Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Anti-Netbook

For Christmas this year, I bought my kids (ages 4 and 5) their first computer: an Acer Revo. I call this the anti-netbook, but it actually shares a lot of things with a netbook. First is its processor, an Intel Atom clock in at 1.6 GHz. This helps to make for an incredibly small form factor, especially for a desktop computer. It has a 160 GB hard drive, but no optical drive.

When I bought the computer, I had exactly one reason for it. I wanted my kids to play educational games on it. That was all. The Revo came with Windows XP installed on it, and this was perfect. I needed Windows on there to get the largest number of potential games for it. Windows 7 seems to be much less of a resource hog than Vista, but I am still wagering that XP comes with less overhead.

I had another somewhat unusual plan for the Revo. It is completely isolated. No network access, not even local intranet. This is why I call it the anti-netbook. I want no Internet on it, I only want software that I personally installed to ever run on it. It is like a miniature Battlestar Galactica. Now I know there are a lot of websites with great games for kids, but I don't need them. I can find plenty of shrink-wrapped software to buy at incredibly cheap prices. However, this did lead me to some problems with the computer.

The first problem was how to install all of this software, since I had no optical drive. I was prepared for this. I simply copied the software to a flash drive and plugged that into one of the four USB ports on the Revo. This is where I encountered my first problem. Many of these titles require the original CD to be inserted into an optical drive in order to run the game. I suppose this is an anti-piracy tactic, but it really caused me problems. For a couple of the games, I could leave the flash drive plugged in and they were happy. This did not work for most of the games.

So I bought an external optical drive that could be connected via USB. This worked perfectly well, but it does mean that to change the games, one has to generally change discs in the external drive. This is not something that I trust my kids to do yet... I had one more nasty surprise in store for me. Many, actually most games published these days require the game to connect to the Internet, either to install or to play or both. There was a PBS Kids game we bought that was like this, and it was complete fail when we tried to install on the anti-netbook. So I had to make sure to only buy games that did not explicitly list an Internet connection as a hardware requirement, which generally meant buying a lot of older games. Still I found plenty of such games to choose from.

At some point I will want my kids to be able to do more with a computer. They will need a word processor. Of course I would like to teach them both to program. I would like to get them something like Mathematic/MatLab. And of course by then, they will need a computer that is connected to the Internet. When that day arrives, I will get them a Mac -- but probably not an iPad. I will teach them the old school ways!


Dan Douglas said...

I wonder if some creative partitioning of that 160 gb drive would let you copy the install media there and remove the need to swap discs or flash drives.

Daniel D. Shaw said...

Wow, the Revo is really inexpensive (~$200).

Thanks for sharing Michael. I'd be interested in a follow-up post with some of the software you found useful (and that the kids found engaging).

Did you try something like clone drive?
I don't really play any PC games anymore, but this used to be one of the best ways to get around the CD in the drive requirement.

Unknown said...

I didn't spend too much time trying to workaround the copy protection on the games. An external CD-ROM was very cheap < $30. The Clone Drive sounds clever, thanks for the tip Daniel.

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