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Up Close to the Screen

Ex525stOptoma Technology’s first short throw projector was worth the wait by filling a large screen from close up. The EX525ST is capable of putting an 8.3-foot image on a screen from as close as 4-feet away, making it perfect for small rooms and cutting shadows, which teachers inevitably create. Available later this month, the EX525ST uses Texas Instruments’ digital light processing imaging engine that can put 2,500 lumens of brightness on the screen and its aspherical lens can cut the distance between the projector and screen without distorting the image.

Sights and Sounds

Voj370_fall_angledHow many of you have loved the video on a new monitor bought for your school, but hated the cheesy integrated speakers that sound more like an AM radio? Vizio’s new line of mid-sized monitors are not only reasonably priced but have surround sound audio and high quality 12-watt speakers built in. The VOJ320F and VOJ370F are 32- and 37-inch screens that can show full 1080p programming and make it sound great. The displays can show 1,920 by 1,080 resolution and have a wide 178-degree viewing angle so they're perfect for small groups of kids or teachers huddled around the screen. On top of the expected monitor inputs and digital TV tuner, the VOJ family features a pair of HDMI connectors for DVD players or high-end PCs. The displays will be available later this month and sell for $650 and $850 for the 32- and 37-inch models.

Caching in

Readyboostphoto_2If you’ve recently upgraded a bunch of PCs to Windows Vista in your school and are disappointed that they’re slower and less reliable than when running Windows XP, you’re not alone. It’s true that Vista requires more resources than its predecessor, which can lead to slow and unreliable computers that get in the way of digital learning. But, instead of complaining, do something about it.

There’s a trick to squeezing some extra performance and stability out of an older PC running Vista. Called ReadyBoost, it allows a simple flash memory key to be used as a data cache to boost the PC’s speed. Memory keys have never been cheaper with many actually ending up costing the school nothing or close to it after a rebate.

By providing a place to temporarily store the most frequently used pieces of programming code and data, ReadyBoost can streamline the PC’s operations. The result is a computer that runs faster and is more reliably but not every memory key can be used for this task. Unfortunately, I have found no online place that lists which keys work and which don’t. The best bet is to look over the memory key’s specifications and make sure it has an access time of 1 millisecond or less.

ReadyboostaIt’s not a miracle but ReadyBoost can make things work just a little more efficiently and older PCs more responsive. Using some SanDisk flash memory keys, I upgraded an Acer notebook with 2-, 4-, 8- and 16GB of ReadyBoost flash memory. To see its effect on performance, I used Passmark’s Performance 6.1 benchmark, which not only measures the speed of every major aspect of a computer but produces an overall score that indicates the system’s potential to perform typical tasks that schools require. 

The best part is that it’s about the easiest upgrade to perform. After you insert the memory key into an unused USB slot, click on the Speed up my System icon in the AutoPlay box. Alternatively, go to the drive’s Properties page, open the ReadyBoost tab and select how much memory you want to apportion to this technique. All told, it takes about 30 seconds to upgrade a PC. This is even something a computer neophyte or student intern can do.

ReadyboostbWithout any ReadyBoost cache, the system scored a 236.3, which rose to 243.8 with 1.9GB of cache and 258.6 with 3.7GB of cache. Due to ReadyBoost’s overhead, these are the maximum amounts of cache you can get out of a 2- and 4GB flash key. That’s about a 10 percent increase in overall performance, which may not sound like much but it’s the equivalent to using a faster processor or more system memory. For many processor and storage tasks, the increase is even higher. But, for other tasks, like graphics, there’s either no effect or the cache actually slows these operations down.

Memory Key Size              Actual Cache     Performance score
No ReadyBoost cache        None                   236.3
2GB ReadyBoost cache      1.9GB                 243.8
4GB ReadyBoost cache      3.7GB                 258.6
8GB ReadyBoost cache      4.1GB                 233.3
16GB ReadyBoost cache    4.1GB                 236.6

Too much of a good thing can be quite a lot of fun, but ReadyBoost reaches its limit at about 4GB. In fact, the software doesn’t allow more than 4.1GB to be used. More to the point, the extra flash memory in a larger key actually slows the system down and is a waste. So, if you want to make Vista run better, keep your eye on the electronics’ stores Sunday ad circulars and buy a bunch of 4GB memory keys when they go on sale.

One-Step Classroom Software

Netop_6What if you could integrate everything you do in the classroom into one complete program with a single interface to control everything? Using the ribbon design that Microsoft incorporated into Office 2007, NetOp School 6.0 moves away from traditional pull-down menus to present options and features as a strip at the top of the screen. With the program, teachers can prepare lesson plans, evaluate students and actually teach. The big upgrade involves the ability to create and edit documents from any computer, transfer them via a USB memory stick and incorporate them into the school’s NetOp program. The program is available in a variety of languages and now supports 64-bit Windows. There’s a free trial to try it out.

HP’s New Mini

Along with its 2133 Mini Note notebook, Today HP is starting to sell a second mini-notebook, the Mini 1000. It’s not as purpose-designed and -built for schools as the 2133 is, but it’s a bit cheaper and smaller. This netbook matches up well with Lenovo’s S10 and the Asus EeePC 1000 and at only 1-inch thick, the Mini 1000 weighs about 2.3 pounds. All Mini 1000 systems have an Intel 1.6GHz Atom processor, but buyers have the choice of either an 8.9- or 10.2-inch screen; both can show 1,024 by 600 resolution. Storage is taken care of with the choice of 8- or 16GB flash memory solid state storage device or a traditional 60GB hard drive. The big step forward will be what HP is calling its mini-mobile drive. This flash storage module will hold between 2- and 16-GB of extra storage space that snaps into the system and is flush with the surface so there are no memory keys sticking out to snag on clothes or stuff in backpacks. The Mini 1000 sells for $400 and $450 on HP’s site, depending on screen size.

Early Start

Time4learningAlong with Time4Learning’s online lessons, developmental games and quizzes for middle- and high school kids, the company has just added an early elementary school section for the youngest learners. The lessons are simple, self-contained and structured for pre-schoolers through third graders. Kids can set their own pace, but these bite sized lessons are surprisingly complete and range from “Comma Confusion” to a biography of the Wright Brothers. The content is supplied by CompassLearning’s Odyssey. There’s an online trial, but you’ll need the latest Flash movie player installed.

Put it on the Big Board

Ub8325ew_1_500Some teachers start off using interactive white boards without a clue as to what software works and what doesn’t on the big screen. Others use it as nothing more than a way to project slides or write on a white board. Panasonic shows the potential of this technology for the classroom by including RM Educational Software’s Easiteach software with three different classroom boards. Easiteach uses flash animation and inventive instructional ideas to help teach a variety of classes by showing and doing. For instance, Panasonic’s Panaboard UB-T780EW 77-inch front-projection interactive board with Easiteach for Windows and Mac sells for $2,295.

Practice Makes Perfect

Whoosh_logoEver want to drill students in the basics before letting them go on to the harder stuff, but didn’t have a precise enough tool to do it? After all, Sally might have mastered addition and is ready to get to work on subtraction while Johnny might need some extra practice before proceeding. Whoosh’s online classroom  can help by emphasizing the foundations of modern education while testing kids in both accuracy and speed.

This new online classroom was designed by Dr. Molly Keogh, a veteran teacher to emphasize differentiated instruction where each child progresses at his or her own natural pace. Aimed at K-through-6th grade students, Whoosh starts with a two-to-three minute evaluation test to get an idea of the child’s strengths and weaknesses. Then the program works with auditory, visual and tactile cues to teach, refresh and practice either math or spelling at their level.

Whoosh_student_outcome_page_2There are tons of printable worksheets to further reinforce the material. This is followed by an exam that requires getting a perfect score in the time allotted to move on to the next level. When students achieve this level of proficiency, they get a satisfying “whoosh” sound.

At the moment, Whoosh works with math and spelling, but the company is working on additional curriculum, such as science, social studies and Spanish. There are six levels of math available and teachers can add their own spelling words to the lists that the system works. At any time, teachers can create any of 20 reports to track individual students or an entire class. The system is Web-based so it works on any connected computer with a recent Web browser, even inexpensive Linux systems. Whoosh costs $20 a student per month, but the second child adds $5 a month and a two-week trial is available. 

ClassMate PC, Next Generation

ClassmateWe all know that the next generation of Intel’s ClassMate PC notebook is on the way and should be available to schools in the late winter or early spring. The new ClassMate will not only have a touch screen so that kids and teachers can write directly on the display, but it will swivel and fold flat just like a convertible tablet. The big news is that instead of Elite Group, Intel is moving its manufacturing to Taiwan’s Quanta.

The Green Machine

Hp_pavilion_phoenix_se_a6655f_pc_imAre your school’s electricity bills out of control? Turning off lights and getting fluorescent bulbs can help but computers are a growing power drain. So, when you’re shopping for new PCs, think green. HP’s Pavilion Verde Special a6655f computer, can have an impact with AMD’s energy-efficient Phenom X4 Quad-core processor and can cut power use by up to 45 percent. The system comes with 5GB of system memory and 640 GB hard drive. Look for the system to be available in early November and will sell for $659. 

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