Easily the most productive and prolific part of the digital school, the classroom notebook continues to deliver more for less. Paradoxically, as their price tags have dropped, these systems have gained new powers, increased performance and the ability in many cases to last for a full day of schoolwork.
Call it the trickle-down theory of technology, but these basic notebooks do a lot for a little and are now cheap enough to be in every digital classroom. Many are priced lower than an iPad or Android tablet is, yet can work with a school’s existing software, have larger screens and built-in keyboards.
Whether it’s to set up every student, teacher and administrator with their own computer in a one-to-one program, use them in dedicated rooms or put them on go-anywhere carts, the notebook is here to stay in schools. But, the idea is to spend as little as possible on notebooks without skimping on the essentials.
What does the typical classroom notebook look like? They may not be the thinnest, lightest or top performing systems around, but classroom notebooks have enough system memory for the most demanding digital lesson plan, hard drive space to store homework, video and images, sufficient graphics power to make an impact in the classroom as well as the ability to smoothly feed images and sound to a projector.
They offer one more thing: a seductive price tag that schools find it hard to say no to. With the budgets of most schools and districts stretched to the breaking point – and many beyond it – the cost of supplying a school with computers is no easy task.
Needless to say, for a piece of delicate electronics, classroom notebooks need to be well-made and rugged enough to last for several years of hard service. Remember, these are computers that have to be used for 6 or 7 hours a day while standing up to punishment by students, teachers and others.
To see what’s available for the classroom, we at Scholastic Administr@tor’s TechLab have set a rather high bar. We asked the top dozen notebook-makers to supply a classroom laptop computer with a 15.0- or 15.6-inch screen that will satisfy a school’s curriculum needs and survive daily use and abuse. Simple enough, but it has to cost no more than $450, less than the price of the least expensive iPad 2.
In other words, these notebooks are one of the best classroom bargains available today, but the idea was not to get blue light specials that are on clearance sale, but current notebooks that will be around for months to come. The systems we received run the gamut from notebooks with up-to-date Core i3 processors to ones that use older, though still potent, technology.
We got systems from Asus, Dell, Gateway, HP and Samsung. Eight other notebook makers either couldn’t or wouldn’t meet our criteria.
The systems we got show both the cookie-cutter nature of the notebook business and how systems can be tuned for school use. To start, they all look like peas in a digital pod with rectangular shapes and clunky, squared off profiles. They all came with the basics, like enough RAM, spacious hard drives and rich graphics.
We were happily surprised with the performance potential of these systems, though. The best were three-times more powerful than the typical netbook and could run for more than three hours of continuous operation on a charge. With judicious power conservation settings, this can translate into a six-hour school day of on-and-off use without having to fight over the AC outlet during study hall.
To get to this enviable price tag, corners have obviously been cut. What you won’t get are things like WiDi and Bluetooth wireless systems for cable-free connections to a projector, keyboard or mouse. None of them came with a Trusted Platform Protection Module (TPM) for secure network access and in one case the notebook came with a single mono speaker.
More to the point, none come with the once-expected three year warranty, although Asus provides two years of coverage. This can add roughly $100 to the price tags of the others.
If your school can’t afford the upfront costs, you can still equip a class with computers. Most are available for leasing, either through the manufacturer or through a third party. Expect that any of the five reviewed here will cost under $20 a month over three years. While it turns a large capital expenditure into an easy-to-swallow monthly expense, it’s not such a good deal in the long run because you end up spending at least a hundred dollars more per system over the lease’s life.
To see how they would stack up in the classroom, we gave them all a thorough examination that starts with weighing and measuring each and extends to trying out every major feature they offer. By mimicking what goes on in today’s schools, Scholastic Administr@tor TechLab is a unique facility that is set up to examine and evaluate the latest in educational technology. From notebooks and projectors to interactive white boards, document cameras and tablets, TechLab uses a mix of benchmark tests and comparative measures to objectively and subjectively examine everything that today’s classroom needs. Look for follow-on stories in the coming months that focus on other key classroom categories (see "Testing Classroom Notebooks").
After the digital dust had settled, the bottom line is that any of these systems can find a place in the modern classroom, but one system stood out from the crowd. While it didn’t wow us in any particular category, Dell’s Inspiron 15 was a consistent performer across all the categories. Despite only having 3GB of RAM, it performed with the best of them and is our choice as the most appropriate notebook for the classroom.
These five classroom notebooks make one thing clear: performance no longer comes at a price.