Hands-on: The new Intel Convertible Classmate

Intel's globally focused Netbook/tablet, the Convertible Classmate PC, aims to be the ultimate school computer with its rugged design and educational applications. We take the latest one for a test drive.

A scene reminiscent of EPCOT. Scott Stein/CNET

Before the Netbook even existed, there was the Intel Classmate . A rugged, child-oriented notebook intended for worldwide educational use, the Classmate was and is Intel's global initiative paralleling what One Laptop Per Child and other programs have promised in terms of getting computers and the Internet into the hands of children.

The new Intel Convertible Classmate PC is a tablet Netbook with an Atom N450 processor, and it's also a touch-screen tablet, like its predecessor in 2009 . Though the overall look is similar, the new Classmate adds a rubberized outer shell, spill-resistant keyboard and screen, a more impact-resistant body with shock-absorbing corners, and a shock-detecting hard drive.

Intel chose to introduce and demo the new Classmates at the Central Park Zoo in New York City, along with hardware peripherals and software from some of their multitude of partners (McGraw-Hill was just announced as yet another). Wisely, Intel has realized that the product itself is only half the story; good software for both students and school administrators is equally critical. We watched a few dozen children using them for math quizzes, to test weather conditions with an attached Pasco climate-detecting peripheral, and to take photos and sketch birds in the rain forest exhibit. Lego also has robot kits that work via USB, which looked like clever systems for teaching mechanical principles.

We received one of the new Convertible Classmate PCs from Intel to try for ourselves, in a plain white box with a simple instruction manual aimed at teachers and parents. We saw the Classmate used with various educational peripherals, but those weren't included. The Classmate is, however, preloaded with some useful software, at least on our test system. A label indicates it's made by Royaltek, but Intel is planning to manufacture these Classmates around the world with a variety of local OEMs.

The Convertible Classmate is, basically, a Netbook: an Atom N450 processor, 160GB hard drive, and a higher-res 1,366x768-pixel 10.1-inch screen are nothing new. Our Classmate also had VGA out, two USB ports, two headphone jacks, a microphone jack, and an SD card slot. An optional GPS input is blocked off in our unit.

We're not kids, but we tried it out at our offices, too. Sarah Tew/CNET

Covered in gray silicone-type rubberized surfaces, the Classmate retains an institutional feel, but it's comfortable and easy to hold. A pull-out handle in the back is a welcoming touch. In tablet mode, the Classmate is comfortably grippable, too. The matte 10.1-inch screen uses a resistive touch interface that's meant to be used with the thick, penlike stylus tucked into the left side of the Classmate. We tried an included painting program and navigated Web pages, and found the touch to work pretty well. It's not gesture/multitouch enabled, but it works fine for basic functions.

The spill-resistant keyboard feels good to type on, and to our pleasant surprise the touch pad is one of the largest we've seen on a Netbook. The power button and basic navigation buttons are rubber-coated and positioned around the screen for tablet-mode use.

How exactly the Classmate works with educational software infrastructures is something we couldn't test, but our unit seemed preinstalled with an interface for such a purpose. Other applications included MathMastery, which has lessons and test problems, the ArtRage paint program, a Journal application, and software for the Lego and Pasco peripherals we don't have.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The overlaid Windows software interface, with its large-iconed app launcher, was easy to use. Some of the programs, such as the FoxIt e-reader, were a little unintuitive at times, but seemed to offer useful annotation tools. The Classmate's built-in accelerometer let the tablet shift orientations easily, with a slight black-out hiccup while shifting between landscape and portrait.

Overall, the new Classmate is a great idea, with tools that seem like they'll help the implementation of an "educational laptop" in school systems ready to adopt them. The only question is, at $499, would a school possibly choose an iPad instead? Granted, the iPad is not shock-resistant, can't run a regular OS, and is limited by the apps available on the App Store. We've heard of a few school administrators considering iPad purchases, but for now the Classmate seems like a less flashy but far more practical solution.

 

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