sort of thing couldn't happen. Again, Jeff Galinovsky:

As far as the one-piece design, I agree that it is more durable but you lose the nicer tactile response. The user research we had done shows the users liked the tactile response of the more traditional keyboard to the single piece model. That said, we are always receptive to ongoing user feedback on how to make things better.

Fair enough, but I'd love to find a happy medium or at least make it an option for local OEMs.

Teachers were also complaining about the audio driver. When students plugged in a set of headphones, a driver control panel popped up and required user intervention to switch from the internal speaker to the headphones. I need to break out a test machine and figure out how to disable this. According to Jeff, it's not the default behavior, so this shouldn't be a big deal. It wouldn't be a big deal anyway, but with young kids and an active autistic program in the school, these need to be real easy.

Consistent wireless connectivity turned out to be a major problem as well, especially considering that these laptops were primarily being used for web-based RTI software. Issue #1? We have decent wireless penetration in the building, but the access points were originally all set up with different names. Making their SSIDs consistent (and adding the two other wireless-N access points I brought up today) should make for a lot fewer weak, overloaded, or dropped connections.

The Classmates also all came with Blue Dolphin, a skin that runs over Windows and makes icons and programs more accessible via touch (especially for little kids). However, the installed software stack didn't include Inspirus, a much nicer desktop control suite that can prevent inquisitive kids from changing settings while still providing a nice, touch-friendly UI. It's again up to the local OEMs to include it, but it's freely available as part of the Classmate software stack. Lucky for me, Intel sent over a copy of the full software stack, including teacher control solutions, so a little reimaging over the holidays should keep the OS running a bit more troublefree.

Finally, a couple of the screens have been fairly well-scratched. In certain lighting conditions, it's fairly noticeable and both teachers and students have complained. This is the only time I've seen real scratches in a screen that is remarkably durable. As Jeff notes,

This is interesting, my 3-1/2 year old bangs on her screen all the time with no issues. Can you send some pictures? As far as protectors, let me do a little digging and see what might work. We haven't heard of it being an issue, so I don't have any recommendations immediately available.

This isn't just standard PR nonsense, either. It takes some effort to scratch these guys. I'll report back if Intel can find some suitable screen protectors, though.

So what's the bottom line? Obviously, I need to make sure that infrastructure is 100% nailed down and any software to firm up user policies in Windows XP Home is a good thing. However, kids poke, pry, squeeze, and otherwise beat the heck out of various items that come their way. It certainly makes me glad we went with Classmates instead of less durable netbook alternatives, but it also means that we have some work to do with the kids in terms of care and feeding of their Classmates. I smell an assembly!

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