Intel's next Classmate design will turn the low-power, Web-connected notebook aimed at young students into a Tablet PC with a swiveling touch-screen display, the chip giant announced Wednesday at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco.
Classmate Tablet PCs are scheduled to ship by the end of the year, according to Lila Ibrahim, general manager of Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel's Emerging Markets Platform Group.
Intel showed the first Classmate prototypes in 2006, promising to develop affordable mobile computers for students in developing countries. The following year, the chip maker rolled out 35 pilot distribution programs through local partner channels in more than 30 developing countries around the globe, and early this year began Classmate public sector and retail programs in the United States and Western Europe.
The current generation of Classmates are notebook PCs, or "netbooks" as Intel describes such low-power mobile form factors, which are built and sold by local OEMs in various countries under their own individual brand names. The very first local OEM to produce a Classmate was HCL, a system integrator based in Bombay, India.
A big part of Intel's Classmate initiative is ethnographic research, which helped steer the company towards the new Tablet PC design, explained Ibrahim at an IDF briefing. Intel's Classmate programs around the world involve more than just the shipping of parts -- the chip maker also conducts hands-on research in the classrooms where Classmates are used, determining how children actually use the devices in their studies, she said.
"It turns out they want to take their computers all over the classroom, and the Tablet mode gives them increased mobility to do that, whereas the current clamshell makes that awkward to do," Ibrahim said.
The new Classmates will be built on Intel's 1.6GHz Atom N270 processor and 945GSE chipset. Memory options include 256MB, 512MB or 1GB of DDR2, while storage comes in 2GB, 4GB and 8GB flavors, with hard disk and solid state drive options.
The display, powered by touch optimized software that features palm rejection technology to allow students to write in Tablet mode with their palm resting on the screen, is an LCD that comes in two size options, the 7" 800x480 version and the 8.9" 1024x600 version.
Ibrahim said the new Classmates would initially be priced higher than the current generation. Current Classmates on the market average $350 per unit in bulk purchases, she said.
The new design will deliver 1.5x the system performance over current edition, according to Intel, and the next generation of Classmates also boast about 30 percent more battery life than their predecessors.
Intel's for-profit Classmate initiative has rather notoriously received a good deal of criticism from Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the One Laptop Per Child project. Ibrahim, asked about Intel's ongoing competition with OLPC, said, "Regarding OLPC, we've talked about it plenty in the past. We share a vision of providing affordable technology to students and we think there's room for different products that accomplish that."