Intel Classmate Notebook PC - Review

Intel Classmate Notebook PC - Review

Celeron M353 processor 900MHz; 256MB RAM

While the One Laptop Per Child XO, expected to start coming off of production lines in large numbers in November 2007, is perhaps the best-known laptop aimed at people in developing communities, Intel has already shipped thousands of its Classmate PC systems to test markets, including Mexico and Brazil. With a 7-inch display and solid-state hard drive, the Classmate shares many physical traits with the Linux-based Asus Eee PC (a product that's actually available to consumers), but the Classmate is clearly designed to withstand greater wear and tear, with a thick ruggedized plastic shell.

The Classmate starts at US$225, and for around US$350, you can get one set up like our review unit, preloaded with Windows XP and Microsoft Office 2003--both software packages specially configured to fit onto the tiny 2GB flash hard drive (larger versions may be available in the future). There's scant room left for file storage or adding applications, but to its credit, the Classmate ran Windows XP smoothly with only 256MB of RAM, an impressive feat in itself. While the Classmate isn't currently available to individual consumers, the technologies reflected here will likely filter down to consumer systems, leading to cheaper, smaller laptops for everyone, although likely not directly from Intel, which wants to stay out of the system-selling business.

Design of the Intel Classmate Laptop

The Classmate PC looks more like a toy than a laptop computer, with a thick, plastic chassis with rounded corners that's clearly designed to keep important parts far from the outer edges of the machine. The keyboard is water-resistant, and the entire body felt solid and unyielding. Even the back of the lid, which is covered with a thin, flimsy piece of plastic on many laptops, felt rugged. The system has a removable snap-on cover, made of thick leather, which doubles as a handle. Our cover was a pinkish orange, but we've seen them in blue and white as well.

We found its diminutive keyboard to be similar to the one on the Asus Eee PC, with the letter keys slightly narrower but deeper. Typing will be more comfortable for little hands than those of a grown adult. The round touch pad is unusual but easy to use--at least until we realized you couldn't use the edge as a scroll zone.

Besides versions of Windows XP and Microsoft Office 2003, specially tweaked to fit on the small hard drive with at least a little room left over for user files (about 500MB, in our case), the system includes custom software designed for classroom use. The Classmate PCs come with the client software, while a teacher with a full-featured laptop runs the host software. From the host laptop, the teacher can monitor the students' work, send text messages directly to the Classmate PCs, transfer work on one student's screen to all the other systems on the local network, or even remotely "silence" the Classmates, turning off their screens. While the e-Learning software is interesting, we especially liked that the Classmate can provide kids with the chance to get accustomed to the actual Microsoft software they're likely to encounter later in life.

Features of the Intel Classmate Laptop

The 7-inch display, again like the Asus Eee, has a resolution of 800 x 480--which means there's not a lot of screen real estate to spare. Text and icons were readable, but at 800-pixels wide, many Web pages are too wide for the screen and require horizontal scrolling. The thick bezel makes the screen look even smaller, but we understand the need to build in a protective buffer for the display. Unlike the Eee, there's no Webcam or speakers next to the display (small, tinny speakers sit right above the keyboard).

Ports and connections are spare on the Classmate. You get two USB ports, an Ethernet jack, headphone and mic jacks, and that's about it. On a low-cost specialized system like this, we don't mind not having FireWire or even a VGA output. At first we thought the Classmate lacked an SD card slot (as found on the Asus Eee) to augment the meager built-in flash hard drive, but there actually is one on the back panel, hidden behind the leather cover.

Performance And Battery Life of the Intel Classmate Laptop

While most of the standard benchmark tests we use wouldn't run on the Classmate, thanks to its 2GB hard drive, we did manage to run our iTunes encoding test. The Classmate's 900MHz Intel Celeron M CPU was only slightly slower on that test than the Fujitsu LifeBook U1010, a UMPC that uses Intel's newer Ultra Low Power A110 CPU, specifically designed for smaller PCs--but a laptop with a standard Core 2 Duo CPU will still run the same test about three times as fast. In anecdotal testing, it was surprising to see Windows XP run so smoothly on a system with only 256MB of RAM. Surfing the Web was a breeze, but opening multiple Web pages and office documents at the same time finally slowed the system down a bit.

We were not able to run our normal DVD playback battery test on the Intel Classmate PC, but in informal testing, we were able to use the system for about 3 hours while running a light mix of tasks--Web browsing, working on a Word document, and playing MP3 files--which was in line with Intel's battery life claims. That sounds fine for a portable laptop, especially an inexpensive one like this, but we wonder if that's long enough for the schoolchildren who are the Classmate's intended audience, and who may not always have easy access to electricity.

After-Sales Service And Support for the Intel Classmate Laptop PC

As this unit is not available in retail stores, no support is available outside organizations partnered with Intel on the Classmate PC initiative.