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The Intel Classmate Convertible: A Cheap GeoPad?

A few years ago, the One Laptop Per Child initiative (OLPC) created what some consider to be the original netbook concept: a small, light-weight, rugged low-power inexpensive laptop, with a target price of $100. It had its own custom operating system, Sugar, designed to be easy to use for its target audience of young children. Perhaps because they felt a bit threatened by the OLPC concept, Intel came up with a competing line of small laptops that ran Windows XP, the Intel Classmate line. Earlier models were strictly standard clamshell laptops, but early in 2009 Intel introduced the Classmate Convertible, a touch-tablet model that seemed to me to meet at least some of my requirements for a GeoPad, a portable GIS workstation:

  • Long battery life (Intel specs it at 6 hours with the WiFi and webcam off)
  • Lightweight (about 3 pounds with the 6-cell battery)
  • 8.9” diagonal LCD display, 1024 x 600 (standard netbook resolution)
  • Rugged. Designed to take the abuse that young children can dish out, it can survive a 0.5-meter drop on a concrete floor on all edges (non-operating), and a 0.4-meter drop onto plywood while on but not doing disk operations. It’s also described as “splash-resistant”, which means that some water splashed onto it shouldn’t cause a problem, but it’s not waterproof.
  • Impact-resistant plastic shell, with rounded corners to reduce impact effects.
  • A 60 GB shock-mounted PATA hard drive.
  • Windows XP OS, allowing for good application choice; you can now get it with the Windows 7 Starter edition.
  • Atom 1.6 GHz processor (standard for netbooks); 1 GB RAM, expandable to a maximum of 2 GB.
  • Touchscreen –convertible; you can use it in standard clamshell mode, or flip the screen around and down to use it in tablet mode. While it doesn’t come with a touch stylus, it has “palm rejection” technology, so that touching it with your palm or wrist accidentally, or even resting your hand on it, won’t register as a touch; only the stylus or hard presses with your finger will register.
  • Full network capability, with wireless 802.11g and an Ethernet port.
  • Two USB ports, VGA external monitor port, SD card slot, headphone/microphone jack, full keyboard and touchpad input.
  • A built-in 1.3-megapixel webcam that can be rotated to face towards you, away from you, and at 90 degrees so that it can be used in tablet mode. So you could use it in the field to snap a photo in tablet mode, then draw directly on the captured image. Also has a built-in microphone for use in VOIP or in-field recording.
  • Finally, reasonably priced; you can find it online for about $450.

Although Intel designed the system, they don’t actually manufacture or sell it; they released the reference design and specifications to OEMs. The OEMs in turn wholesale it to individual retailers, who sell it under a wide variety of names. While retailer software configurations can vary significantly, the basic hardware is the same from all of them, as is the basic software toolkit. So unless you’re looking for a specific set of additional software (like MS Office), the cheapest model may well be the best choice. Here are some links to vendors of the Classmate Convertible:

This was the only inexpensive touchscreen computer I could find whose specs came close to meeting my requirements for a GeoPad. But the only way to find out if would prove useful in the field was to order it, configure it with software and additional hardware, then use it for an extended period. I got approval for the purchase, and have used it now for about half a year. How well does it work hardware-wise as a GeoPad? That’s tomorrow’s post …

… But here’s a preview: it’s pretty good, but it’s not perfect. It has one major drawback that makes using it in the field less than ideal. But I still find it a useful field companion.

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