Intel's new Classmate — a version of which is shown here at the British Education and Training Technology Show (Bett) at London's Olympia on Wednesday — includes a touchscreen with a 180° swivel, allowing it to be used in tablet or laptop mode.
The Classmate is manufactured and/or customised by different hardware makers in different countries. In the UK, it is made by ="http: title="Fizzbook on CMS Computers' site" product_summary.asp?stype="1&keyword=fizzbook"">CMS Computers under the Zoostorm brand, and is called the Fizzbook. The latest version, shown above, is known as the Fizzbook Spin.
The Fizzbook design features curved edges and a rugged-enough build to survive travelling in school backpacks.
The slightly under-sized keyboard is fine for children's fingers, and the screen has a 'palm-rejection' feature, so it won't react to kids resting their palms on it while writing.
Folded into tablet mode, the Classmate's touchscreen responds to use with a normal stylus, or fingers.
Intel has surrounded the Classmate with software and services from partners under an overall brand, Intel Learning Series. This ecosystem includes peripherals, accessories and software for general education and administration, or for specific subject learning.
This picture shows optics software from a physics package produced by Algoryx. Here, Algoryx chief executive Kenneth Bodin is adjusting an experiment to reproduce a well-known album cover, using a stylus and touch input.
Other parts of the Algoryx product, available online as the 2D sandbox 'Phun', allow students to build models of physical structures such as trucks. The Classmate's tilt sensor can then experiment with their properties in motion.
The Classmate's carrying handle would be a useful feature on other laptops designed for more general use. It is rugged and slightly bendable. The handle is well-anchored into the casing, which is itself impressively sturdy-feeling.
The Fizzbook Spin costs £349 including VAT, or £330 when bought through a school. It has 60GB of storage, an 8.9-inch touchscreen and 802.11n Wi-Fi.
The price is slightly higher than you would expect to pay for a general-purpose netbook, but Intel and its partners argue that the build quality justifies this, along with the availability of compatible hardware and software.
Linux, provided by Canonical's Ubuntu, is part of the Intel Classmate ecosystem, but was little in evidence at the Bett show.
We located an Ubuntu Classmate on the Intel stand. It was running Ubuntu Netbook Remix, with additional Education Edition software.
Here it is showing the periodic table, and highlighting the synthetic element Einsteinium.
Linux is less represented in schools in the UK than it is in other countries, according to Damian Ondore, who works in corporate UK sales for Canonical. Ondore suggested this was because schools make upfront licence payments to Microsoft, which means they see additional Windows licences as free.
Linux provides benefits down the line, however, as other open-source software is available for learning, Ondore said. Here, Ondore explains the benefits of Linux, using a touchscreen Classmate in presentation mode.
The Intel Learning Series also includes infrastructure hardware such as this charging trolley from EarthWalk. It can charge 16 laptops and 16 spare batteries simultaneously — a useful thing, since the Classmate battery only lasts a few hours, according to Earthwalk's president Peggi McConnell.
By using one power supply instead of multiple AC units, the cart saves up to 75 percent of the energy used in charging laptops, McConnell said. The unit also has room for a server and a Wi-Fi access point.
Flat surfaces can be attached to the side of the unit, for the teacher to rest her or his laptop on. The top of the unit is carpeted.
Another part of the Classmate ecosystem, language-lab software from Sanako lets pupils answer questions and submit answers as MP3 files. Using headphones, pupils can practice conversations with other students in the class, regardless of where they are seated. Staff can join in these conversations, assessing progress.
The camera, which can swivel 180°, is intended to add videoconferencing to this kind of teaching. As Classmates are constructed by local manufacturers, they are often customised. The one shown here is a different colour from others for this reason.
The Classmate has rivals, and many were on display at the very lively Bett tradeshow. The Lenovo IdeaPad S10 is a solidly built netbook with good features that has only just found its way into UK shops, and may find a place in schools.
"Netbooks will eliminate exercise books and textbooks," said Liam Stapleton, vice principal of Brune Park Community College in Gosport, Hants, who is considering a rollout of Lenovo netbooks to his pupils.
"Schools have been left behind," said Stapleton. "Twenty years ago, homes were data poor and schools were data rich, because schools had books. Now it's flipped. Schools are data poor and homes are data rich, because they have the internet."
Portugal's Magalhaes (Magellan) scheme promises to provide a Classmate laptop equipped with 3G for every child in Portugal. The dual-boot machines are based on the older, non-swivelling Classmate model, and will run Windows XP and Caixa Magica, a local version of Linux.
The netbooks are constructed in Portugal using a customised motherboard. They will be provided to children at a cost of €50 (£45) and €250, depending on income — a price subsidised by the government and mobile operators. The machines will have a 3G modem built in, and the offer includes a monthly 3G contract starting at €5 for those on low incomes.
"For many, this is the first PC in their house," said a spokesman for JP Sa Couto, the manufacturer of the netbooks. The programme is funded by the money raised by the government auction for Portugal's 3G mobile licences, some 10 years ago, according to the spokesman.
A similar project is being carried out in Venezuela, where a million Classmate machines will be distributed, all running the Debian-based Portuguese Linux distribution.