Linux: the key to Intel's Classmate PC

The One Laptop Per Child project isn't the only group trying to bring low-cost computing to children in developing countries - Intel wants a slice of the action too with its Classmate PC.

Formerly known as Eduwise, the Classmate is a reference design from Intel, designed to inspire hardware manufacturers to create their own machines based on the same specs. Intel has piloted the Classmate in South America, India, Pakistan, South-East Asia and elsewhere - and although no price has been set, Intel is hoping for a circa-$250 price point in mass production.

Inside Intel's Classmate PC

We got our hands on Intel's prototype Classmate PC, running Mandriva Linux, but manufacturers will have the option to install Windows XP on it.

The Classmate PC is a sturdy, boxy machine; certainly at home in the sub-notebook category, but not as thin or trim as the Asus Eee. However, the large screen bezel and thick plastic casing shield the innards from typical bumps and knocks. The Classmate has to be tough in the hands of kids - that's where Intel sees the majority of its sales. Its outer casing is finished with a soft plastic blue cover that also sports a handle.

Spec-wise, the Classmate PC is budget all the way: a 900MHz Intel Celeron chip, 256MB RAM and 2GB flash memory (serving as the hard drive). Networking is provided by on-board Wi-Fi and Ethernet, and the machine has two USB ports.

We're loving the keyboard, though - it's rugged and chunky, akin to keyboards on late '90s Toshiba Librettos, and more substantial than that of the Asus Eee. Intriguingly, Intel has opted for a round touchpad, which initially looks unusable but works fine in practice.

Powered by Mandriva Linux

The Classmate's 7-inch 800 x 480 screen is backed up by an Intel 915GM graphics chip, while sound is handled by built-in speakers and a headphone port. In use, the machine runs fairly cool, with the fan kicking in quite early when CPU load rises - and it's quite loud relative to the machine's size. However, given the noise levels of a typical classroom, we don't see this as a problem.

So, what about the software? As mentioned, some Classmate PCs will run Windows XP when mass production starts. But our prototype runs Mandriva Linux 2007.

It's largely a vanilla installation of Mandriva, with a few tweaks such as a large program launcher on the desktop; much more needs to be done though. The Classmate takes 38 seconds to boot to the login screen, another 31 seconds to reach the desktop, and then 24 more if you want to run!

We hope that Mandriva follows Asus/Xandros's lead and fine-tunes its distro for the Classmate system, eschewing the bulky KDE 3.5 desktop in favour of a slimline alternative such as IceWM. Also, how many kids need the full power (and sluggishness) of 2.0? Give them AbiWord for typing up notes.

Needs some work...

Our Classmate PC came with a funky digital pen - you attach a USB-connected clip to a piece of paper, start writing/drawing with the special pen, and can then see your work on screen.

Ultimately, how well the Classmate fares depends on the price and build-quality of the final units - Intel's machine is impressively durable and tough, and other manufacturers will have to ape the same construction. Our main gripes at this stage are mainly software-related: Mandriva is a fine Linux distro, but it needs a lot more customisation for the machine. Oh, and an SD card port would be welcome too... was the former name of Its staff were at the forefront of the digital publishing revolution, and spearheaded the move to bring consumer technology journalism to its natural home – online. Many of the current TechRadar staff started life a staff writer, covering everything from the emerging smartphone market to the evolving market of personal computers. Think of it as the building blocks of the TechRadar you love today.