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Deskbound Chrome

Acer Chromebox CXI Top Angle ViewForget about the Chrome platform only being available in notebooks because Acer’s Chromebox CXI family plants it firmly on a desk, library kiosk or common room. Powered by an Intel Celeron processor, the CXI comes with 2- or 4GB of RAM and 16GB of storage space. Still the system is tiny, can be attached to the back of a monitor and has a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) built in. It comes with DVI and HDMI monitor ports as well as four USB 3.0 connectors. It should be available before school starts in most places for between $180 and $220 with a keyboard and mouse included.  



Bigger Can be Better

14200892694_c0b2896017_oWho says that tablets must have 8- or 10-inch screens to be useful in the classroom? Not Toshiba, whose Radius P55W convertible notebook makes a big statement for education.

At 0.8- by 15.0- by 9.7-inches and 4.9-pounds, the dull silver  and gold tone Radius is big and proud of it. The system has a 15.6-inch screen and can be a lot to carry around, but its aluminum case is fractions of an inch smaller than Acer’s Aspire R7 and a lot thinner.

More to the point, the Radius weighs 6 ounces less than the R7. The bottom line is that it’s easier to carry and fits better into the typical briefcase or backpack. With its AC adapter, the system weighs a hefty 5.2 pounds, but the Radius has a two-prong plug that will be welcome in older schools that lack up-to-date AC outlets.

Just like Dell’s much smaller and less expensive Inspiron 11 3000, the power of its design is that the Radius can assume five different computing personalities, depending on what work needs to get done. Of course, it starts out as a standard notebook with a touch-screen and a full mechanical keyboard that has backlit keys. The system’s case is wide enough for full-size 19.3 millimeter keys, an embedded numeric keypad and has a huge touchpad. There’s no DVD drive, however.

Flip the screen over and Radius becomes one of the biggest – and heaviest – tablets around. Turn the screen over to produce a tent orientation or presentation mode for small group work. It can even fold flat on a tabletop for artwork like drawing a diagram or finger painting.

14282873642_d5de1812af_oOverall, the system is well made, feels sturdy and its 15.6-inch screen provides a wide view compared to a traditional tablet. Be warned: it can be unwieldy and a lot to carry around if your go from room to room all day. In other words, it works best on a desk with the teacher or student occasionally picking it up to use as a tablet.

Above the keys are the Radius’s Harmon Kardon speakers, which sound sharp and vibrant, although they produce a lot of distortion at full volume. While the speakers are aimed at the user when using the Radius as a notebook, when you flip it into tablet mode, they point downward and the audio loses its vibrancy. The system has a volume control on the edge as well as an on/off key. Under the screen is a handy Windows key.   

The system’s 15.6-inch display shows 1,920 by 1,080 resolution and has rich colors. The screen is flush with the edge of the lid and it responds to 10-independent touches. It worked just as well with fingers as with a generic stylus, but Toshiba doesn’t offer a pressure-sensitive stylus as is the case with the Aspire R7. On the downside, the display tends to wobble a lot when it is poked, swiped or tapped.

Inside, the P55W-B5224 Radius that I looked at is a fully up to date system that has some of the best components around and will likely be seen as a little too good for schools on a tight budget. The test system has a dual-core Core i7 processor runs at between 2.0 and 2.7GHz, 8GB of RAM and a 1TB hard drive, making this notebook a screamer. Toshiba also sells a more mainstream $700 version of the Radius that is built around Core i5 version with a 750GB hard drive but nothing in the $500 range.

14261742076_7e909ee590_oTo its credit, Radius can connect with just about anything in the classroom. It has three USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot, audio and an HDMI connector for a projector or monitor. It lacks a VGA port for older monitors and projectors, though.

The system comes with the latest 802.11ac WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 built-in. I was able to connect wirelessly to a projector using its WiDi system and a Belkin ScreenCast receiver.

With all that premium hardware behind it, it’s no wonder that the Radius blew away the competition with a Passmark PerformanceTest 8 score of 1,784. That’s about a quarter faster than the R7, more than twice the performance potential of comparable convertibles and likely one of the most powerful computers at school.

Happily, the power was not at the expense of battery life. The Radius was able to continuously play YouTube videos for 7 hours and 12 minutes, more than enough for a full day of teaching or learning followed by some homework, grading or gaming.

The system comes with Windows 8.1, a 1-year warranty and a year’s subscription to Norton AntiVirus software. Overall, the Radius shows that in a world obsessed with having the smallest notebook or tablet, bigger can be better.




Toshiba Satellite Radius P55W


+ Big HD screen

+ Excellent configuration

+ 5 computing personalities

+ Well-made and sturdy

+ Top performance/battery life


- Expensive

- Screen wobbles

- Can be unwieldy


Never Lose Anything

Zrq425-phone-tag_0bn09t0bn09t000000The Protag Duet tag is so smart that it cannot only alert you that you’ve left your phone behind, but your bag as well. Inside the plastic tag is an RFID chip, speaker and just enough electronics to sound the alarm when it and your phone get separated. Plus, it can find your phone, either by pressing Duet to make the phone ring – even if the phone is set to silent – or by tracking its location. The $29 device works with Android and iPhones.

Collaborative Test Making

Unify logoThe latest version of Performance Matters’ Unify takes measuring student growth and achievement to new levels by enabling collaboratively created, developed and administered assessments that can be shared within a district. It allows educators to pool their knowledge, experience and resources to create the best tests for the subject.

Top Brightness

Res_db7c1923d5f1d564a56aa831351e57e1If 2,500- or 3,000 lumen projectors aren’t cutting it at your school, BenQ’s MW665 projector puts out 3,200 lumens, lighting up even large classrooms and lecture halls.  The projector can put a 1,280 by 800 image on-screen, has a USB slot for use with a lesson-holding memory key and has ports for HDMI, VGA and networking connections. It can use used with the included QPresenter app for wireless teaching with an iPad or Android tablet. The MW665 costs $999.

Freebee Friday: Yea or Nay on the Common Core

Common coreWhether you’re pro or con on the Common Core question, you’ll want to listen to the debate at New York’s Kaufman Center on September 9th. Titled, “Embrace the Common Core,” the program will feature spirited debate and the opportunity to vote either way before and after the presentations. Those lining up in favor of the Common Core curriculum include former assistant Secretary of Education Carmel Martin and Michael Petrilli, President of the Fordham Institute. They’ll be arguing with Carol Burris, Principal at South Side High School in Rockville Center, NY and Frederick Hess, Resident Scholar and Director of Educational Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. ABC reporter John Donvan will moderate the event. It will be part of an NPR show called “Intelligence Squared U.S.” and will be streamed on the Intelligence Squared Web site.

Freebee Friday: Admin on the Cheap

AlmaWith schools spending too much on administration software, Alma comes to the rescue. The free student information system can not only track student grades and attendance, but align the school’s curriculum to state and Common Core standards. It integrates a student dossier, scheduling and lets a school import digital records. There are paid options that include migrating paper records and setting up emergency notifications.

The School Pad

Jamf bThe biggest downside of making teachers and students bring their own computers to school is that logging them onto the school network can be a chore with different software for different platforms. JAMF’s latest Casper Suite puts an end to the BYOD shuffle with a system that relies on iPad and Android users to do most of the work of enrolling and maintaining networking connections.

Touch Me

Activboard-touch-classflow-5-studentsThe latest ActivBoard Touch interactive whiteboards from Promethean have been made for classroom collaboration with support up to six individual touch inputs. This makes it great for group work or having several students doing a problem independently on the board. Available in 78- and 88-inch models, the boards work with Windows, Mac and Linux computers and work with a stylus or fingers. You can use it to teach with PrometheanPlanet’s library of 80,000 educational resources, there’s an optional sound bar and you can order the screen with the company’s marker-friendly Dry-erase surface option.

Amping Up the Classroom

Amp logoThe goal of a single place to log-in to start teaching and learning is a step closer to being a reality with the introduction of Smart Technologies’ Amp. The online service acts like a repository and portal that brings the world of digital education to classrooms.

Based in the cloud, Amp can do things that local curriculum storage can’t. It can integrate Google apps, the company’s Smart Notebook-based lessons and all the material on Smart’s online Exchange as well as deliver the curriculum from 28 individual curriculum providers. The list currently runs from Ablenet to Zondle. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Discovery Education are the service’s major anchor publishers.

It’s a pretty good start and the list of participating publishers continues to increase. Rather than working with one curriculum provider, Amp’s goal is to be agnostic as to educational services. In fact, the more the merrier is their concept. While Amp doesn’t consolidate the payments and licensing for the world of online learning, it provides a single log-in point for students and teachers and gives them an effective delivery service to bring curriculum and collaboration to the classroom.

The key is that rather than using a series of native applications to run the software locally, Amp delivers everything over the Internet to students and teachers in a browser window. Think of it as a virtualized environment that can bring lots of different material together onto a single screen. This makes Amp appropriate for a school with mixed systems and software packages and perfect for a BYOD school with many different systems and software.

Getting started is easy because the company offers a 30-day trial that’s instructive as to the system’s strengths and weaknesses. I used a full version over the course of three months with several different teacher and student client machines, including Android tablets, PCs, Chromebooks and iPads.

Amp ipadTo start, there’s no software to load because everything is delivered over the Web to a familiar browser window; it worked well with recent versions of Internet Explorer, Chrome and Safari; while it’s not specifically supported, Opera worked fine as well. A big bonus is that no matter what you’re using, you always have the most recent version of the software.

A one-stop shop for classrooms, Amp can use a Google ID to sign-on to the service and it can bring up classroom items stored on GoogleDrive. This makes it particularly advantageous for those schools that have integrated GMail and other online services. Plus, the use of GoogleDrive within Amp doesn’t count towards your storage limit. Unfortunately, Amp hasn’t incorporated the recently introduced Google Classroom software, but it should be just a matter of time.

In addition to starting with a class list, teachers can add students by having them log in and use a six digit code or snap a shot of a QR code that can be sent to them. After that, they’re automatically part of the digital class.

To start teaching, I created a Workspace that I filled with everything from Smart’s existing lessons, stuff stashed on GoogleDrive and the content of publishers that I have an account with. It’s, ironically easier to grab stuff off of the Web than from a local server at school, though.

There are nine different templates to start with, from a sheet of graph paper to a storyboard for examining plot development. Of course, you can work from a blank screen as if Amp were a digital board. The teacher can work alone, with selected students or the whole class at once. Alternatively, kids can work on their own or in groups with the teacher periodically looking in.

Amp math classA big step forward for neophyte and technophobic teachers is that there’re several how-to videos that can help get them started. Regardless of what you do, Smart is always saving your Workspace lessons; deleted items can be retrieved. Unfortunately, there’s no way to undo a change, but you can use the eraser to make any annotation disappear. Those lessons you plan to reuse during the day, year or career can be turned into templates.

It took me a couple of lessons to get the hang of using Amp, but I suspect that kids will figure out the ins and outs of the software. Items can be dragged to the main screen to be worked on and kids can work together over a single screen or share a virtual desktop space with a student or teacher across the room or country.

Over the course of lessons on grammar, math and geography, the system worked well. The items on the screen can be brought forward or back, and locked into place and the service’s pen and markers offer a variety of colors and line weights. It works better with a touch-screen system and finger or stylus, but if you’re careful a touchpad should suffice.

The leader can pass control to a student or work one-on-one with any child and control what appears in the browser window. On the downside, Amp can’t lock a student’s screen to keep inattentive students from wandering to other sites or local apps.

Based on Smart’s heritage, as you might guess, it works well with an interactive projector or digital board, but you don’t need to use a Smart product. In fact, I used Acer and Epson projectors and everything worked without a hitch.

With everything in place, the system can allow teachers and students to work through the material on their own or in groups, grabbing different elements from different sources. In this regard, Amp allows teachers and students to create their own curriculum from the best sources available.

Amp testAmp has a place in both traditional lessons as well as flipped curriculum. It has three big extras for thoughtful teachers and administrators: it is perfect for keeping children stuck home sick engaged in the lesson and means that a snow day doesn’t have to be dead time. It can even be used for afterschool enrichment away from school.

The key to Amp’s feedback is its Dashboard. Here, a teacher can see who’s connected, start a lesson and review assignments and assessment results. The software includes six different test formats, including True/False, numeric entry and multiple choice.

All this can put more stress on the school’s data infrastructure than traditional digital apps that work locally. Rather than the immediate response of a local program Amp can take a few seconds to grab and display a screen on a student’s computer. Most schools can handle the extra flow, but I suspect that schools with marginal data connections and internal networks will find them quickly overwhelmed and in need of a revamping.

While it works well on a notebook or desktop computer, Amp can feel cramped on a smaller slate or phone screen and require zooming, scrolling and panning to see everything. Of what I’ve seen and experienced, Amp is off to a good start with some impressive integration and lessons. With Amp starting at $8 per student per year, the service can streamline how kids are taught by consolidating their instruction resources. As is the case with school software, the larger the school or district, the lower the price for Amp.

At the moment, it is a work in progress and only time will tell if they are able to aggressively add more publishers, but for now, Amp can deliver the lesson regardless of where it is coming from.


Amp logo

Smart Technologies Amp

$8 per student

 + Brings digital lessons to kids

+ Works with a variety of hardware and services

+ Google ID log in

+ Free trial

+ Works well with interactive displays

+ Provides collaborative space


- Need to purchase curriculum separately

- Limited array of providers



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