Linux, politics, and other interesting things
Matt Bottrell wrote an interesting and informative post about laptops for school kids . His conclusion is that based on technical features the OLPC machine is best suited for primary school children and one of the ASUS EeePC, the Intel Classmate, and the Everex Cloudbook would be best suited for high-school students.
The Asus EeePC  is a good option, it runs a variant of Debian and the Debian Eeepc Team are active in getting full Debian support for it .
The Intel Classmate  has a choice of Windows XP, Mandriva, and Metasys Classmate. The web page says that it’s designed “for primary students (ages 5-14)“, so I think that Matt made a mistake in listing this as a possibility for high-schools, of course when running Mandriva it could have software installed for any age group but the hardware design may be better suited to younger children.
The Everex Cloudbook  runs the GOS Rocket  OS which seems to be an Ubuntu variant with an Enlightenment based GUI and a configuration aimed at using Google services (blogger, gmail, etc). Configuring Ubuntu to suit your needs is easy enough (it’s based on Debian). Note that Matt did not mention where one might purchase a Cloudbook in Australia and I don’t recall seeing one on any of my many window-shopping expeditions to Australian consumer electronics stores, while the EeePC is widely available (except when sold out). But I’m sure that if the government wanted to place an order for a couple of million units then Everex would ramp up production quickly enough.
Matt made one statement that I strongly disagree with, he wrote “A traditional notebook is far too heavy for high-school kids to lug around“.
To test this theory I searched for some high-school text books and a set of scales. A year 11 Maths A text book from ~1988 weighed 600g and the pair of year 12 Maths A and Maths B texts weighed 1.6Kg. When I was at high-school the day was divided into seven “periods”, some classes took two periods so four different classes which required text books (or other books) was typical. Carrying 3Kg of books to school would not be uncommon for year 12 students. The Lenovo T series (advertised as “premier performance” and the model I personally prefer) is listed as having a starting weight of 2.1Kg (which presumably doesn’t include the power pack). My Thinkpad T series (from about 2004) weighs about 2.4Kg according to my kitchen scales and has a battery weighing just over 400g.
My practice for a long time was to own a spare power pack for my Thinkpad so that I could leave it at work (saving 400g when travelling to and from work). I have also had the practice of buying a spare battery when I buy a Thinkpad (you need a spare battery for a long trip). So if I had really wanted to save weight I could have left a battery at work and reduced by travel weight by another 400g (with the cost being that I couldn’t use it when on a train or bus).
A spare power pack is not overly expensive. In the usual case students would only need a battery when at school (it’s a little known fact that Thinkpads work perfectly without a battery plugged in). So if a student had a power pack at home as well as one at school and if they left their battery at school and they owned one of the latest Thinkpad T series (listed with a starting weight of 2.1Kg) then their travel weight might be about 1.7Kg. If the majority of school texts could be stored on their laptop then the result of using a Thinkpad T series would be a significant weight reduction! If the students were using a Thinkpad X series (more expensive so maybe not a good option) then the list weight is 1.57Kg and the travel weight might be as low as 1.3Kg (at a rough estimate).
The EeePC offers significant benefits for school use, it is light, cheap (children tend to break or lose things more frequently than adults so you should budget for buying two of anything that they use), and having no hard drive (flash storage) it should cope well with being dropped. The screen on the EeePC is unreasonably small buy Asus could release a new model with a bigger screen (they may do this in the future anyway or a government contract could encourage them to do it sooner).
I agree that the EeePC or the Everex Cloudbook is probably the best option for high-school students, but I can’t agree with any claim about a traditional laptop being too heavy, the only reason for excluding a traditional laptop is that those new ultra-lights are better.
Another reason that might be cited for not using laptops is the cost. While prices of $1000 or more for a traditional laptop are rather expensive, the $500 for an EeePC is not that expensive – and the government could surely negotiate a better deal, I would be surprised if they couldn’t get the price down to $350 by some bargaining and by removing the middle-man. A careful child could use the same laptop for the entire duration of high-school and their parents would incur less expense than they currently would spend on text books.
As for the current lack of electronic text books. Currently when the education department selects a book it’s a license to print money for the author and publisher. All that the education department has to do is to declare that they will do a deal with the first company to release their books under a creative commons license. The idea would be that an author (or publishing company) would get paid a fixed sum of money for a CC release of a text book which would then be available for use by anyone anywhere in the world. World-wide free distribution would be no loss to the author (each country tends to have unique books anyway) but would be a good act of charity from our government to developing countries.
Once books were available under a creative commons license (without the “no modifications” clause) they could be freely improved by anyone. Improving text books for younger students could be a good school project.
Thanks to Steve Walsh for pointing out that the Classmate can run Linux. It’s a pity that he didn’t link to my post so that his readers could see what he was referring to. I take it as a good sign of the quality of my posts that such small errors get pointed out.