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Freebee Friday: The Mercury Message

Casio contestWant a $2,000 Casio XJ-UT310WN short throw projector for free? Casio is giving 50 of them away, one for a school in each state. The contest will give the projectors to the students (actually their schools) who write the best essays on the dangers of mercury poisoning and how to reduce it in the environment. The tie-in is that the company’s Casio contest videoprojectors use LEDs and Lasers to illuminate the image and don’t have any mercury. Casio has put together a nice video that explains the dangers of mercury and how to enter the contest. Entries for the Casio Education Grant Contest will be judged on knowledge of the science of mercury, creativity and originality. The best part is that the general public gets to vote on their favorite entries.



Ear-Friendly Headphones

Kidz Gear Deluxe Stereo Headset Headphones with Boom Microphone - PinkDesigned for small children, Kidz Gear Wired Headphones are a bargain that could help kids save their hearing. The $30 headsets have an adjustable boom microphone and its 30-milimeter speakers can reproduce between 20- and 20,000 hertz, roughly the range of human hearing. The big bonus is that the volume control limits the output to about 86dBA, 20 percent of its peak output to protect their sensitive hearing. The headsets come in gray, red and buy and come with a lifetime warranty.

Two Good Things Get Better

Tablets leadWhen I first looked at Toshiba’s Portege Z10t and Asus’s Transformer T100 a little more than a year ago, I was impressed by the ability of these convertibles to go from a standalone tablet to a traditional notebook in matter of seconds. Well, these quick-change artists have improved their acts by getting slimmer and lighter while adding larger screens and – above all – running longer on battery power. What else could you ask for in a Windows tablet?

The Transformer T300 Chi and Portege Z20t pick up where their predecessors leave off. They are dead-ringers for each other with 12.5-inch touch screens, the latest Core M processors and super-slim tablet profiles of 0.3-inches. On the other hand, side-by-side the differences jump out at you. They have weights of 1.6- and 1.5-pounds for the T300 and Z20t, respectively. That’s about 5-ounces lighter than the previous generation Z10t, despite having a larger screen.

Of the two, the Z20t slate is smaller with a 12.1- by 7.8-inch footprint, 0.3-inches narrower and shorter than the T300 tablet. While the Portege has a magnesium case, the Chi is encased in an aluminum skin, but both are easy to carry and can easily slide into an out of a bag or backpack.

Asus-transformer-book-t90-chi-100538616-origThey each come with a snap-on keyboard that turns the tablet into a notebook. Here, the T300 leads with a slightly thinner profile (0.8- versus 1.0-inch) and lighter weight (3.1- versus 3.3-pounds). Both come with small AC adapters, but the Portege’s is a traditional one with a power cord while the Asus adapter goes right into a wall outlet.

The Z20t mechanically mates the tablet to the keyboard, which contains an extra battery, while the T300 attaches with powerful neodymium magnets and lacks a battery for anything other than running the keyboard’s Bluetooth link with the tablet. As a result, the T300 can take an annoying second or two to wake up when you try to use the touchpad. The T300’s magnets can help by sticking to a metallic tabletop.

Despite having 12.5-inch displays that can respond to 10 independent touch inputs and using Intel’s HD Graphics 5300 video processor, the displays couldn’t be more different. The Z20t tops out at 1,920 by 1,080 resolution, which should be plenty for school work, but the T300 takes a big step forward with 2,560 by 1,440 resolution, allowing it to show greater detail.

As notebooks, they both can be opened to only 130-degrees and can’t be used flat on a table. The T300’s display is rock solid while the Z20t’s screen wobbles noticeably when it is tapped, poked or swiped. I really like that the Z20t comes with a pressure sensitive stylus, but both worked well with a generic stylus.

A big bonus for teachers who need to be flexible is that both of them can work with the screen pointing away from the keyboard for small group presentations. The screens can also be folded down onto their keyboard, making a thick tablet.

Z20t eAfter two weeks of working with both of them daily, I’m convinced that either can be used as a slate for roaming around the classroom looking over students’ shoulders, but in a second you can snap on its keyboard for typing lesson plans or progress reports to parents. Both have comfortable 19mm keys, but the Z20t’s is backlit, which can help when teaching by the dim light of a projector.  

Inside, they both have Intel’s latest low-power Core M 5Y71 processor that runs at between 1.2- and 2.9-GHz and 8GB of RAM. Because the processor uses less than 5-watts of power at full blast, neither has a cooling fan. Unfortunately, the back of the T300 gets hot when it is doing heavy work.

Of the two, the Z20t is better equipped with 256GB of solid state storage versus 128GB for the T300. On the other hand, the T300’s storage capacity is augmented with a year’s worth of unlimited online storage.

Both slates have an adequate assortment of tablet ports, but the Z20t leads with a pair of USB 3.0, audio, a mini-HDMI and a micro-SD card reader. Snap on the keyboard and the Z20t adds a full-size HDMI, VGA, two USB 3.0 slots and something that’s becoming a rarity among notebooks: a wired LAN connection. In other words, the Z20t is one of the best connected notebooks around.

In addition to audio and micro-HDMI connection, the T300 tablet has an innovative, micro-USB 3.0 micro-B plug that is much thinner than a standard USB port. You can directly plug in a micro-USB cable and the system comes with an adapter that lets you use a standard USB 2.0 plug or memory key as well as a cable for charging the keyboard base. But, the T300 lacks a really useful and inexpensive adapter that would have converted it into a full size USB 3.0 port.  

Asus info box finalYou may be able to bypass the cable connection altogether for teaching because they each come with Bluetooth 4.0, WiFi networking, although the Z20t uses the newer 802.11ac protocol while the T300 uses 802.11n. I was able to connect each using the WiDi wireless receiver in the Epson PowerLite 1985WU projector.

As far as tablet battery life goes, the T300 is the big winner with its 4,150 milli-amp hour cells running for 6 hours and 5 minutes of continuously playing online videos. That’s slightly longer than the Z20t’s 3,150mah battery ran for, but the Z20t has a second battery stashed in the keyboard that brought the notebook to an exceptional 12 hours and 15 minutes of battery life.  

Either way, it’s good enough for a full day of school work and the Z20t can run for several days of typical work on a charge. Happily, the combined system drains the keyboard’s cells first and then the tablet’s.

Despite their similar hardware, the T300 sprinted ahead of the Z20t with a 1,863.0 on Passmark’s PerformanceTest 8.0, making it the performance champ and roughly on a par with a high-end and more expensive Core i7-based system. The Z20t scored a 1,599.2 on the PerformanceTest 8.0 benchmark, 15-percent lower than the Z20t, but the difference is marginal in light of the fact that either of these systems is roughly three-times as powerful as an Atom-based slate, like Lenovo’s Yoga 2.

The top of the line Z20t B2112 version I looked at cost $1,700 and came with Windows 7 Pro; it includes DVDs to upgrade it to Windows 8.1. There are models that start at $1,400, which brings it closer to the Win 8.1-based T300’s $1,000 price tag.

Info box z20t final
By contrast, the T300 that I looked at sells for $900, but can go lower, Asus has a model with a slower 5Y10 Core M processor, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage space for $700, half that of a comparable Z20t. This makes it easier to fit into a school’s tight budget and quite a bargain.

With a three-year warranty, the Portege Z20t is in a class by itself and a return to a day when three- years of coverage was the norm. By contrast, the Transformer T300 Chi comes with a one-year warranty, but has the advantage of it covering accidental damage.

Both of the systems are small wonders that are thin and light, exquisitely powerful and can do just as well in the classroom or a school’s office. They each have their strengths and weaknesses for school use, but if you crave more than 12 hours of battery life, the Z20t is for you. Personally, I prefer the size, weight, performance and especially price tag of Asus’s Transformer T300 Chi.

Easy Online

Aero hive id manager bIntegrating all the different types of computers that show up every day at school is a hassle, but Aerohive’s ID Manager app can ease getting a bunch of different devices online. The software lets you set up the institution’s WiFi access points to quickly establish networking privileges on an iPad. All the user has to do is register. Everything is secure, the pad cannot stray from the arranged access areas and the networking privileges can be revoked at any time.

Fun, Games and Learning

Filament evolutionWhy fight with students and a dull textbook to teach biology when they can have fun getting to know how things live and grow. Filament Learning’s PLEx Life Science is meant for middle-school students and augments the traditional biology curriculum with games and interactivity that takes learning to a new level. It can either run in a browser or as an iPad or Android app for $130 a year for up to 30 students.


Freebee Friday: GoQuest, Young Student

GoQuest - PBLThere’s bad news and good news for those of you who like teaching with Compass Learning’s Renzulli Learning curriculum software. The Renzulli product will be discontinued, but Compass is putting the final touches on a follow-on program called GoQuest. The new software covers elementary, middle- and high-school subjects and runs in a browser window, so any recent computer will work.

 GoQuest picks up where Renzulli leaves off with its familiar profile questionnaire. The idea is that kids start by taking a 45 minute survey that quizzes them on their interests and learning style. Based on the answers, GoQuest prepares a personalized education program that draws from the company’s library of 40,000 curriculum resources.

GoQuest - ProfilerTeachers can create individual or group assignments and share them across a school or district with other teachers, but the real worth of GoQuest comes at the end of each learning section with a project that each student needs to prepare. Based on a timeline of deadlines, the teacher can track who’s doing what and is presented with a yellow light for students who are three days from a deadline and red for assignments that have been missed. GoQuest will cost $25 per student for a year when it starts commercial operation this fall, but for now you can try the beta.

The New Permission Slip

Permission click Shot 1We will never be able to get rid of signed permission slips for after-school activities or field trips, but Permission Click has an app that can make getting permission the easy part. The software can create regular old paper (actually .pdf) forms or digital ones that have embedded routing information. The blank gets emailed to parents who return it with their approval as well as any fee that the school is charging. 


Time to Cut the Projector Cord

Pl 1985wu bSince the appearance of the first interactive panels for overhead projectors 25 years ago, one thing has been a constant when it comes to teaching with a projector: the video cable. No more, as Epson is the first to integrate two popular wireless AV protocols into the PowerLite 1985WU for wireless projection from anywhere in the room.

It may sound like magic, but the PL1985WU can put everything from an English lesson on sentences to a math video about triangles on-screen without a cable in sight. It doesn’t matter if the system uses WiDi (notebooks and PC tablets) or Miracast (tablets and phones), the PL1985WU can handle both. It works by directly moving the data to the projector. In other words, there’s no adapter or connection box needed.

Setting the projector up is the easy part because at about 10-pounds, the PL1985WU is light enough to lug around and install without an assistant. Its case is white with black trim and has a slide open lens cover that blanks the screen while it’s closed. There’s an adjustable front foot as well and ones at the back corners for setting it up on a table as well as three mounting points underneath for attaching it to the ceiling.

It has keystone correction for horizontal (up to 20-degrees) and vertical (up to 30-degrees) distortion so the projector doesn’t have to be installed dead center. The projector,though, lacks the ability to shift the image slightly up-down or right-left to fine-tune its position. There is a helpful bull’s eye pattern built into the PL 1985WU that can streamline aiming and focusing the projector.

Pl 1985wu dInside, the projector has three 1,920 by 1,200 resolution LCD panels for the primary colors and a traditional high-pressure lamp that can create up to a 25-foot image. Rated at 4,800 lumens of brightness, the projector has a wide 1.6:1 optical zoom ratio. There’s no comparison to an XGA or wide-XGA projector with the PL 1985WU having less jaggedness, more consistent color and less pixilation.

 It has the bonus of Faroudja’s DCDi digital video processor chip built-in. Usually reserved for theatrical projectors costing many times more than the PL1985WU, the processor can reduce flicker and interlacing artifacts that are common with classroom projectors while sharpening edges.

After decades of relying on cables, the easiest way to deliver the class’s work with the PL 1985WU is to do it wirelessly. You’ll need to set the projector’s networking configuration to screen mirroring, instead of a LAN connection and it takes about 30 seconds to put the laptop’s little screen onto the PL 1985WU’s big screen. After that, the projector mirrors what’s on the computer’s screen and all sound is transferred. The projector had a wireless range of 45-feet, plenty for all but the largest classroom or lecture hall.

As good and easy as it is, the wireless abilities of the PL 1985WU aren’t perfect. The setup ignores Google’s Chromecast, Apple TV as well as Samsung’s ScreenCast. Alternatively, you can use Epson’s iProjection Android and iPad apps to project material, but it’s limited to images, saved video and Web pages, not live screen mirroring.

Of course, you can connect the old fashioned way because the projector has two HDMI ports, one of which can work with MHL-based phones and tablets. There’s a composite video port and a pair of VGA inputs as well as one for mirroring the projector’s output. It adds an RS-232 for controlling the projector remotely.

Pl 1985wu cThe PL 1985WU has three separate audio inputs and an output jack as well as USB connectors. Next to the ports is a 16-watt speaker that is plenty for the typical classroom, but it wouldn’t work with a microphone. In addition to displaying material from a USB memory key, the projector can connect with both wired and wireless LANs, something that’s usually an option.

The projector’s remote control is small and light, but lacks the laser pointer of BenQ’s HC1200. In its place is the choice of three different digital pointers.

You can have the PL 1985WU run through its inputs looking for a signal, change the aspect ratio and mute the audio while blanking the screen.  The remote control adds something that is a luxury in classroom projectors: the ability to put two inputs on-screen side by side in split format. There are several size combinations, but not all port combinations work.

In addition to ten different color temperature settings, the projector has 7 modes to choose from for working with traditional screens, black- or whiteboards or even faithfully display x-rays with a Dicom Sim setting. The Dynamic setting is brightest but makes everything look bluish-green, while the Presentation has some of the whitest and brightest whites of any projector and the Theater setting produces much warmer images.

All told, in Dynamic mode, the projector put out 5,715 lumens of light, nearly 20 percent above its 4,800 lumen spec. If you use the more realistic sRBG setting, that drops to about 3,800 lumens, or more than enough to teach in just about any classroom with the lights on and the shades up. In fact, the PL 1985WU delivers so much light to the screen, it could be in contention for use in a small auditorium.

A slow starter, the projector took 38 seconds to start up and about a minute to get to full brightness. It can shut itself off in 1.3-seconds. Its fan is a little loud at 46.2dBi at 36-inches.

Pl 1985wu eAt full blast, the PL 1985WU uses 380-watts of power, but not a watt when it’s off. You can use the projector’s Eco mode to reduce its brightness and cut its power use, but I think most will use the PL 1985WU flat out for its exceptional brightness. Expect the projector to have annual operating expenses of $153 if you factor in the $150 lamp (that’s rated to last for 3,000 hours) and electricity at 12 cents per kilowatt hour. That’s less than half the expenses to run BenQ’s high definition HC1200 projector that puts out one-third less light.

The two-year warranty includes next-day replacement, but at $1,700 the PL 1985WU’s only major drawback is that its price is several hundred dollars over the price of the BenQ HC1200 and about double what the typical classroom projector sells for. Epson’s PowerLite 1980WU model does without the Miracast/WiDi feature and puts out 400 less lumens for $500 less.

But, that would mean that schools would miss out on the PL 1985WU’s greatest ability: to make video cables obsolete.


Pl 1985wu a

Epson PowerLite 1985WU

$1,700 with Brighter Futures educational discount

+ Stunning HD image

+ Very bright

+ Miracast and WiDi wireless

+ Built-in video processor

+ iProjection tablet apps

+ Picture in picture mode


- Expensive

- No Apple TV, or Chromecast


Science in your Palm

Sparc element bPasco has squeezed the physical sciences into the palm of a student’s hand with its Spark Element tablet. The Android-based handheld is rugged enough to survive the harshest science classroom and clumsiest students. It can link with 70 different digital Pasco sensors, from an angle sensor to voltage probes, as well as load curriculum materials and instructions for performing labs. It has a color screen, an HD camera and kids can connect to a school’s network (with WiFi) or a phone (with Bluetooth ). It comes with sophisticated data acquisition and analysis software.

Charge Them All At Once

CS16USB-OTHER01-MForget about taking up every outlet in the room to charge iPads and other tablets one at a time because Tripp-Lite’s 16-Port USB Tablet Charging Station can do them 16 units at a time with a single plug; Tripp-Lite also makes units for 32- and 48-systems. Each charging system can draw up to 2.4-amps of 5-volt USB juice so every slate is ready for school. The sturdy black steel can be screwed into a wall, floor or shelf and has adjustable dividers or can be mounted in optional casters for taking it from class to class. The vault-like steel door can be locked at the end of the day or between calsses. It comes with a 10-foot power cord has a powerful cooling fan and costs $675 with a two-year warranty.



Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Tech Tools are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.