CTL has been distributing computers based on Intel’s Classmate PC reference designs about as long as anyone. Over the past few years, we’ve seen models with 9 and 10 inch displays, Windows XP and Windows 7, standard displays and touchscreens. Today CTL introduced the latest iteration, and like it’s predecessors it’s target at the education market. But it’s also available for consumers… and while the $499 starting price is somewhat expensive for a netbook, it’s not bad for a convertible tablet style machine — especially one with all the features that come standard with this model.
The CTL 2Go Convertible Classmate PC NL2 is one of the few 10 inch netvertibles I’ve tested that seems to be more than simply a netbook with a touchscreen slapped on.
It has a webcam that rotates 270 degrees so you use it whether the computer is in laptop or tablet mode. There are page up and page down buttons built into the side of the display so you can easily scroll through documents in tablet mode. And the computer is choc full of touch-friendly software, whether you buy the netbook with Windows 7 Starter Edition or Windows 7 Professional.
The NL2 convertible tablet also features a rugged design with a thick rubber case that helps protect the computer from scratches and light falls. There’s a sensor which shuts down the hard drive in the event of a fall to prevent damage. And the keyboard is spill resistant.
There’s even a handle built into the case, but unlike previous Classmate PC handles which always stuck out and looked a bit awkward, this one is retractable and looks like it’s just part of the case when not in use.
The computer does have some problems. The 1024 x 600 pixel display is more than good enough for most tasks in landscape mode, but if you hold the tablet in portrait mode it turns into a 600 x 1024 screen which isn’t wide enough for viewing many applications or web pages. And the auto-screen rotate feature is sluggish and sometimes simply doesn’t work.
The model featured in this review runs $599 and comes with a 10.1 inch, 1024 x 600 pixel resistive touchscreen display, 1.66GHz Intel Atom N450 processor, Windows 7 Professional, 1GB of RAM, and a 160 hard drive.
It has 802.11b/g/n WiFi, 2 USB ports, and a 4-in-1 card reader. The cheaper $499 model ships with Windows 7 Starter Edition or Windows XP. And in the coming weeks and months we’ll see additional options including 3G, WiMAX and GPS capabilities, a capacitive touchscreen, and a higher resolution 1366 x 768 pixel display.
It would be hard to miss the fact that the NL2 is designed for children. At first glance it looks a bit like a toy computer thanks to the thick plastic cover and rounded corners. But there are good reasons for those design elements. The computer thick case is scratch and fingerprint resistant, and even offers enough protection to prevent serious damage if you drop the computer (from a short height).
There’s also a sensor that temporarily shifts the heads on the hard drive to prevent damage if your computer moves too much — which could help protect your data if you drop the computer
The keyboard is spill resistant as well. Although I wouldn’t recommend repeating the experiment, a CTL rep told me that the company tested the keyboard by dumping a bottle of water on it with no serious side effects.
While these safety measures were all built into the computer with children in mind, they could clearly come in handy for business users or anyone who has a tendency to drop (or toss) their laptops every now and again.
The semi-ruggedized case also lets you throw the computer in a backpack without a protective case without worrying too much about it getting scratched up. Of course, it’s never a bad idea to add a slip case to the mix, but computers based on Intel’s Classmate PC design tend to feel solid enough that the slipcase is purely optional.
At the back of the computer is a retractable handle. Earlier Classmate PC models had built in handles as well, making them easy for kids to carry from class to class. But the handles tended to stick out like sore thumbs. Or you know, like handles. This one blends in with the rear of the case when not in use.
You just give the handle a tug when you want to hold the computer by the handle. It’s clearly designed for children with small hands, as there’s not a lot of room for your fingers. But I found the laptop reasonably comfortable to tote around by the handle.
Around the sides of the netbook you’ll find a few more unusual features. For instance, there are three audio jacks: a mic input and two headphone jacks. This makes it easy for two students to share a laptop and collaborate on some projects.
There are also rubber caps covering some of the ports including the Ethernet jack and 4-in-1 flash card reader. There’s a lock port, 2 USB ports, a VGA output, and a slot for a stylus for use with the touchscreen display.
The model I received also has a covered up space marked GPS, which will is where you would insert an external antenna if the netbook had 3G and GPS capabilities — both of which should be available as options soon.
There are no vents on the bottom of the computer — the only vent is on the right side. I was told that the thick plastic on the bottom of the laptop helps to dissipate heat while air flows through the PC from the input ports on the left and out the vent on the right… but I found that the bottom of the computer did get warm to the touch if used for an extended period. Not hot, but warm.
There’s a single large access panel on the base of the PC which you can open up by removing two screws. This gives you access to the hard drive, memory, and wireless module, making it easy for school districts (or anyone else) to upgrade the NL2’s components.
The model featured in this review has a 4 cell battery which sits almost flush with the base of the laptop, but a 6 cell battery which will protrude from the bottom a bit more is also available.
While most netbook displays are attached to the base of the computer with two hinges, the CTL 2Go Convertible Classmate PC NL2 has a thick plastic swivel at the middle. This allows you to close the lid or rotate the screen and fold it over the keyboard for use in tablet mode.
Overall the swivel feels solid and I’m not particularly worried about it falling off. And the screen doesn’t bounce when I type on the keyboard with the computer configured in laptop mode. But the screen does wobble a bit if you poke it.
The power button is on the display rather than above the keyboard, making it easy to turn the computer on or off whether it’s in tablet or laptop mode. The status LEDs showing battery, hard drive, and wireless information are also on the side of the screen, and the speakers are on the base of the display, making it easy to hear audio no matter what position the computer is in.
Toward the bottom of the display are left and right arrow buttons that you can use as page up/page down buttons when using the Foxit PDF reader. There’s also an API available for other developers that want to take advantage of the arrow keys in their applications.
On the right side of the display (although the directions clearly get a bit mixed up once you rotate the display for use in tablet mode), are two more buttons. One triggers the camera software, while the Home button brings up the Blue Dolphin program launcher which is optimized for touchscreen displays thanks to its large program icons and dock for adjusting system settings.
At the top of the screen is a webcam and mic for taking pictures, shooting videos, or making video calls. It can rotate 270 degrees, making it easy to use in a variety of positions.
The CTL 2Go Convertible Classmate PC NL2 is a bit of a mixed bag when used as a tablet. On the one hand, it’s probably one of the best Intel Atom powered tablets I’ve used to date due to the software that came with this computer and a few key design decisions.
On the other hand, saying it’s one of the best isn’t really saying much. I’m starting to think that while the Intel Atom processor is more than capable of powering a typical netbook it might not be fast enough to handle the demands of running Windows 7 on a tablet-based computer.
While capacitive multitouch displays are all the rage these days, the base model of the NL2 ships with a resistive, single-input touchscreen. That means you can use the included stylus or your fingernail to tap at the screen. But it won’t recognize more than one input at a time, and it can’t perform two-finger gestures such as pinch to zoom. In fact, it won’t even notice if you touch the screen with your fingertip.
This is a good and a bad thing. It’s good because it makes it much easier to write notes on the display than it would be with a capacitive display which only recognizes finger input. Since the NL2 is designed for classroom use, handwriting support is pretty important. The computer won’t recognize any input from your palm if you happen to rest your palm on the screen while using the stylus to write — much the way you would with a piece of paper.
But a resistive display still isn’t the best screen type for handwriting, since it doesn’t recognize variable pressure. That means you can’t differentiate thick strokes from light ones, which makes it touch to write accurately and even tougher to draw. For that kind of precision, you need an active digitizer, which would drive up the cost significantly.
CTL does plan to offer a version of the NL2 with a capacitive touchscreen soon for customers that would prefer multitouch input. And a model with an active digitizer will also be available. Both will cost more than versions with resistive displays.
The demo unit I received has a number of software features that make it easy to use in tablet mode. That includes the Blue Dolphin program launcher which provides large icons for most programs, a dock with access to the volume and Blue Dolphin Settings dialogs, and a customizable “Places” menu that lets you organize apps by categories.
You can pull up the Blue Dolphin software from any screen by hitting the Home button on the side of the screen. If you hit the Home button twice you bring up the “Quick Controller app which lets you adjust the volume and screen brightness, calibrate the display, and enable or disable auto screen rotation.
The $599 model also comes with Windows 7 Professional, which includes a number of optimizations for touchscreen displays. For instance, any time you tap a text input box in a web browser or other application, an option to launch the on-screen keyboard will appear. And tapping and holding on a shortcut, link, or other part of the screen will simulate the action of right-clicking a mouse button.
There’s also support for “flicks,” which let you navigate through Internet Explorer and other applications by flicking your stylus across the screen instead of relying on scrollbars. You can also use flicks to perform certain editing tasks such as copy, paste, and undo.
I did find that sometimes the computer wouldn’t recognize taps unless I pressed down on the screen a little harder than I would have thought necessary. And sometimes if I wasn’t holding the stylus exactly perpendicular to the screen, the computer might disagree with me on exactly what it was I was trying to click.
But that was a minor annoyance. There were two much more serious issues with using this computer in tablet mode. The first is that while the NL2 has an accelerometer that automatically rotates the display when you change the position of the computer, it takes at least a few seconds to do this. CTL tells me that there will be an updated driver available soon that speeds things up a bit — but I have yet to find an Intel Atom based netbook that’s particularly good at quickly rotating the display.
I’ve probably become spoiled by my Google Android phone and iPod touch which do this almost instantly. But if you twist the screen to convert the NL2 from notebook to tablet mode or vice versa, you’re going to be staring at a black screen for a few seconds before you can actually use the computer.
There’s also a lag when you shift the screen from portrait to landscape mode by changing your grip on the computer in tablet mode.
By far the biggest problem with using the computer in tablet mode is that a 600 x 1024 x display just doesn’t give you much real estate for displaying web sites or applications designed for larger screens. Even the Blue Dolphin program launcher will only show you a single row of program icons when you’re holding the tablet in portrait mode.
As the image shows, when you’re reading the New York Times web site in portrait mode, the right side of the text column is cut off, which means you’ll either need to manually zoom out of the web page or spend some serious time scrolling back and forth to read.
If all you plan to do in tablet mode is take notes or draw pictures, this might not be a problem. But if you were hoping to read web sites, you might want to hold out until CTL begins offering a version of the netbook with a higher resolution 1366 x 768 pixel display.
As a netbook, the only complaint I have with the CTL 2Go Convertible Classmate PC NL2 is that it’s a bit heavy. With a 4 cell battery, it weighs about 3.5 pounds. The 6 cell battery will add a few more ounces. Considering the laptop is designed for children, that seems a bit heavy when there are a number of other 10 inch netbooks on the market that way 2.5 pounds or less.
Compared with the 2.7 pound Lenovo IdeaPad S10-3t, the NL2 feels like a behemoth. But the extra space makes room for a larger keyboard and touchpad, and the S10-3t doesn’t have the ruggedization features found in netbooks based on Intel’s Classmate PC reference design.
While earlier Classmate PC models had cramped keyboards and small touchpads, this model has a nice wide touchpad that’s very easy to use. It features distinct left and right buttons which are also quite large. And if you don’t like the touchpad, you can always plug in a USB mouse or grab the stylus and tap at the touchscreen (or use a fingernail).
The keyboard is about 85 to 90 percent the size of a full sized keyboard. That may seem a bit small, but I had no difficulty touch typing, and was able to score about 95 words per minute on an online typing test, which is pretty close to my top speed on other netbooks.
There’s a decent amount of space between each key on the keyboard, making it easy to detect the edges of each key without looking down, so touch typing is a pleasant experience.
Overall performance is pretty much what I’ve come to expect from netbooks with 1.66GHz Intel Atom Processors and 1GB of RAM. The computer had no problems surfing the web with 5 or more browser tabs open. I also had no difficulty editing documents while listening to music.
Video playback is smooth enough as long as you’re not trying to watch anything at resolutions higher than 720p. Adobe Flash video playback is a bit more hit or miss, with HD Flash video still just out of reach.
I did find that the hard drive protection software kicked in a little more frequently than I would have liked. While it’s nice to know that the hard drive is protected against drops, it’s a bit annoying when the computer freezes for a moment if you’re just shifting its position on your lap. Fortunately you can adjust the HDD protection sensitivity or disable this feature altogether.
The demo unit CTL sent me to review came with a 4 cell, 4400mAh, 32Whr battery. I got about 3 hours of run time while surfing the web over WiFi.
If you need more than that, (for instance if you’re hoping for all-day computing in a classroom environment without running power cables throughout the room), you might want to spring for the optional 6 cell battery.
The CTL 2Go Convertible Classmate PC NL2 is probably the best 10 inch convertible tablet I’ve tested to date. But that doesn’t mean that I thoroughly enjoyed using it as a tablet. The truth is, the NL2 was just good enough to give me an idea of what a truly good 10 inch convertible tablet experience would be like.
The computer functions perfectly well as a standard laptop and it has a sturdy build quality and ruggedization features that help reassure you that the computer isn’t going to break every time you pick it up or swivel the display. The software was clearly built for use with touch input. But the touchscreen isn’t quite as responsive as it should be, the screen rotates far too slowly, and the display simply isn’t large enough to accommodate web sites and Windows applications in portrait mode.
In other words, to be truly great, this tablet and others like it would either need higher resolution displays and faster processors/accelerometer drivers, or applications including web browsers that work more like smartphone apps by dynamically resizing web pages and other content to fit the size of the screen. CTL tells me that a new driver is coming out that should help speed up the automatic screen rotation, but it wasn’t available as of the time of this review.
The 2Go Convertible Classmate PC NL2 is available for $499 and up from 2GoPC.com.
You can find a brief video review below: