While the OLPC XO-1 is perhaps the best-known laptop aimed at people in developing communities, Intel has already shipped thousands of its Classmate PC systems to test markets, including Mexico and Brazil. With a 7-inch display and solid-state hard drive, the Classmate shares many physical traits with the £219 Linux-based Asus Eee PC -- a product that's actually available to consumers -- but the Classmate is clearly designed to withstand greater wear and tear, with a thick ruggedised plastic shell.
Although its not currently available to individual customers, the Classmate starts at around £110, and for around £160, you can get one set up like our review unit, preloaded with Windows XP and Microsoft Office 2003. Both software packages are specially configured to fit onto the tiny 2GB flash hard drive. Larger versions may be available in the future.
The Classmate PC looks more like a toy than a laptop computer, with a thick, plastic chassis with rounded corners that's clearly designed to keep important parts far from the outer edges of the machine. The keyboard is water resistant, and the entire body felt solid and unyielding. Even the back of the lid, which is covered with a thin, flimsy piece of plastic on many laptops, felt rugged. The system has a removable snap-on cover, made of thick leather, which doubles as a handle. Our cover was a pinkish orange, but we've seen them in blue and white as well.
We found its diminutive keyboard to be similar to the one on the Asus Eee, with the letter keys slightly narrower but deeper. Typing will be more comfortable for little hands than those of a grown adult. The round touch pad is unusual but easy to use -- at least until we realised you couldn't use the edge as a scroll zone.
Besides versions of Windows XP and Microsoft Office 2003, specially tweaked to fit on the small hard drive with at least a little room left over for user files -- about 500MB, in our case -- the system includes custom software designed for classroom use. The Classmate PCs come with the client software, while a teacher with a full-featured laptop runs the host software.
From the host laptop, the teacher can monitor the students' work, send text messages directly to the Classmate PCs, transfer work on one student's screen to all the other systems on the local network, or even remotely "silence" the Classmates, turning off their screens. While the e-Learning software is interesting, we especially liked that the Classmate can provide kids with the chance to get accustomed to the actual Microsoft software they're likely to encounter later in life.
The 7-inch display, again like the Asus Eee 701, has a resolution of 800x480 pixels -- which means there's not a lot of screen real estate to spare. Text and icons were readable, but at 800 pixels wide, many Web pages are too wide for the screen and require horizontal scrolling. The thick bezel makes the screen look even smaller, but we understand the need to build in a protective buffer for the display. Unlike the Eee, there's no webcam or speakers next to the display. Small, tinny speakers sit right above the keyboard.
Ports and connections are spare on the Classmate. You get two USB ports, an Ethernet jack, headphone and mic jacks -- and that's about it. On a low-cost specialised system like this, we don't mind not having FireWire or even a VGA output. At first we thought the Classmate lacked an SD card slot -- as found on the Asus Eee -- to augment the meager built-in flash hard drive, but there actually is one on the back panel, hidden behind the leather cover.