The more compact design of the new Classmate and the position of the carrying handle on the back edge makes it easy for a child to hold the device comfortably in one hand, while tapping or writing on the screen using the stylus or a finger. This enhancement will allow children to more easily use the Classmate PCs outside of the classroom.
The integrated webcam has also been improved in the new Classmate. While the second generation Classmate did have a webcam option, it was only a user facing device. The camera in the new Classmate is set in a rotating barrel, which allows the child to use the Classmate as a digital camera. This feature again makes the Classmate a very useful tool out of the classroom, where children can take photographs while outside and study them later. Of course the camera can still be used as a standard webcam allowing the teacher or even other students to see the user.
The keyboard is small by notebook standards, but feels slightly larger and more usable than in the original Classmate. I had no problem typing on this device, but then I’m one of those people that finds the Eee PC keyboard perfectly usable too, while others complain that the keys are too small. There’s a decent amount of travel to the keys, while a slightly sharper edge relief on each key improves the spacing. Considering that the device I tested was a very early, preproduction sample, I expect the keyboard in retail units to be very good indeed.
Gone is the round touchpad seen in the original Classmate, replaced with a more conventional rectangle affair. This is a good thing, since the widescreen aspect ratio of the touchpad matches the screen, and it should be easier for children to manipulate. The two touchpad buttons also have a solid feel to them, and should be able to handle a fair amount of usage/abuse.
The screen is a massive improvement over the original. Not only is the new screen physically larger at 8.9in compared to 7in, the resolution is also greatly improved. Whereas the original model sported a resolution of only 800 x 480, the new Classmate squeezes 1,024 x 600 pixels into its screen. This means that users will be able to view most web pages without having to scroll sideways, while also giving them more desktop real estate to play with when running applications.
The screen quality itself is much improved too - the display is bright and evenly lit across the whole surface, while colours are relatively rich. In fact I was quite surprised at how good the screen looks, since often touch screen displays can look a tad washed out. Poor viewing angles can also be a result of a touch screen, but again, the Classmate faired pretty well in this department.
Just below the screen are two stereo speakers, although, as with most ultra-portable notebooks and netbooks, you probably wouldn’t want to listen to your music through them.