Your Classmate PC questions answered

I spent my first full day with a Classmate at school and I have to admit that I was impressed, both by its general usability, as well as the positive responses from students and teachers. Harder performance numbers will be coming this weekend, but for now, I'd like to answer the questions that have accumulated in the TalkBacks based on my experience, inspection of the machines, and a conversation this afternoon with a couple of people working on the project at Intel.

I spent my first full day with a Classmate at school and I have to admit that I was impressed, both by its general usability, as well as the positive responses from students and teachers. Harder performance numbers will be coming this weekend, but for now, I'd like to answer the questions that have accumulated in the TalkBacks based on my experience, inspection of the machines, and a conversation this afternoon with a couple of people working on the project at Intel. Please note that some of the questions below are aggregations of questions or designed to address issues raised in the TalkBacks. I have these laptops for a couple of weeks, though, so keep asking questions and I'll keep looking for answers.

How much do they cost and where can I buy them? Unfortunately, pricing fluctuates based on a variety of factors, so it's difficult to pin down. Intel is developing a model in which they work with local OEMs to enable customization (largely in terms of software) and sale to governments, schools, and other institutions. Pricing can be significantly affected by Microsoft licensing (as little as $3 a pop for certain government agencies all they way up to $180 for other groups, according to Intel); quantity can also influence pricing. It appears that it will be competitive with the OLPC and Asus Eee, but deployments remain largely in piloting phases.

In terms of getting one (or a lot), it's not looking good yet for established markets like North America and Western Europe. While Intel is investigating options here (including potential differentiation of models), nothing is definite and the focus is clearly on emerging markets.

Does it have wireless? 802.11 b/g is built in, as is a 10/100 wired Ethernet connection. Both the Linux and Windows laptops picked up my home wireless without a hitch and my five-year old spent the afternoon playing online games (his new favorite site is starfall.com) as soon as I installed Flash.

Do the Linux and Windows computers have different hard drives? The Windows machine has a 2GB solid state hard drive. The Linux machine actually has a 2.5GB solid state drive, although this particular laptop just came from China where it was being used for demos and is not the standard configuration. While the Classmate website lists both 1 and 2GB drives as options, the 1GB model does not seem very practical and is not being evaluated here.

What ports do the Classmates have? Each has 2 USB ports, a microphone line in, a headphone out, and an RJ-45 Ethernet port. Speakers are integrated beneath the screen; they're tinny, but it is a 7" laptop; I wasn't expecting Altec Lansings.

Can the handwritten characters be pasted into a word processor? This question refers to the ability of the Classmate's optional digital pen to capture handwriting/drawing via a sensor attached to the USB port that clips to a sheet of paper. The answer is yes, although the notes get pasted as an image rather than something that can be run through OCR software. It's a handy way of embedding drawings, formulas, and other notes, though, in a standard Word/OpenOffice document.

The digital pen and sensor were the biggest hit today among teachers and students, by the way. Science teachers, especially, who provide notes electronically to students saw great applications for this little USB device instead of clunky software for generating formulas and diagrams.

Can you install your own version of Linux? These are technically just little computers, so you can theoretically install whatever you want. I, unfortunately, can't test a variety of small-footprint distros since these machines will be headed back out for evaluation soon. However, Intel just signed a deal with Canonical to make Ubuntu/Edubuntu available on them soon and is willing to work with most Linux distributors by providing drivers and support to ensure that a particular distro works with the Classmate. They then make a list of tested distributions available to local OEMs who can decide what they want to install, based on customer demand.

How have your own kids liked it so far? I'm afraid that my 5-year old monopolized the Windows machine this afternoon. The keyboard was just his size and he really liked the touchpad (a small, circular pad that works well without being overly-sensitive). Once he got the hang of it, it seemed easier for him than a mouse. I'm afraid he's going to be heartbroken when I have to send it back. Primary (and to some extent) middle schools are really the target audience for these laptops and I can see why. They're easy to carry, easy to use, small enough for very little hands, and, according to Intel (I haven't tried it), can withstand drops off desks while they are running.

My 12-year old went for the Linux box but was frustrated by the software issues I hit yesterday. He wanted me to let him know as soon as Intel found a solution (it sounds like the problems are actually related to some anti-theft software, but it's taking some guidance from the team in China to find a workaround).

I think this will be the weekend of the Classmate, though. My 14-year old has pervasive developmental disorder (high functioning autism) and I'll have him do his homework on it this weekend; currently, unless he's using a computer for RPGs or to look up cheatcodes for whatever game he happens to be playing, he wants nothing to do with it. However, the personal level on which younger kids seem to connect with these machines just might make them really nice choices for kids on the spectrum. Lots more to come next week, including some hands-on time with other students with Asperger's and PDD at the high school, so stay tuned.

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