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.
While most of the standard benchmark tests we use wouldn't run on the Classmate, thanks to its 2GB hard drive, we did manage to run our iTunes encoding test. The Classmate's 900MHz Intel Celeron M CPU was only slightly slower on that test than the Fujitsu LifeBook U810, a UMPC that uses Intel's newer Ultra Low Power A110 CPU, specifically designed for smaller PCs -- but a laptop with a standard Core 2 Duo CPU will still run the same test about three times as fast.
In anecdotal testing, it was surprising to see Windows XP run so smoothly on a system with only 256MB of RAM. Surfing the Web was a breeze, but opening multiple Web pages and office documents at the same time finally slowed the system down.
We were not able to run our normal DVD playback battery test on the Intel Classmate PC, but in informal testing, we were able to use the system for about three hours while running a light mix of tasks -- Web browsing, working on a Word document, and playing MP3 files -- which was in line with Intel's battery life claims. That sounds fine for a portable laptop, especially an inexpensive one like this, but we wonder if that's long enough for the schoolchildren who are the Classmate's intended audience, and who may not always have easy access to electricity.
In a simple workload test to test power consumption -- involving typing a short (187-word) document, creating a small spreadsheet and a graph, browsing a couple of Web sites and playing a YouTube video (specifically, this one) -- with the screen brightness set to the maximum and then the minimum setting, the Classmate did pretty well. It drew an average of 16.7W with maximum backlight and 15.3W with minimum backlight. Idle and peak power figures were 14.7W and 20.8W respectively with maximum backlight and 13.7W/17.8W with mimimum backlight.
By comparison, the 2G Surf model of the popular Asus Eee drew slightly less power in the workload test than the Classmate: 14W and 13.2W on average with max/min backlight respectively, and 16.5W and 15.6W peak.
Bootup time is a more straightforward performance measure, and the Classmate takes around 70 seconds on average to reach an idle XP desktop from power-on. Opening the Internet Explorer browser to Google (set as the home page) took only 5 seconds or so.
There's scant room left for file storage or adding applications, but to its credit, the Classmate ran Windows XP smoothly with only 256MB of RAM, an impressive feat in itself. The technologies reflected here will likely filter down to consumer systems, leading to cheaper, smaller laptops for everyone, although likely not directly from Intel, which wants to stay out of the system-selling business.
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday