About two years ago at IDF I got my hands on the original Classmate PC. Intel had just announced the initiative and was in the process of rolling out hardware through its World Ahead program. The original Classmate was pretty special at the time, since the netbook revolution hadn’t started yet, and small, low cost notebooks with no moving parts were still pretty thin on the ground. Today Intel gave me one of its new Classmates to play with, despite the unit not actually launching until later in the year. So, how has the Classmate PC evolved to address the ever more demanding education market?
Design wise, the new Classmate is a million miles away from the original. While the original Classmate looks like an industrial PC with a colourful cover and pasted to it, the new model looks like a machine that’s designed to appeal to and be easily usable by children. With the explosion of netbooks seen recently, it comes as no surprise that Intel has spent some time making the Classmate look good, but the aesthetics represent just one of the many improvements seen in this third generation product.
Despite the fact that the new Classmate is smaller and lighter than its predecessor, Intel hasn’t sacrificed its rugged nature. You have to remember that children, whether in developing or mature nations, need devices that can survive the odd knock, drop or spill. The new Classmate can still survive a drop on the floor from a decent height, has a tough, shock resistant chassis and maintains its spill proof keyboard. Ok, so it’s not up to Panasonic ToughBook levels of ruggedness, but it should be able to survive life in the hands of a primary school student.
The most obvious improvement in the new Classmate is the rotating screen. Intel did a lot of research into how the original Classmate PCs were being used in the classroom, and realised that the machines were only being used some of the time. When students wanted to do traditional things like writing or drawing, they were closing the Classmates and going back to a pencil and paper. So Intel decided to design the new Classmate so that it could be used in this manner too.
The screen on the Classmate can be rotated 180 degrees and folded flat against the keyboard, just like a tablet PC - which is essentially what it is. Of course having a rotating screen wouldn’t be much use if you couldn’t use it without touching the keyboard, so Intel also integrated touch screen functionality. There’s a stylus that slides into the chassis of the device, but Intel has designed the Classmate to be easily usable with a finger too.
Finger operation is very important - children will want to stab at the screen with their finger rather than pulling out the stylus every time they want to do anything with the Classmate when it’s in tablet mode. But operation with the stylus is also very important if you want children to use the Classmate as an exercise book or drawing pad. And when you’re teaching children to write, you can’t expect them learn a different way of writing on the Classmate to how they write on paper, so Intel has implemented a special touch recognition system in the screen, which allows the child to rest the heal of their palm on the screen while they write. This means that the child will be writing on the Classmate in the same manner that they would write with a pen and paper.