May 24, 2007

Five days with the Classmate PC and Mandriva

Author: Tina Gasperson

Some say the Classmate PC is Intel's answer to (or competition with) the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) effort. Intel is hawking the lilliputian laptop in "emerging markets" like Nigeria, India, and Mexico as a solution for worldwide education of primary and secondary students. It's to be officially released and shipped en masse to schools in Africa and South and Central America by the end of June. Recently my children and I borrowed a Classmate PC loaded with a custom version of Mandriva Linux. Most of us had fun.

The Classmate comes out of the box wrapped in a sky blue vinyl cover that extends out to a built-in handle with, interestingly, a magnetic closure. This is some tiny technology -- Classmate is about the size of a medium textbook and weighs only about 2 1/2 pounds. Intel says it is a "rugged learning device." With that in mind, I turned the Classmate over to my built-in target market, my eight-year-old daughter.

The Classmate PC

The Classmate PC

Mackenzie booted up the Classmate before I even had the box completely unpacked. She's a whiz at Windows, and she had no problem maneuvering through KDE and figuring out where resided. Mackenzie wants to be a writer when she grows up, so she spends lots of time on a computer composing works of fiction and transcribing from books and other printed material. Classmate and Mandriva handled this task with ease, as you might expect. Though my fingers cramped and I often hit the wrong keys, Mackenzie's hands didn't mind the very small keyboard, and if she noticed that there was only one set of Shift, Fn, Ctrl, and Alt keys, or that the +/= and "/' keys had been moved to save space, or that the space bar seemed to have been reduced to half its size, she didn't mention it. It seemed to me, however, that if kids learn to type with this keyboard, they're going to have to relearn a few things when they graduate to a full-sized computer.

Alas, typing stories won't keep Mackenzie's attention forever. Eventually she wants to get online and find games to play, send a few email messages to family and friends, and check actor Corbin Bleu's Web site for new pictures.

The Classmate is so adorably cozy it make you want to snuggle up on a comfy couch or lean back on some pillows on the floor while you surf. Good thing wireless is built right in. Too bad the typical Linux foibles apply. The first snag was having to log in as root to check the system configuration because the Classmate wouldn't log on to the network. Something tells me most elementary and high school teachers with nothing but Windows experience aren't going to get that. The second snag was that I did not know the root password. In fact, I had no login information whatsoever, and Mandriva had been configured to automatically log me in. I contacted Mandriva tech support, since Mandriva had provided the OS image to Intel, and got the root password later that day. Normally, Intel will provide end user tech support on Classmates.

I discovered there was a conflict between the wireless adapter and the X Window System that caused the Classmate to lock up hard every time we tried to connect. "I hope Intel has not changed the hardware in your sample," a Mandriva technician wrote. He said he would retrace the steps they used to get the wireless working and send them to me. Mandriva eventually sent an updated driver RPM with instructions and screenshots, which fixed the hardware conflict. Once we got connected, basic Web browsing posed no problems, except that the system's Flash plugin needed updating, which again required intervention from me for root login and knowledge of how to install software from an RPM.

Mackenzie also discovered and enjoyed playing with Tux Typing, which came preinstalled and worked perfectly. And over five days, that was the extent of her interest in Classmate, although she and her brothers used it often when they weren't allowed to use the "big computer." Once I saw them using Classmate and the "big computer" side by side as they played Club Penguin -- kind of a Second Life for kids.

Classmate with Mandriva comes with DansGuardian proxy and Web filtering software so that parents and teachers can restrict access to objectionable content online. You can enter keywords to filter or block sites by IP address or URL. I also noticed a user account dubbed "parental," but once again, neither Intel nor Mandriva sent me information about this, and there's nothing on their sites. Intel says it sends extra documentation and provides tech support for Classmates in the field.

On the hardware side, Classmate comes with a 900MHz Intel processor, 256MB DDR-II RAM, a 7-inch LCD 800x480 display, 1GB of flash storage, built-in speakers and microphone and a jack for external input, Ethernet jack connection and built-in 802.11b/g wireless, and two USB ports.

After five days with three active kids, the Classmate PC still works, and shows relatively few signs of wear -– just a little dirt and an unidentified food stain of some kind, probably ketchup, on the vinyl cover, which along with a thicker than usual plastic case provides extra protection from kids. The keyboard is not sealed, but we didn't need to clean it -- it wasn't that dirty. We ran through the battery three times, but Classmate was running most of the time we had it; the battery life was pretty good, lasting at least two hours at a time.

The Classmate seems durable and easy to use. I would recommend it for the same type of computer user I recommend desktop Linux to: a non-power user who does light-duty surfing, email, and word processing or spreadsheets, basic wired Internet, and no multimedia stuff. Anything more than that is going to require tech support. If the students in Mexico, India, and Nigeria stick to the basics, they'll fall in love with the Classmate loaded with Mandriva, like Mackenzie did.

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