It’s been a while since I powered up a Kano-built computer. That’s because the company, which wants to help children learn how to code, has spent the last few years developing kits that work in tandem with a PC, smartphone or tablet. These have included a Harry Potter wand and two motion-sensing pucks based on the Star Wars and Frozen franchises. Kano has occasionally returned to Raspberry Pi-powered hardware, but mainly to offer minor revisions rather than wildly ambitious reinventions. With the Kano PC, though, the company is finally returning to its roots and, for the first time ever, offering a product that runs Windows.
Like the Computer Kit Touch, the Kano PC can be used as a standalone tablet or in conjunction with a bright orange keyboard. Unlike its predecessor, though, Kano has combined the keys and trackpad with a felt-like cover that both protects the machine and doubles as a kickstand. I know what you’re thinking, and yes, it definitely looks like a cheap Surface. Kano isn’t the first to rip off Microsoft’s convertible formula — just look at the iPad’s Smart Keyboard Folio — but it has two unique features that separate itself from the competition: LEGO-like assembly, and pre-installed educational software.
Design and construction
Let’s start with the former. Kano originally caught the public’s attention by wrapping a Raspberry Pi board — which was cheap and capable, but overwhelming for the average parent — in a transparent case with a child-friendly assortment of colorful cables and dongles. The company even put an instructional booklet in the box so that everyone would know how to snap the pieces together. It wasn’t a full PC build, though, and I’ve always wondered if the company would attempt a more complicated construction kit. If the Raspberry Pi was LEGO, I wanted its eventual Windows machine to be like LEGO Technic.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite panned out that way. The Kano PC’s core components, including the processor and RAM, have already been installed, so you simply need to connect the red battery and blue speaker before snapping on the transparent rear panel. These plastic-covered parts, at least, are a colorful reminder of Kano’s legacy and ensure the device fits in with the rest of the company’s wares. It might sound inconsequential, but I appreciate that all of Kano’s products share a consistent design language that still feels fresh and distinctive in 2020.
Regardless, the short assembly process will be disappointing if you’re the kind of person that enjoys watching PC build videos on YouTube. (Even Henry Cavill, an actor and video game enthusiast, is putting together his own PC these days.) I still believe there’s an opportunity to create a more complex kit that is both approachable and safe for schoolchildren. Still, what you are allowed to build is enjoyable and thoughtfully designed. I never worried that the kit was going to fall apart, either, like the Airfix models I glued together as a child.
And make no mistake: Kano still wants you to know how a computer works. Markings on the board explain where the various ports — which include USB-C for charging, two USB-A ports, a headphone jack and HDMI slot — and parts like the microphone reside. The processor, built-in storage, RAM and power management components are highlighted too, but because they’re covered by an aluminum heat sink you can’t actually see them. You’ll also find a tiny magnifying glass in the instruction booklet that begs you to “look closely” at everything. It’s a small but meaningful prompt that encourages children to question and understand what’s in front of them.
The centerpiece of the Kano PC is an 11.6-inch touchscreen with a 1366 x 768 (720p) resolution. While not the most vibrant or pixel-dense display, it’s serviceable for Microsoft Office and the occasional YouTube video. The entire machine costs $299 — and unlike the $400 Surface Go 2, that includes the keyboard cover — which is cheaper than the entry-level iPad and many Android tablets with PC-like aspirations. A 1080p panel would have been nice, but you can’t expect Retina Display quality at this sort of price point.
The keyboard is spacious enough that your fingers won’t cramp while typing an essay in Google Docs. There’s a dedicated function row, unlike Apple’s Magic Keyboard for the iPad Pro, and each key has a decent amount of travel. One small nitpick: I wish they were backlit like the ones found on the Surface Go 2’s Type Cover. Sure, I mostly work at home with the lights on, but I suspect many children like to use their laptop in the dark, under their bedsheets and well after their parents have told them to go to bed.
The keyboard is spacious enough that your fingers won’t cramp while typing an essay.
The trackpad, meanwhile, is awfully small and fiddly to use. You can prod the touchscreen instead, but I’m old fashioned and eventually defaulted to my trusty Logitech MX Master 2S mouse. If you’re considering the Kano PC, I highly recommend buying the company’s official mouse, which costs $20, or a reliable third-party alternative. (At the time of writing, Kano is offering a free mouse with every Kano PC order.)
The keyboard cover attaches magnetically via some small pins — similar to Apple’s Smart Connector — and a plastic strip that slots into a deep groove on the tablet’s derriere. The weight and angle of the tablet then ensures that the kickstand never slides down. There’s just one problem: you can’t change the viewing angle. Like, at all. That’s awful in comparison to the Surface Go 2, which can flex almost 180 degrees, and even Apple’s Magic Keyboard for the iPad Pro. The chosen angle is fine while you’re sitting at a desk or kitchen table. But it’s unhelpful if, like me, you want to place the PC on a pile of books so that your back doesn’t ache.
Another problem is the floppy felt-like material that sits between the magnetized pins and keyboard. It means the tablet can rock forward, and sometimes come crashing down, if you move around too much while it’s resting on your lap. Many Surface-like convertibles share this ‘lapability’ problem, but you know what doesn’t? Any clamshell Chromebook.
Like the Computer Kit Touch, the tablet portion of the Kano PC is thick. That’s the trade-off with a part-assembled device, though, that actively encourages you to peek inside. And honestly, I don’t mind the larger footprint. In its folded-down form, the computer resemble the binders and textbooks that I used to lug around at school. A thinner device is always preferable, but that’s neither the focus nor, in my opinion, expectation with a product like this.
The final hardware compromise is the webcam. The Kano PC doesn’t have one, which means you need an accessory to participate in Zoom calls, or any kind of video call. Kano is selling a $30 webcam with a bendable arm that supports both front and rear-facing shots. It also has an LED light for after-dark calls and a secondary lens that can capture macro photos and videos. It’s an imaginative solution that really should have been bundled with the Kano PC. Many children have gone back to school, but distance learning is still a massive part of our coronavirus-stricken world. Webcams, therefore, are a critical PC component at the moment.
The Kano PC was originally meant to run Windows 10 in “S Mode,” a streamlined version of the desktop operating system that only allows apps from the Microsoft Store. The final version, however, has no such limitation. It ships with Windows 10 Home and supports any Windows app. That gives the hardware a major advantage over its Chromebook competition, which currently requires virtual machine software to run Windows software. (A partnership between Google and Parallels should make that easier in the future, however.)
There are, of course, many cheap laptops and Surface-style convertibles that run Windows 10 Home. But none of them ship with the same applications as the Kano PC.
The first time you power up the machine on, Kano will welcome you with a special ‘introduction’ that resembles an old programming terminal. It challenges you to write a series of phrases which are then ‘printed’ on-screen as text art. It’s a simple introduction that any laptop manufacturer could have made. Still, it’s a nice way of telling the customer that their PC is designed for learning and creation, rather than mere consumption.
How Computers Work is an introduction to the processes that happen behind the display. One section explains binary code, for instance, using a long string of ones and zeroes that you can flip to unlock different emoji. Processors, flash storage, memory, networking, keyboards and speakers are taught in a similar fashion. The explanations are short and well-written, but I wish there were more options — broken down by recommended age, perhaps — to read longer and more advanced descriptions.
I was particularly impressed with the pandemic-themed challenges.
The second application, Kano Code, teaches you the basics of programming with color-coded blocks. If you’ve used any Kano product before, including the company’s Harry Potter wand, you’ll be familiar with the interface. There’s a narrow block library on the left, followed by a wide central canvas and a live preview pane in the top-right hand corner. To create code, you simply drag the blocks onto the canvas and, if necessary, change their linked values using the keyboard or various drop-down menus.
If you have no idea what you’re doing, fear not: Kano Code has dozens of excellent lessons with step-by-step instructions. Some have typos, but they’re minor enough that you can still understand what it’s asking you to do. Kano also highlights where you need to go next — the relevant section in the block library, for instance, or where your chosen block should be placed on the canvas — with a yellow orb. I was particularly impressed with the pandemic-themed challenges, which include a drawing of the coronavirus’ structure.
Finally, there’s Make Art. The application goes a step further by eliminating the colorful block shapes. Instead, you’ll need to use simple text-based commands — which more closely resemble real code — to change the background, stroke size, fill color, and the X and Y coordinates that dictate where the application should start and stop drawing. Like Kano Code, there’s a bunch of activities with step-by-step instructions that explain what you need to do next and, more importantly, why it’s required to complete the picture.
Voracious learners will, I suspect, tear through everything in a matter of days or weeks, obsessively completing each task and absorbing its teachings like a sponge. If you think your child is one of these people, it’s worth considering the Kano Club. The subscription service, which costs $4.99 per month or $39.99 per year, unlocks additional challenges, early access to new Kano tools such as Artopia, coding tutorial videos, and other exclusive perks.
If you don’t fancy splurging the extra cash, though, there’s also Kano World. The kid-friendly social network lets you upload projects and, more impressively, download and remix what other people have made. It’s a great source of inspiration if you complete all the free lessons and have no idea what to do next.
Kano World is also the web-based home of the Software Studio. That’s right: Make Art and Kano Code aren’t exclusive to the Kano PC. That might sound counterintuitive — the apps are what make the two-in-one so unique — but giving away software has always been part of Kano’s strategy. It’s an effective marketing tool and encourages users to buy other kits, such as the light board and Harry Potter wand, which revolve around special hardware.
Most of the custom software can be accessed on any Windows 10 device.
Regardless, it’s possible to access most of the Kano PC’s custom software from another Windows 10 device. (Or any piece of hardware with a modern web browser, really.) It’s a risky move, but Kano is banking on parents’ desire for an all-in-one solution. One that, through its build-it-yourself hardware and unique software introduction, subtly nudges children to work through all of the free apps.
Work and play
Custom software is undoubtedly important, but the Kano PC also needs to work as a general Windows two-in-one. I was worried that the device, which is powered by a dual-core Intel Celeron N4000 processor and 4GB of RAM, would struggle with even the most basic productivity software. It’s no benchmark powerhouse, and that’s okay: we’re talking about a $300 machine, after all. The machine can run Microsoft’s Office suite, though, and communication services like Slack. I also had minimal issues with Todoist, my preferred task manager, and web-based services like Google Docs, provided I didn’t open too many tabs.
But there are limits, of course. You shouldn’t buy the Kano PC if your child wants to install the full Adobe suite and spend every night editing vlogs and gameplay footage. For one, the processor can’t handle it. But you’ll also be restricted by the 64GB of onboard eMMC storage. It’s an astonishingly small amount of space that’s even smaller once you factor in the operating system and Kano’s pre-installed coding apps. Thank goodness for the USB-A ports, which can handle external drives, and the microSD slot, which supports cards up to 512GB.
The storage also limits any gaming aspirations you might have. I couldn’t install Fortnite, for example, because the current Windows build demands close to 100GB. Minecraft ran just fine, though, and I also managed to play a few indie games such as Celeste and Hyper Light Drifter — the latter capped at 30 frames per second, admittedly — without any stuttering or input lag. If you want to play anything with impressive 3D graphics, though, you’ll need to buy something more powerful or rely on streaming services such as Google Stadia and NVIDIA’s GeForce Now. I used the former to play a bunch of Destiny 2 and Super Bomberman R Online, and only experienced the occasional slowdown or resolution dip.
Media playback is equally mixed. The good-enough 720p display is matched by an adequate-at-best speaker. It’s small and mounted on the rear of the tablet, which means it pushes audio directly into the kickstand. If you care about audio in any capacity, you’ll want to use this machine with some good headphones or external speakers.
The battery life, however, is decent. The Kano PC managed 9 hours and 9 minutes during our test, which involves playing a HD video clip with the screen set to 65 percent brightness. That’s a tad short of the “minimum 10 hours” that’s advertised on the company’s website, but I’m willing to let it slide. Nine hours is better than Microsoft’s Surface Go 2, which is $100 more expensive but admittedly features a higher-resolution display. Sometimes it pays to be pushing fewer pixels around.
Kano PC Education
Kano’s first Windows machine actually comes in two variants: Kano PC and Kano PC Education. The latter ships with Windows 10 Pro, rather than Windows 10 Home, and a preview of a 40-lesson coding curriculum built around Kano’s Software Studio. The hope, presumably, is that schools will buy the PC in bulk — or enough for a single class, at least — and slowly deliver the entire curriculum to pupils.
Kano is also pitching its PC as a sustainable solution. The company will sell ‘Fix Packs’ that contain extra parts — keyboard cases, batteries, chargers and speakers — so schools can eke more time and value out of their initial order. Because the parts are covered in plastic, it’s also possible for students to perform the repairs in class, learning a valuable lesson about personal electronics and the environment along the way.
Clearly, Kano wants to make a ‘Surface for the classroom’ that can challenge the iPad, Chromebooks, and other low-end Windows hardware. It’s a massive challenge, but one that Microsoft is clearly sold on. Why else would it make an equity investment in Kano?
It’s easy to nitpick the Kano PC. The build process is overly simplistic and the tablet’s thickness doesn’t come close to matching Apple’s basic iPad or Microsoft’s Surface Go 2. But it’s a true Windows 10 machine that has just enough power to handle most of a pre-high schooler’s needs. And it only costs $300. Yes, cheaper hardware exists, but you have to factor in the PC’s repairability — even if only a few parts are user-replaceable — and the special software, which will hopefully spark a lifelong passion for digital skills.
Kano wants its hardware to be the catalyst for a new generation of programmers and digital artists. If you believe your child will benefit from its colorful apps and LEGO-like components, then this PC could be a worthwhile investment. But if you judge the device on sheer specs, you might find that there’s better ways to spend your hard-earned cash. It’s a difficult decision, and one that each parent will need to make on their own. If you’re still on the fence, I recommend trying Kano’s software through Kano World first, then taking note of how your little one responds.
I recommend trying Kano’s software through Kano World first, then taking note of how your little one responds.
The choice could be even tougher for teachers. Do you try the Kano PC, or stick with a more established Chromebook or Windows PC manufacturer? It’s a hard call if your school’s budget is limited and you need to make every dollar count. The Kano PC is undeniably capable, but it has some obvious flaws. I wouldn’t be surprised, therefore, if many educators wait for the second or third revision. One that hopefully ships with a better speaker, a bundled webcam and keyboard cover that supports at least a few more viewing angles. If Kano can nail all three, it’ll have a real shot at the ‘best Surface-style device for the classroom’ title.