What would you say to a class-set of portable computers? Not the ones with the batteries that die after an hour and the tiny keyboard and screen, but something a little more upmarket. The answer is probably "Yes please, but where do I get such a machine?"
Enter Apple Computer's new eMate portable, which has been designed specifically for use in education and which drew a crowd at January's BETT show. With its full-sized keyboard, children can take notes, draw diagrams and even browse Internet-style pages from their own desks. Its green screen and use of a pen instead of a mouse make it an interesting step up from palmtops, such as Acorn's Pocket Books, which have won many friends in schools. Crucially, eMate not only has a rugged case, it also dispenses with delicate, so-called hard discs in favour of storing everything on a chip.
The carrying handle and safe, contoured shape give it the look of a serious piece of "kid-ware". Surprisingly, to get its good looks, Apple went to the Italian designer who designed the interior of the latest Porsche. It seems to have paid off, even if even if the result looks like a Porsche, albeit a flattened one.
When you lift up the bulging bonnet the machine switches on and is ready for use. There is a notepad, a calculator and a word processor, with different text styles and fonts, much like a desktop machine. If you want to add a diagram, a unique program turns vague lines drawn with the pen into straight lines, and round shapes into perfect circles.
The eMate's processor is similar to that found in Apple's handheld personal organiser, the Newton 130, whose diary and address book are here as well. The fact that the eMate is easy on battery juice, with 28 hours between recharges, is a killer feature compared with other laptops, most of which barely last the lesson.
IT buffs will be impressed by the different ways the machine can connect to other computers. An infra-red "port" can "beam" work to other eMates, to a desktop machine or even to a printer. And for a belt to go with these braces, a PC card slot allows all sorts of connections to yet more modems, networks and mobile phones.
Puzzlingly, the machine does not use Microsoft Windows, but IT marketing consultant Roger Brodie says that the quality of its printing and the ease with which information can be transferred to other machines means this is not an issue.
Nigel Paine, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Educational Technology, believes the eMate will enable pupils to collect and develop material independently and then collate their work on to a multimedia Apple Macintosh or a PC.
"It will ease congestion on desktop PCs and broaden pupils' experience of IT applications, though an issue for Apple is whether they will be able to price it low enough to attract significant investment," he says.
The big question, with something so close to good, is will Apple get the marketing right? Will they tempt schools with a promise of loads of software? Will they bundle a spreadsheet that does maths and graphs, or is that an extra? And of course, will the US price of $800 convert to less than #163;800? On past form, nice dollar prices have rarely become nice pounds.
Such decisions are in the lap of Xemplar, the company set up by Apple and Acorn to jointly sell their products. Trial models for schools are just arriving. A bigger batch should arrive in September.
Apple's eMate 300 features a 25MHz ARM 710a RISC processor,
3 megabytes of RAM and 8 megabytes of ROM.
It has a 480 x 320 dot greyscale liquid crystal display with backlighting.
Connections for power, sound, PC card modems, printers and for serial devices such as modems, mobile phones and Apple networks are built in.
Xemplar, The Quorum, Barnwell Road, Cambridge CB5 8RE. Tel: 01223 724724