TechLAB Shootout: 5 Classroom Notebooks
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.
As far as schools go, the Asus K53E has a huge advantage over the others, a two year warranty that includes a year of accident protection, making it the choice for those who don’t want to take chances with clumsy teachers and students. Other than that, it’s a heavy system that falls short on performance.
The K53E’s case has elegantly textured pinstripes on the screen lid, and it measures 1.3- by 14.7- by 9.8-inches, putting it in the middle of the pack on size. That, however, is balanced by its 5.8-pound weight, which is the heaviest of the lot and nearly a pound more than the NV55C54u. With its AC adapter, it weighs a ponderous 6.6 pounds that will seem cumbersome even in a 200-pound high school linebacker’s backpack. As is the case with the other four systems, it requires a three-prong outlet.
Underneath there’s a single large hatch that requires two screws to open in order to get inside. Once there, you’ll find an orderly set up with the hard drive and system memory easily accessible for repairs, upgrades or cleaning.
The rest of the system is a mix of old and new. Its 2GHz Pentium B940 processor is a step behind the Core i3 chips used by the Inspiron 15, NV55C54u and the RV511. It came with 4GB of RAM and can hold up to 8GB. The K53E includes a 500GB hard drive, the largest of this gang of five classroom notebooks, and it has a DVD Super Multi DVD drive for burning and playing discs.
Its ports match the others, jack for jack, with 3 USB, HDMI, VGA and audio. There’s a flash memory card reader, which works with the three most popular formats and the system combines a wired LAN connection with 802.11b, g and n WiFi networking. Like the others it lacks Bluetooth.
As far as video goes, the K53E has a 1,366 by 768 resolution screen that measures 15.6-inches and uses Intel’s HD graphics engine. The system came equipped with 192MB of dedicated video memory, three-times as much as some of the others. It has a VGA Web cam.
It all adds up to below par performance with a score of 788.1 on Passmark’s Performance 7.0 demanding suite of tests. That’s marginally better than HP’s 630, but more than 25 percent off the pace set by the 1,000-plus scores of the Inspiron 15 and RV511.
Its networking score and WiFi range were similarly unimpressive with the system able to move 9Mbps of data with the lab’s server – just about half the throughput of the class-leading HP 630. The system lost contact with the network 110-feet from the router, the shortest of the five, which should be of note for schools with many wireless LAN dead spots.
It connected without a problem with the lab’s external hard drive, memory key, keyboard and Mitsubishi projector. While delivering a mock lesson, the K53E’s video was smooth and in synch with the video, but the system’s audio never got as loud as the Inspiron 15.
Its saving grace is the K53E’s battery life, but it comes at a cost. Its 5,200 mili-amp hour (mah) battery pack is the largest here and is likely why the system is so heavy. It powered the system for 3 hours 57 minutes, the marathoner of the group. Asus’s Power4 Gear provides the ability to quickly switch on the fly from high-performance mode to extended battery mode in a couple of seconds.
The system also came with Windows 7 Home Premium, which is a level down from the HP 630’s Professional version of the operating system. It came with Trend Micro’s Titanium anti-virus software and its warranty stands out from the crowd with a two year policy (twice as long as the others) and a year of accident protection. This alone can be worth roughly a hundred dollars compared to the others.
All told, the K53E is a competent, though uninspiring, classroom notebook that excels in battery life and has the best warranty in the business, but needs to go on a diet.
+ Large hard drive
+ Two-year warranty
+ Lots of graphics memory
+ Top battery life
- Low overall performance
- Limited networking abilities
Its shiny black case is sophisticated and unfussy, it has a sturdy feel and the system has heavily rounded corners that can take the stress of being dropped. In other words, it appears to be rugged enough for the long run.
At 1.4- by 14.4- by 10.1-inches, it’s a little thicker than the others, but it weighs in at 5.3 pounds, nearly three-quarters of a pound lighter than the K53E. With its AC adapter, which needs a three-prong outlet, the Inspiron 15 tips the scales at 5.9-pounds, an ounce heavier than the NV55C54u’s travel weight.
Unlike the others, there’s no hatch underneath to get to the system’s components. Rather, you’ll need to remove the keyboard to get to the system’s major components, which is easier than it sounds and everything is up front and in your face.
Inside is a Core i3 processor that runs at 2.5GHz, matching the equipment of the RV511. Unfortunately, it came with an adequate, but lackluster, 3GB of RAM and can hold a maximum of 4GB, half that of the others. This limitation didn’t slow the system down, but more on that later.
The system was equipped with a 320GB hard drive that’s not as spacious as the K53E or the RV511, but should be enough or a school year’s worth of homework and assignments. Like the others, it has a DVD Super Multi DVD drive so that it can make and work with a variety of discs.
Its 15.6-inch screen can show 1,366 by 768 resolution and was the brightest of the bunch. There’s an Intel HD graphics chip behind it with 64MB of dedicated video memory. Above is a VGA Web cam that came with a slew of special effects software.
Its black on black interior is chic, but it has an advantage over the similar looking NV55C54u. The Inspiron 15 has matte keys that are surrounded by a glossy field, making it easier to see the keys in the dark during a projector-based lesson.
Like the others, it includes 3 USB ports along with connections for HDMI, VGA and audio. There’s a flash card reader that can accommodate the three most popular card formats, but – like the others – the system lacks Bluetooth. The Inspiron 15 can get online with a wired Ethernet port as well as 802.11b, g and n wireless WiFi networking. It was able to stay online 125-feet from the lab’s router, tying with the HP 630 as the long distance networking champ and should be fine for schools with less-than-perfect wireless networks.
Despite being handcuffed with 3GB of system memory, the Inspiron 15 excelled in performance testing with a 1,010.8 on the Performance 7 suite of tests. This is less than a point behind the group-leading RV511, which had 4GB of RAM. It leaves us wondering how fast the Inspiron 15 would be with a little more memory.
It was able to move 13.7Mbps of data to and from our server, putting it in second place behind the HP 630 in the networking test. The system’s 4,320mah battery ran for 3 hours and 7 minutes on a charge, right in the middle of the pack and the best balance in the group between the competing interests of performance and battery life.
Like the others, it was able to work with the lab’s external hard drive, memory key, keyboard and Mitsubishi projector. Its sound synchronization was excellent and the system delivered smooth video in our simulated lesson.
While the Inspiron 15’s Windows 7 Home Premium is a step down from the Windows 7 Professional that comes with the HP 630, the system came with Dell’s Stage software, which presents a horizontal bar with the most frequently used items, like Photos, Video and Music; you can add links for your own items. It takes up a lot of screen space and you can make it disappear if you like. The system includes 2GB of online storage as well as McAfee’s Security Center to protect it from online assault.
In the final analysis, Dell’s Inspiron 15 may not be perfect, but is the best notebook here and can be a great addition to any class. It not only provides an excellent balance between power and battery life, but does so with grace and style.
+ Beautiful understated design
+ Excellent Performance
+ Dell Stage software
+ Balance between power and battery life
+ Top processor
- Short on RAM
- Under keyboard access to components
Despite its enviable price, small dimensions and class-leading weight, Gateway’s NV55C54u does without some of the amenities, like stereo speakers, that we take for granted in the classroom. At $400, it’s a great buy, but the system doesn’t measure up with the others.
At 1.3- by 14.9- by 9.9 inches and 4.9-pounds, the NV55C54u is easily the lightest of the five classroom notebooks here, undercutting the K53E by nearly a pound. Clearly, it’s the one that will fit easiest into a kid’s backpack and will lighten the load. Add in its AC adapter and the system’s travel weight rises to 5.8-pounds, just a head of the 5.9-pound Inspiron 15; the adapter has a three-prong plug.
The system’s black screen lid has a flashy chrome bar with the company’s logo that looks like it’s from a rapper’s piece of jewelry. The body has the company’s distinctive swirled cow pattern in textured plastic, inside and out. Unfortunately, the lid flexes a lot and doesn’t feel as sturdy as the others and the matte black plastics makes it hard to distinguish between the keyboard and wrist rest in the dark, such as during a projector-based lesson.
Its keyboard stands out in one other way: in the upper right corner, it has a special key for connecting with a social networking site. There are options to automatically log on to Facebook, YouTube, Flickr or Twitter. This can be good or bad, depending on your school’s policy.
Underneath, there’s a single hatch that requires loosening two screws to get inside. There, you’ll find the hard drive and memory, front and center for maintenance and cleaning. Unlike the others, getting the panel back in place takes some effort.
Like the Inspiron 15 and RV511, the NV55C54u has Intel’s 370M Core i3 processor, putting it a step ahead of the K53E and HP 630. Unfortunately, its CPU runs at 2.4GHz not the faster 2.5GHz model used on the Inspiron 15 and RV511. It came with 4GB of RAM and can hold up to 8GB, there’s a 320GB hard drive and the unit includes a DVD Super Multi drive for creating and playing all sorts of discs.
Its screen measures 15.6-inches, has 1,366 by 768 resolution and uses Intel’s HD graphics engine as well as 128MB of dedicated video RAM, halfway between the K53E’s 192MB and the 64MB used on the rest. Its screen wasn’t as bright as the Inspiron 15, but rather than having a VGA Web cam above the display, its camera captures much more detailed 1.3-megapixel images.
The variety of ports on the NV55C54u matches the others and should help with connecting it to a projector, document camera or speakers. It has 3 USB, HDMI, VGA and audio jacks. Unlike the others, the Gateway system has a single mono speaker, which sounds weak, hollow and tinny, although its headphone jack can work with stereo headphones.
There’s also a flash card reader, but it only works with Secure Data (SD) and Multi Media Card (MMC) formats and not Memory Sticks (MS). As is the case with the others, there’s no Bluetooth, but the system has a wired LAN port and 802.11b, g and n WiFi wireless networking; it was able to stay connected to the Lab’s router as far as 125-feet, tying the Inspiron 15 for the lead.
Performance of the NV55C54u was a mixed bag with it coming in third place on the Performance 7 benchmark test. Its 994.2 score was just behind the Inspiron 15 and the NV511 – the other Core i3 systems – but the NV55C54u’s slower processor held it back.
With the ability to transfer 10.6Mbps of data with the lab’s server, the NV55C54u’s networking score was near the bottom and just above the K53E’s showing. The system was able to run on its 4,400mah battery for 3 hours and 2 minutes, just a little short of the Inspiron 15 and solidly in the middle of the pack, but nearly an hour behind the RV511.
As is the case with all but the HP 630, the NV55C54u uses Windows 7 Home Premium software. It includes a copy of Norton Internet Security 2010. It does without the extensive special effects that the Inspiron 15 includes for its Web cam and unfortunately has the annoying Best Buy ad that’s also loaded on the RV511 and will likely be the first thing removed. The system comes with a standard 1 year warranty, half as good as Asus’s coverage.
Overall, the NV55C54u is a great buy that can save a school a pile of cash. While it may be small, light and cheap, the system comes up short compared to the others.
+ Unbeatable price
+ Light weight
+ Thin and small
+ High resolution Web cam
- One speaker
- Hard to use keyboard in dark
Overall, it’s a competent system that inhabits the middle of the pack, with two exceptions: it aced the network performance test, but was in last place in the overall performance.
At 1.3- x 14.6- x 9.6-inches and weighing 5.4 pounds on its own, it’s lighter and smaller than the K53E, but chunkier and heftier than the NV55C54u. The HP 630’s AC adapter has a three-prong plug and its travel weight is an even 6-pounds, right in the middle of this gang of five classroom notebooks.
It has a sharp black and gray design that is uncluttered by things like a textured surfaces and shiny corporate medallions. Call it a stealth notebook, it blends well into its surroundings and can fit into any classroom’s decor.
Turn it over and you’ll see that there are two hatches underneath, each requiring a couple screws to gain access. It’s more complicated that the others, but should be fine for most maintenance tasks and periodic cleaning.
For the 630 model, HP uses Intel’s 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo processor, a chip that is a generation older than a Core i3 processor. It comes with 4GB of RAM, can hold up to 8GB and has a 320GB hard drive that should be more than enough as a school year repository. The system comes with a DVD super Multi drive for using and making all sorts of discs.
The display, like the others, is a 15.6-inch screen that can show 1,366 by 768 resolution. It uses Intel’s GMA 4500 graphics engine with 64MB of its own memory, putting it a rung below the K53E. Overall, the screen wasn’t as bright as the Inspiron 15’s.
Above the screen is the system’s VGA Web cam and below a comfortable keyboard that can be used in low light situations. On the other hand, the flush touchpad was balky and several movements had to be repeated, an annoyance at best. The system comes with Altec Lansing speakers that sound good and can get loud enough o fill a classroom.
Like the other classroom systems reviewed here, the HP 630 has the same basic array of ports, including 3 USB, HDMI, VGA and audio; it lacks Bluetooth. There’s a flash card reader that can only work with SD and MMC cards but not Memory Sticks.
Communications are a snap with wired Ethernet as well as 802.11b, g and n WiFi wireless networking. The system remained connected with the lab’s router 115-feet away, which was on the short side, but blew the rest of the field away with its ability to transfer 17.6Mbps of data – nearly twice the level of the K53E.
Its result on the Performance 7 test suite wasn’t as sanguine. It scored a 762.3 for back of the class status, just below the K53E and more than 25 percent off the pace set by the RV511 and Inspiron 15. It was able to run for 3 hours and 36 minutes on its 4,350mah battery pack, for the second best score. With some power conservation, the 630 should comfortably be able to run for a full school day on a charge.
The system is top shelf in one other regard: it comes with Windows 7 Professional software, while the others skimped with the Home Premium version. For many systems here, it’s a $75 or $100 upgrade from Home Premium to Professional. The system includes a slew of HP software and Norton Internet Security.
In the final analysis, the HP 630 leads in networking, software and design, but lags in terms of performance and its touchpad’s reliability.
Price: $450 with educational discount
+ Top networking performance
+ Sharp design
+ Windows 7 Professional
- Low overall performance
- Balky touch pad
Best known for its minimalist Chromebook laptop systems, Samsung also makes a capable traditional classroom notebook that looks great and performs a cut above the rest. Unfortunately, its battery doesn’t make this a notebook for the long run.
Overall, it’s only 1.3-inch thick, but at 15.0- by 10.1-inches, it’s the widest and longest of the five, making it a bit cumbersome to carry around in school. It fit into our notebook bag without a problem. The Samsung system weighs in at 5.4-pounds, half a pound heavier than the NV55C54u, the lightweight of the group. With its AC adapter, the RV511 weighs 6.2 pounds. Like the others, it has a three-prong plug.
On the system’s screen lid is silver-colored plastics with a striated patterned finish and a Samsung Logo embossed in it. Its sharp corners are contrasted with the Inspiron 15’s gently rounded edges. When it comes time to clean it, change the hard drive or add memory, there’s a single a large hatch underneath that requires only one screw to get inside.
Like the Inspiron 15, Samsung’s RV511 uses a 2.5GHz Core i3 processor, the fastest chip of this group of classroom notebooks. It is backed up with 4GB of RAM and the system can hold up to 8GB of memory. It comes with a Super Multi DVD drive as well as a 500GB hard drive, tying the K53E for the most capacity to stash all manner of schoolwork. In other words, there’s plenty of room for a year’s worth of school material.
The RV511 uses a 15.6-inch display that can show 1,366 by 768 resolution and has Intel’s HD graphics along with 64MB of dedicated video memory. Along with the Inspiron 15 and HP 630, it’s the lowest amount of the group. The screen wasn’t as bright as the Inspiron 15’s in general use.
In addition to its VGA Web cam, the RV511 has a comfortable keyboard with matte keys that stand out enough against its black glossy background, making it OK for use with the lights off. With the same array of ports as the others, the RV511 can get connected with 3 USB, VGA, HDMI and audio ports. Its flash card reader can work with SD and MMC formats but not Memory Sticks.
Getting online at school should be a snap with wired Ethernet and 802.11b, g and n WiFi wireless networking; like the other four, it does without Bluetooth. The system tied with the HP 630 with a WiFi range of 115-feet, but the RV511 stands alone here with the inclusion of a WiMax module for when WiFi fails you. It allows you to send and receive data over the Clear 4G wireless data network if there’s service in your area, that is. Of course, you’ll need a service plan, which can cost roughly $50 a month for unlimited data downloads.
Overall performance was the RV511’s bright spot with a score of 1,011.6 on the Performance 7.0 benchmark test, marginally ahead of the Inspiron 15. This lead didn’t last into the networking tests, where the RV511 fell to the No. 3 spot with the ability to exchange 12.9Mbps of data with the lab’s server.
On battery power, the system’s 4,400mah power pack was able to run the system for 2 hours and 53 minutes, the shortest battery life of the five systems we looked at. By tweaking the Windows Power Options, this should be fine in most schools, but teachers and students might find themselves hunting for an AC outlet around the end of seventh period.
Along with Norton Internet Security software, the system comes with Windows7 Home Premium, a downgrade from HP’s use of Windows 7 Professional on the 630. On top of Skype and software to install Samsung printers, the system includes lots of software, including an annoying Best Buy ad that happily can be removed.
Unlike the Asus K53E, the RV511 comes with a 1-year warranty. At $450, the RV511 is a bargain that performs like a more expensive computer for students and teachers alike, but it falls short of the mark when it comes to battery life.
+ Excellent performance
+ Large hard drive
+ Upgradable to WiMax 4G
+ Top processor
- Short battery life
- Long and wide format
There are many times when a 5-pound notebook is just too much for a child to carry around in his or her backpack. Fortunately, there’s an alternative that cuts the weight to one-quarter that of a full notebook. In a very real sense, less is more with Brainchild’s Kineo.
Based on Android 2.1 software, Kineo has an inviting white plastic case with chrome edge trim. At 1.0- by 8.0- by 5.2-inches it is thick compared to general-purpose tablets, but Kineo has a more solid feel to it and should be able to endure school abuse. It includes a nifty pull-out stand in the back that holds a stylus for detailed work. Kineo weighs 1.3 pounds.
The system is a step behind current Android slates with an 800MHz dual core processor, 256MB of RAM and 2GB of built-in flash storage. Its 7-inch screen is bright, rich and can show 800 by 480 resolution. It does one thing that most notebooks can’t: it has a touch screen that kids find so alluring and all of its software has been written around the touch experience.
Kineo comes with an AC adapter and the 4,500 milliamp-hour battery pack can power it for 6 hours and 43 minutes of continuous use. That’s nearly double what the typical notebook can do and more than enough for a full school day of teaching and testing.
It comes with USB, HDMI and headphone jacks as well as a micro SD card slot. The system has 802.11b and g WiFi but does without Bluetooth. I really like that it has a handy volume control that includes a way to quickly mute the sound. It has some special hooks for schools, like its A, B, C, and D buttons on the left side for answering test questions.
Like general-purpose Android slates, the system comes with software for Web browsing (but for approved sites only), reading Acrobat files, a calendar and a video player. It has the Nook eBook reader as well as a basic calculator but no word processing, spreadsheet or email client.
Kineo goes a step further for schools with three exclusive programs that put instruction front and center for the K-through-8 crowd. Mechanics contains a series of multimedia lessons in the basics of reading, math, vocabulary and writing.
Achiever has lessons in Language Arts, Math and Science with assessment tests to check on proficiency before and after each section. All of the lessons are available in English and Spanish; some are in Haitian Creole, has been aligned with 50 states and it can be used to create a Personal Learning Plan for each student that customizes lessons so that each child learns at his or her own pace.
By using the GlobalSYNC software, the tablet can transmit these results to the teacher via WiFi. It can deliver a variety of attractive reports that are suitable for sending to district officials as well as parents.
Any place where a child can, either accidentally or by design, make changes or harm the system is off limits with Kineo. All of the key underlying system software is locked in a password protected area.
If your school has already purchased a bunch of iPads, there’s an app that mimics the look, feel and software of the Kineo. The software is free.
Kineo costs between $388 and $428 for buying 5,000 or 10 units, respectively, and comes ready to teach with an AC adapter, USB cable and a soft cloth case. All told, Kineo is a great school companion that includes one thing that no notebook comes with: software to help teachers teach and track student progress. And, that’s what education is all about.
The Thin Man
If even the thinnest of these classroom notebooks is too big, heavy and plain looking for your taste, there’s another choice: get one of the new generation of Ultrabooks. Samsung’s Series 5 ULTRA does everything that these classroom laptops do, but is smaller, thinner, lighter and more powerful.
Less really is more when it comes to classroom computing, and both the 13.3- and 14-inch Series 5 ULTRA models are under an inch thick. Their razor-thin cases look like systems an alien visiting earth might use. The 13.3-inch version of the Series 5 Ultra weighs in at just 3.2 pounds, 50 percent lighter than the smallest and lightest of the classroom notebooks. By contrast, the 14-inch Series 5 ULTRA weighs less than four pounds.
Either way, it’s like having your gear go on a diet without having to compromise on what it can do. It’s sure to pay dividends round about the seventh period when that 6-pound computer starts to feel like it weighs a ton.
Either of the ULTRA pair offers a lot more computing power than the typical classroom system can. They come with an Intel Core i5 processor that runs at 1.6GHz. Thanks to having the company’s Turbo Boost technology the processor can speed up to 2.3GHz when needed, such as when editing a video of a class trip or using it to create a digital art project. None of the Classroom notebooks reviewed can do anything like this.
When it comes to where to put all those lesson plans, homework assignments and essays that seem to accumulate, the Series 5 offers a choice. You can outfit the smaller system with either with a traditional 500GB hard drive or a 128GB solid state flash drive that is quicker, uses less power and is just about indestructible; the 14-inch machine can only be outfitted with a 500GB hard drive.
The Series 5 ULTRA systems have old and new technologies with a mix of old school USB 2.0 ports and USB 3.0 ports, which can move data ten-times faster as well as HDMI for putting a lesson on the big screen. It has an advantage over lesser notebooks with WiDi, which allows you to wirelessly send sound and video to a projector.
If all this sounds pretty sweet for your school, there’s a snag. At a time when district and school budgets are under attack from all sides, the Series 5 ULTRA costs between $900 and $1,100, roughly twice what the most expensive classroom system we looked at goes for. It’s worth it if power counts for as much as looking sharp.
Testing Classroom Notebooks
To test these notebooks, we used Scholastic Administr@tor TechLab test facility to mirror how notebooks are used in the classroom, library and school hallways. After unpacking each notebook, we went through them thoroughly measuring, weighing and trying out all major features.
To start, we measured the system’s width and depth with a ruler, then used a digital caliper to measure its thickness at the notebook’s feet, front and back. After that, we weighed the system on its own with a digital scale and then with its AC adapter and power cord, which is its travel weight. We checked whether it requires a 2- or 3-prong plug, a big difference for older schools that have old wiring and two-prong outlets.
After examining each port and connector, checking for the presence of Bluetooth, WiDi and a Total Protection Module (TPM), each system was put into a Mobil-IT notebook case to see if it fit without stressing the bag’s seams. We then used a digital caliper to measure the size and depth of the system’s keys.
We then got down to school business by opening the back, checking for how easy it is to get to its internal parts, with an emphasis on replacing the hard drive and RAM. While each system was running full blast, we found its hotspot and measured the temperature with an Extech Pocket IR noncontact thermometer.
Continuing, we connected each to the Labs’ WiFi and wired networks. This was followed by benchmark performance testing, starting with the system’s WiFi range. After establishing a connection with the lab’s Linksys WRT54G router, we loaded a series of You Tube videos to run automatically and started walking away from the router. When the unit lost contact with the router, we walked back 10 feet to re-establish the connection and repeated this process until the system consistently lost contact at the same place. To simulate the school experience, there’s a long hallway along with several walls in the test area.
Next, we looked at overall performance with Passmark’s PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark test. This suite of tests exercises every major system component, from the processor and memory to hard drive, CD and graphics. It then compiles the results into a single score that represents its performance potential. We ran the software three times and averaged the results.
After that, we set the Performance 7.0 software’s Advanced section to test networking speed by wirelessly connecting with a Lenovo Think Centre M70 system 10 feet away that acted as a server. Using fixed data blocks of 16KB, the software transfers data back and forth while measuring the throughput as well as the processor load on the client. The test runs for 60 seconds.
No computer is an island, and we tried to connect an array of typical classroom items to each system, including a Western Digital My Passport external hard drive, Adesso USB keyboard and San Disk 4GB memory key. This was followed by connecting the system to a Mitsubishi projector with and VGA and then HDMI cable. With it, we ran several digital lesson plans, looking for video lag, jitters, jumpiness and out of synch audio.
To see how long their batteries last, we fully charged each system and set their Windows Power Option to keep the screen and hard drive from turning off and preventing the system from going into sleep mode. We unplugged the system and set Passmark’s BatteryMon to monitor the rundown. After we started playing a series of You Tube videos, we waited for it to run out of power.
Finally, these systems need to be reliable and run for six hours a day for years on end. Using Passmark’s Burnin software, which runs 7 separate streams at once continuously, we ran each system for two full days without stop, looking for faults and problems. All five went through this workout, amounting to roughly 200 trillion processor cycles, without a fault.
Every school is different and your results may vary from ours. One thing is certain, however, all of these tests are available for you to use to compare what notebooks you have or are considering.