When Intel says its Classmate PC is built to be rugged, the company isn't kidding. This little laptop feels ready to take the worst a 10-year-old could offer.
The Classmate PC, with its distinctive blue cover, was designed by Intel for schools in emerging markets. Intel gave me one to play with for a week, offering a rare chance to take a close-up look at the laptop.
Intel says the Classmate PC is "almost kid-proof," and the beefy design backs that up. The case measures 24.5 centimeters wide by 19.6 centimeters deep. With the screen closed, it measures 4.4 centimeters thick. The laptop's 7-inch screen -- which offers a resolution of 800 pixels by 480 pixels -- is guarded by a thick housing and the laptop's body has a protective bumper.
The laptop itself is well built and surprisingly heavy for its size, weighing about 1.4 kilograms. Other laptops with a 7-inch screen are significantly lighter, coming in at 900 grams or less. Most of the Classmate PC's weight seems to come from its six-cell battery, which gives the laptop three to four hours of battery life. The ruggedized case probably adds a bit of weight as well. At any rate, the Classmate PC is still lighter than a bag full of books.
Compared to the One Laptop Per Child project's XO laptop, the Classmate PC feels better suited for the classroom environment. I had the chance to briefly try an XO prototype recently and was not impressed. Compared to the Classmate PC, the XO seemed lightly constructed and the case flexed easily. To be fair, the XO laptop that I saw was an engineering prototype, and not a final production model. Let's hope the final version of the XO is more rugged.
The heart of the Classmate PC is a 900MHz Celeron M processor, not Intel's fastest chip but good enough for the job here.
The Classmate PC came with Windows XP installed, Wi-Fi, 256MB of RAM, and 2GB of flash memory instead of a hard disk. As Windows XP booted up, the Classmate PC began looking for a teacher's computer. The laptop is designed to be used as part of a network, not as a standalone machine. In the classroom, the Classmate PCs can be monitored by the teacher's computer, allowing the teacher to view what each student sees on their screens. Teachers are also able to send information from their screens to every Classmate PC in the room.
Since there was no network for the Classmate PC to find in my test, the system continued to boot as a standalone PC. To test its performance, I tried watching a YouTube video, which played smoothly, although at times the system seemed to be pushing its limits -- most likely due to the limited amount of DRAM installed.
The Classmate PC's keyboard was too cramped for me to type comfortably, but I liked the round trackpad. In actual practice, the keyboard size shouldn't be a problem; this machine is designed for children, not adults.
Among the smart touches evident in the Classmate PC design, Intel chose to place the power socket on the right side of the laptop's case, instead of the rear. This allows the laptop to be charged in a classroom storage rack that helps keep them safe and reduces classroom clutter. Another touch that struck me was the absence of an Intel logo on the Classmate PC. Intel isn't shy about branding, and it's good to see they've apparently resisted the urge to use their logo here, since I've seen pictures of other Classmate PC samples with the Intel logo. Corporate logos and marketing don't belong inside schools.
Overall, the Classmate PC is an impressive product. Intel has done a good job with the design and manufacture of these laptops.