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Intel Classmate PC Grows Up

Along the right hand side of the chassis you’ll find headphone and microphone sockets, a USB 2.0 port and a 10/100 Ethernet port. On the left is another USB 2.0 port and an SD Card slot. The latter can be used to expand internal storage, but Intel couldn’t confirm if it was SDHC compliant, and unfortunately I didn’t have a card handy to test it with. Finally on the left is a D-SUB port for hooking the Classmate up to an external monitor. The guys from Intel couldn’t confirm what the maximum resolution output to an external display was, but they promised to let me know.

Inside the new Classmate is a 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, along with a 945G chipset. There’s only 512MB of RAM, but since this machine is running a pretty lean build of Windows XP, it zipped along quite nicely. Storage in the machine I looked at was handled by a 60GB 1.8in hard disk, but there are also 4GB and 8GB solid state storage options available. Obviously the 1.8in HDD will provide far more capacity, but it will also make the machine less robust than an SSD version, and reduce battery life.

As well as the aforementioned wired Ethernet port, you also get 802.11b, g and n Wi-Fi, which will make it relatively easy to connect the Classmate to school networks. Intel said that there were no plans at present to integrate WiMAX, despite the fact that the emerging market is a prime target for the standard. It’s not a huge surprise though, since the obvious model would be that the school has a WiMAX router, and then all the Classmate PCs connect to it via Wi-Fi.

The basic software stack is still being developed, but the Quick Launcher application certainly makes it simple for children to get to the application they need. Coupled with the touch screen, Quick Launcher will allow the children to easily find and select the program they want, just by stabbing a finger at the screen. The sample I tested needed quite a hard tap to activate an icon, but that should be improved on the full production units.

A full Windows XP environment sits underneath the Quick Launcher shell, and the user can drop down into XP if they need to access other parts of the system. It is, however, possible for an administrator to lock the unit in Quick Launcher mode, to keep the children from changing any system settings, or installing software that they shouldn’t.

Whether in Quick Launcher or standard XP environments, the Classmate isn’t too sluggish, despite its lack of RAM, and considering that these machines will be kept pretty clean, they shouldn’t slow down the way most PCs do over six months of use. Although the version I looked at was preloaded with Windows XP, there will be options for Linux OS builds - the Classmate PC is sold through local resellers who can configure the machines to suit the market needs.

I can understand why a Windows environment would be considered desirable in an educational tool, since the children will be learning to use the OS and applications that they’ll be encountering in their adult life. That said, going down the Linux route could reduce cost, and result in schools being able to afford more machines and help more children learn.

There’s no confirmed pricing for the third generation Classmate PC yet, but since the machine will be sold through local resellers, end user pricing may vary depending on territory and build options. Hopefully Intel will reveal a base build price nearer the launch time of the new Classmate. As things stand, we’re looking at an official launch sometime in the next couple of months, while units should be getting to customers by the end of the year.

I have been promised a full production version of the Classmate as soon as samples become available. Realistically, that will probably mean October time, in line with Taiwan IDF perhaps, so check back for the full review.

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