Alongside the much-talked-about One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, Intel has also been working on a low-cost laptop for schools in developing countries, called the Classmate PC. Sold by local OEMs, who offer customized software configurations for the needs of each individual market, tens of thousands of Classmate PCs are already in use around the world, either as part of pilot programs or purchased by governments, private schools, or philanthropic organizations. Wilton Agatstein and Larry Carr from Intel dropped by our New York offices this afternoon to give us a hands-on demo of the Classmate.
The most obvious difference between the Classmate and the OLPC is the price. The OLPC is designed to cost around $175 and runs open-source software. The Classmate starts at $225, and for around $350, you can get it preloaded with Windows XP and Microsoft Office 2003--Intel says it's important for children to learn how to use commercially available software to prepare for the workplace. The versions of the software provided have been carefully stripped down to fit into the Classmate's small flash-based hard drive.
The Classmate PC is available with either Linux or Windows XP, 256MB or 512MB of RAM, and either a 1GB or 2GB SSD hard drive. The 7-inch screen has a native resolution of 800x480, and the system includes headphone and mic jacks, speakers, two USB ports, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, and an Ethernet jack. With a 900MhZ ultralow-voltage Celeron processor, Intel says it should run for about three hours per charge.
Giving the Classmate a brief hands-on test, we found its diminutive keyboard to be not dissimilar to those found on other ultraportable laptops. The round touch pad was unusual, but easy to use, and the entire system felt very sturdy, as it is built into a semirugged housing, and includes a slightly padded removable cover that also acts as a handle.
It was surprising to see Windows XP run so smoothly on a system like this--the Classmate seemed speedier at first glance than some very expensive ultraportable laptops we've look at recently. Surfing the Web was a breeze, but the low screen resolution hindered us slightly. Opening multiple windows at once finally slowed the system down a bit, but the anecdotal performance was still very impressive.
We had a demo of some preinstalled classroom software. The Classmate PCs all come with the client software, while a teacher with a more fully featured laptop would run the host. From the host laptop, the teacher can monitor the students, send them text messages, send work on one student's screen to all the other systems on the network, or even remotely "silence" the Classmates, turning off their screens (for when you really want the class to pay attention to you).
While a $350 laptop isn't too far removed from some of the $500 budget laptop specials we've seen from big-box retailers, we were still impressed with our first hands-on experience with the Classmate PC. Upgrades in the works for next year include an optional Web cam and a larger 9-inch screen. We plan on putting one of the current units through our standard suite of laptop benchmarks in the coming weeks.