For the World's Poor Children, This Computes
The most interesting new laptop shipped so far this year isn't sold in the United States. It's also missing most of the standard parts of a computer: a modem, a CD burner, even a hard drive.
A machine without those guts might be considered a toy, and Intel's Classmate PC even looks like a pretend computer that you'd give to a kid. Indeed, this little 3.2-pound machine is built for children: students in developing countries. It's rugged enough to withstand being tossed around classrooms, yet it goes for about $225, bought in bulk, half the price of the cheapest name-brand laptops sold in the United States.
Intel made this wireless-enabled laptop to goose the adoption of computers in poor schools overseas. Those institutions don't have the money to park a Dell Inspiron or Apple MacBook on every desk and don't have resources to support a classroom's worth of full-fledged computer work stations.
You could say the same thing about many schools in the United States, too. And although the Classmate PC can't help them today, computers sold here next year or the year after might owe something to its design.
Intel shares that goal with the One Laptop per Child project, begun by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. The group's XO laptop incorporates such advanced technologies as an extremely high-resolution screen and the ability to extend wireless Internet access across a school or village. The MIT project is in some ways more ambitious than Intel's because it is trying to do more at a lower cost -- initially, maybe $175 but eventually $100.
Intel isn't trying to reinvent the laptop with its project, but the goal of dirt-cheap computing evidently forced it to think seriously about how much computer people really need.
The Classmate's appearance alone sets it apart from other laptops. At 1.75 inches thick, it's chunkier than any other computer in the same weight class. Its screen and underside are protected by padded, baby-blue plastic. A handle emerges from the back, allowing you to carry the thing like a purse or a lunchbox.
The keys are squished down to about two-thirds the size of those on a standard laptop keyboard, and some commonly used keys are missing, such as the right-hand shift key. (Users can also input information with a special digital pen.)
The Classmate's screen is just 7 inches across, with a low 800-by-480 pixel resolution.
Instead of a hard drive, it uses flash memory -- and, at just under 2 gigabytes, it stores less data than most iPods. But that feature gives it more durability and helps stretch its battery life. A Classmate lent by Intel lasted just under 3 1/2 hours of Web access and music playback.
Regular memory has been cut to the minimum: 248 megabytes, or less than a quarter of what passes for a realistic minimum in Windows XP. The Classmate can run multiple applications at once, but in practice this tiny stash of memory and the small screen mean it works better as a mono-tasking machine.
(Unfortunately, the Classmate's weak processor still emits enough heat to need a cooling fan, which puts out a noticeable whir.)