So I’ve had an Intel Classmate Convertible touch-screen tablet netbook for about six months now, using it out in the field as well as the office. How well does it meet the requirements listed in this post for a GeoPad, a field-capable GIS workstation?
Going through my requirements list one at a time, let’s get the bad news out of the way first:
Good screen visibility in outdoor conditions.
Nope, not really, at least under normal use conditions. It’s pretty much as bad as any standard laptop in direct sunlight, or on a bright cloudy . Under those conditions, it’s marginally useful at best, and more often unusable, particularly in tablet mode. When used in standard clamshell mode, it’s somewhat better, and if you buy a sunshade (or make one out of cardboard like I did), it’s bright and clear enough even on a sunny day to be usable. But a sunshade doesn’t really help when it’s in tablet mode; for that, you need to do one of the following:
- Get into shade or heavy forest cover; there, the screen is more than bright enough.
- Just turning your body so that the computer is in shade helps a bit, but you’ll still get enough scatter from the light areas behind you to make screen visibility less than ideal. If you’re willing to look like a bit of a dork, holding an open black umbrella behind your head can shade enough of the backlight to improve visibility significantly.
- Finally, throwing a light-proof cloth over your head to shade it and the laptop will make the screen fully visible. Unless capes come back into fashion, this will also make you look like a bit of a dork.
In any case, the current display is less than ideal for outdoor use, and you should keep that in mind. For the most part, I’ve been able to work around that problem, and still be productive with it. And that’s the worst news; for all the other requirements, it’s proven to be pretty good. Given that this laptop is pretty inexpensive (< $450), if you could add a sun-friendly LCD screen to it for a less-than-exorbitant price bump, say $100-$200, you could probably sell quite a few of these. So if you’re looking for a business opportunity …
I was looking for less than $1000; $450 is a lot better than I had hoped for.
Strictly speaking, this isn’t a true “rugged” notebook. But the basic specs (0.5-meter drop test on concrete non-operating, 0.4-meter on plywood operating) should be enough for basic field work, as long as you don’t abuse it too much. I’ve used mine on bumpy roads, tossed it into a backpack, and even dropped it on a rocky surface once, without any apparent ill effects. A good case should improve its shock resistance even further, and I’ll talk about mine in a future post.
Works as advertised, and is quite accurate with a stylus. Palm rejection is excellent, so you can write on it with your hand resting on the screen without worrying about it mistaking the palm touch for intended input. In fact, even a finger touch won’t register unless you use the edge of your fingernail. Comes with some software for handwriting recognition; while it’s OK, there are better choices. It has a built-in sensor that detects the orientation at which you’re holding the tablet, and can automatically rotate the screen to match that; in practice, I’ve found it better to switch screen rotation in manual mode.
Mine came with Windows XP, but you can now get it with Windows 7 Starter Edition. However, if you want a true Microsoft Tablet PC OS, using Windows own handwriting recognition and other tablet-specific features, you’ll need to upgrade to either Windows XP Professional or Windows 7 Home Premium at a minimum; standard Windows XP and the 7 Starter Edition don’t support Microsoft Tablet PC functionality. Startup is a bit slow, but all the GIS programs I tried ran at perfectly acceptable speeds; it will even run Google Earth at an acceptable speed (after complaining to you during installation that the screen is too small). It comes with the Blue Dolphin touch-screen-friendly desktop, which I found to be a very handy way to organize and access programs so that they could be easily accessed via the touch screen.
Respectable battery life; at least 4 hours under normal use.
Intel specs battery life with the 6-cell battery at 6 hours, with WiFi and webcam off. While this is the standard “best-case scenario”, I found in normal use that it easily hit 4 hours, and sometimes even 5 hours. The input voltage is 12V, which means that with a fairly cheap auto adapter, you can charge it directly from your lighter socket (running it from the socket is possible, but you’d need a high-power adapter).
Decent memory; 1 GB RAM, plus at least 30 GB storage space for software and data.
Comes with 1 GB RAM, expandable to 2 GB, plus a 60 GB shock-mounted PATA hard drive. The hard drive isn’t the fastest in the world, and I wouldn’t mind replacing that with a faster, low-power solid state drive at some point.
Light weight and compact size.
With the 6-cell battery, it weighs in at about 3 pounds (1.45 kg), and it’s a standard netbook size, maybe even a bit smaller than most.
Plus as many typical notebook features as possible.
Adequate on this score with one exception: the keyboard is very small, really designed for child-size hands. With small hands, you should have no problems; I have medium-size hands, and it definitely takes some additional effort to touch-type on this at a reasonable speed. If you have large hands, you may find it impossible to touch-type at all; hunt and peck may be the only practical method.
Comes with two USB ports, Ethernet port, VGA output, headphone/microphone jacks. The latter is useful, as the built-in microphone doesn’t work very well. There’s a SD-Card slot protected by a rubber plug; getting cards in and out can sometimes be a bit of a challenge. You can actually boot from the SD card, but when I tried installing booting from Linux on a 4 GB Class 4 SDHC card, it was unusably slow. The 1.3 megapixel camera works well, and it rotates so that you can use it either pointing towards you or away from you, in either clamshell or convertible mode. So you can snap a photo of something in the field in tablet mode, then annotate the picture directly in the tablet.
My final conclusions? I really wish the screen were more visible in daylight conditions, and if that’s a dealbreaker for you, then you shouldn’t consider it. But even with that limitation, I’ve found this to be a useful field companion. Over the next few months, I’ll be posting my experiences and recommendations on configuring this system with the right hardware and software to make it a full GeoPad.
Here’s a positive review video of the Intel Classmate Convertible from G4TV: