TechLab Shootout: 5 Classroom Notebooks
Despite competition from tablets, the notebook continues to hold its paramount position at the center of the digital classroom. That’s because it can do so much for education for so little. After all, a teaching notebook can cost less than the typical tablet yet have a much bigger screen, a real keyboard, all the connection ports you’d ever want and can use a school’s existing software.
Whether it’s for a dozen systems that will live on a cart or outfitting an entire school, the challenge is to get the most for the least. A little over a year ago, the Lab set out of find the best notebook for teaching and learning, given that it had to fit into the typical school’s tight budget of about $450 per system.
A lot has changed in the year, although we’re a bit disappointed that we had to stick with the $450 price ceiling. The current crop of classroom notebooks are not only more powerful, but offer faster connections, more spacious hard drives and more amenities for student and teacher. In other words, for $450 or less a school can get more than enough notebook to satisfy the educational needs of students and instructors.
To see what schools have to choose from, we gathered together the five most appropriate systems for classroom use and gave them a battery of tests to see how they fit into the classroom. The Asus F55A, Dell Inspiron 15, Gateway NE56R37U, HP ProBook 4545s and Lenovo G580 all have 15.6-inch screens, at least 320GB of hard drive space, at least 4GB of RAM and a capable optical drive that can read and create DVD discs.
The biggest difference with a year ago is that we are now in the Windows 8 age and all of the systems came with Microsoft’s new operating system. This may seem more than a bit ironic to school administrators considering that two in five schools still soldier on with antediluvian Windows XP software. Microsoft plans to end support for XP next April, so it’s as good a time as any to figure out a path to the latest software.
The hardware has evolved as well and these computers all going their own way. The majority use a variety of Intel Pentium or Core i3 processors, although the ProBook 4545s comes with a 2.5GHz AMD chip. While they all have wired networking and wireless WiFi, three of the notebooks lack Bluetooth so wireless keyboards, mice and many peripherals are off-limits with them.
The proof is in the performance and on average these systems are not only more powerful than last year’s bunch but were able to run for an average of 20 minutes longer on a charge. In a real sense, they provide the best of both worlds for students and teachers.
While they all can find their place in the classroom, one stands out from the crowd. Dell continues to lead the world in squeezing more into a small and light inexpensive notebook than any other company. Its Inspiron 15 model not only was tiny compared to the others, but ran for nearly four hours, had a good assortment of ports and had a clean sweep in connecting to a variety of peripherals.
It was neither the fastest nor the longest lasting on its battery, the Inspiron15 was comfortably at the head of the class. It’s like the student that’s in every school who excels at most subjects and does well in the others, but doesn’t have a weak class. That makes the Inspiron 15 a model student.
It may be thin and small, but the Asus F55A notebook skimps on some of its vital equipment, creating a computer that lagged the field in performance and amenities. Still, for $400, it is a bargain classroom system.
Overall, the wedge-shaped notebook takes up 14.7- by 9.9-inches of desktop space and is 1.2-inches thick in the front, but is a hefty 1.6-inches at the rear. All told, it is a little bigger than the Inspiron 15, but about 10 percent smaller than the Lenovo G580. Its all-black ribbed plastic case looks great considering its price tag.
At 5.4-pounds, it is in the middle between the heavier ProBook 4545s and the lighter Inspiron 15. Add in the 9-ounce power adapter and you have a system that can go from classroom to classroom at 6-pounds, even, half a pound heavier than the Inspiron 15. Like the others, it uses a three-prong power plug.
The downside is that it cuts corners on the equipment it holds. To start, it has 4GB of RAM and a mid-range Pentium B980 processor that has two computational cores and runs at 2.4GHz. It’s essentially a faster version of the B-series chip in the Gateway notebook. This puts it a step or two behind the G580’s third generation Core i3 chip and 6GB of RAM. Its 320GB hard drive should be plenty but is the smallest of the bunch and second best compared to the larger and faster drives on the Gateway and HP systems.
There’s also an 8X DVD drive that can create and play discs of all types. The F55A comes with a Webcam and microphone for keeping a video diary or videoconferencing.
Like the others, the F55A has a 15.6-inch screen that can show 1,366 by 768 resolution. It uses Intel’s HD Graphics and is the only system here that can connect wirelessly using Intel’s WiDi technology, a big advantage in the digital classroom of tomorrow.
It comes with a sturdy keyboard with 18.8mm keys and a large touchpad that works well with Windows 8 and can interpret two-finger gestures. It lacks the specialty keys that the Gateway system has, though. Its Altec Lansing speakers are underneath the system, which somewhat muffles the audio.
On the downside, the system’s ports are skimpy with only two USB connections, one of USB 2.0 and one for USB 3.0. That’s half as many as the ProBook 4545s or Inspiron 15, the connection kings. There are also ports for HDMI, VGA and audio as well as a flash card reader.
While it has a wired Ethernet jack and 802.11n WiFi, the F55A lacks the Bluetooth radio that’s on the Inspiron 15 and the ProBook 4545s. This severely limits its ability to link with classroom accessories, like keyboards and speakers.
It all adds up to a system that trailed the pack on performance. It’s Performance 8 score of 797.6 was the lowest of the group by a wide margin and more than 30-percent slower than the G580. During the benchmarking it came out that the F55A’s B-series processor couldn’t work with Microsoft’s DirectX 11 software, which is used in many games and some educational software.
It redeemed itself with a 3 hour and 56 minute battery life for its 4,400-milli-amp hour cells, the longest of the five and half an hour longer than the Gateway machine. It had a middle-of-the-pack WiFi range of 105-feet.
In daily classroom use, the F55A did quite well, but its lack of Bluetooth meant it couldn’t connect with our Bluetooth keyboard; it passed the other three compatibility tests, though. It mastered the science simulations, NASA videos and BrainPop teaching sequences, but occasionally left us waiting on it to catch up.
It’s easy to get inside the machine to do periodic cleaning and maintenance. Just loosen two screens from the large panel underneath and the system’s RAM and hard drive are in your face.
The F55A comes with Windows 8, McAfee’s Internet Security and a bunch of useful Asus utilities, the best of which is a metric converter app, something the others don’t have. As is the case with the other four computers, the F55A has a 1-year warranty, but Asus includes accident protection and shipping both ways. Unfortunately, Asus doesn’t offer a warranty extension to three years, but it can be had at Amazon.com for $80.
All told, the $400 F55A is an economical choice for schools if battery life counts for more than raw power or its ability to connect in the classroom.
+ Low cost
+ Best battery life
+ Asus software
+ Can use WiDi
- Low performance potential
- No Bluetooth
- Only 2 USB ports
Dell Inspiron 15
Don’t let its plain Jane black case fool you, the Dell Inspiron 15 holds a powerful notebook inside that is good at just about everything and should fit right into the classroom. The bonus is that it sells for $400.
Good things do come in small – and light – packages and Dell takes the lead in stuffing more notebook into a svelte profile that even a second grade can carry around. The Inspiron 15 weighs 4.9-pounds and with its AC adapter hits the road at a comfortable 5.5-pounds, the lightest of the group by a wide margin and three-quarters of a pound less than the ProBook 4545s weighs.
At 1.1- by 14.8- by 10.1-inches, it is the smallest of the five by far and occupies 13-percent less space than the G580. Its black case has a textured surface, making it easier to grip and harder to drop, particularly for smaller hands. It has heavily rounded corners and a prominent silver logo ion the display lid, but the machine requires a three-prong outlet.
The system is built around an Intel 2365 Core i3 processor, which is older than the third-generation Intel chip used by the G580 or the AMD chip on the ProBook 4545s. In practical terms it doesn’t include the ability to automatically ramp up its speed. Still, it runs at 1.4GHz and is more than powerful enough to get it through the school day. The rest of the system is no slouch either with 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive and an 8X DVD driver that can create and play all kinds of discs.
Like the others in the group, the Inspiron 15 has a 15.6-inch display that can show 1,366 by 768 resolution; it uses Intel’s HD Graphics. There’s a Web cam and dual-microphone array above the screen so it’s ready to roll for videoconferencing. The system’s speakers are underneath but sound fine and can get very loud, which can be a mixed blessing in a large classroom.
Overall, it delivers a good mixture of old and new ports, but with one noticeable exception: it lacks a VGA port for using the system with an older projector or monitor. It does have HDMI as well as four USB ports, two of which use the newer USB 3.0 protocol and two that use the older USB 2.0 spec. There’s also an audio jack for using a headset.
The 18.9mm white-on-black keys should be fine in the dark, but the Gateway’s keys show up better. It has a large touchpad with a smooth surface that worked well with Windows 8 and simple gestures.
As is the case with the others, the Inspiron 15 comes with a flash card reader, wired Ethernet networking and 802.11n WiFi. Because the system uses an Atheros WiFi device it can’t take advantage of Intel’s proprietary WiDi system for wirelessly moving sound and images to a projector; only the F55A can use Intel’s WiDi technology.
Just like the ProBook 4545s, the Inspiron 15 adds the latest Bluetooth radio so it can connect with wireless keyboards, speakers and mice. It passed the Lab’s compatibility tests with flying colors.
While it can’t touch the G580’s power, the Inspiron 15 was reliable and competent during testing. It managed an 897.1 on Passmark’s Performance 8.0 suite of tests, right in the middle of the group, but about 25-percent off the pace set by the G580. Its tiny 2,660milli-amp hour battery is a modern marvel that lasted for 3 hours and 47 minutes on a charge. That’s 9 minutes short of the F55A’s larger battery’s run time. Bottom line: It can easily get you through a full school day of on and off work.
Its ability to put the science simulations, BrainPop animations and the NASA video on screen smoothly and with detail was without peer in the group. Everything was sharp, looked good and worked well without a crash or momentary lag.
It stayed online up to 110-feet from the Lab’s WiFi router and access to the Inspiron 15’s innards is easy. After opening two Philips screws, it’s all there in front of your eyes.
The Inspiron 15 comes with Windows 8, McAfee’s Security Center and a month of updates, CyberLink’s Media Center and a slew of Dell software. Oddly, it lacks Dell’s customized Windows Mobility Center, which is on other notebooks and puts everything you need to adjust on a single screen. It has a one-year warranty, but upping the coverage to three-years adds a hefty $140 – one-third of its base price.
It shouldn’t come as a shock that the Inspiron 15 has everything that a teacher or student could want in the classroom. The surprise is that the $400 system does it for so much less.
+ Small, light and thin
+ Good battery life
+ Four USB connections
+ Reasonable performance
- No VGA port
A mix of old and very new, Gateway’s NE56R37U system is well equipped and comes with an excellent array of components but the system didn’t impress the graders in any one particular area other than its $420 price tag.
It buys a lot of notebook with the black and silver NE56R37U model. The system feels sturdy, but is among the biggest in its class. At 1.3- by 15.0- by 9.8-inches, it is only slightly smaller than the G580 and is significantly larger than the Inspiron 15 or Asus F55A.
There’s a prominent silver Gateway logo on the display lid and the machine weighs in at 5.3 pounds, right in the middle of the group. Add in its small AC adapter and the NE56R37U has a 5.8-pound travel weight, roughly 5-ounces heavier than the Inspiron 15. The power cord needs at three-prong outlet, though.
It’s powered by an Intel Pentium B960 processor that runs at 2.2GHz, which, like the slightly faster one on the Asus F55A, is starting to show its age. The chip has two computation cores but can’t handle the latest DirectX 11 software or adjust its speed when up against tough tasks. It worked well with Windows 8, however.
The system comes with a generous 6GB of RAM, matching the level of the G580, and a 750GB hard drive, the largest of the bunch. Like the rest of this group, the NE56R37U also has an 8X DVD drive that can create and play all kinds of discs.
As is the case with the others, the NE56R37U comes with a 15.6-inch screen that can show 1,366 by 768 resolution images. It has an Intel Graphics HD accelerator behind it. Above it are a Web cam and a microphone for video conferences and diaries.
The array of ports on the system is a big disappointment because the system lacks the latest USB 3.0 connections that offer speeds ten-times higher than the older USB spec. It has three USB 2.0 ports, one less than the Dell or HP laptops, as well as HDMI, VGA and audio connections. The system has a pair of speakers just under the display that sound fine for spoken word material and music but can’t get as loud as the others.
It comes with wired Ethernet, 802.11n WiFi, a flash card reader and a gem of a keyboard. The 18.8mm black keys have large white lettering that’s easier to read than the others in a darkened room. There’re not only dollar and Euro keys, but the keyboard has a unique social media key in the upper right corner that can connect the system to a variety of services. Some schools may not like this addition, but more and more classrooms are integrating services like Facebook in their lessons. On the downside, the touchpad feels cramped, but did fine with Windows 8 gestures.
Despite having the extra RAM, the NE56R37U’s 874.8 score on the Performance 8 suite of tasks was in the middle of the pack and slightly behind the Inspiron 15. Its 4,400-milli-amp hour battery pack ran for 3 hours and 26 minutes on a charge, a minute short of the G580’s battery life, but half an hour short of the F55A’s group-leading run time.
The bright spot was the system’s 115-foot WiFi range, just behind the class-leading F55A. It, however, does without Bluetooth. This translates into not being able to connect with a wireless mouse, keyboard or speaker. As a result, it did fine on three of our four compatibility tests but failed on the Bluetooth one.
In addition to Windows 8, the machine includes the NewsXpresso news aggregator as well as Norton Internet Security with a month of updates. Like the G580 and ProBook 4545s, the system comes with a one-year warranty, but can be boosted to three years for a reasonable $100.
Overall, it is an inexpensive and competent classroom computer but one that lags on performance.
+ Excellent configuration
+ 6GB of RAM
+ Large hard drive capacity
- No Bluetooth
- Lagging performance
- No USB 3.0
HP ProBook 4545s
The HP ProBook 4545s may be big and heavy but it offers an alternative to Intel technology and is one of the best classroom configurations for the money.
At 5.6-pounds, the ProBook 4545s is the heaviest of the five and is more than half a pound over the weight of the Inspiron 15. With its AC adapter, the system has a travel weight of 6.4-pounds, nearly a pound heavier than the Inspiron 15, and it has a three-prong power plug.
Its dark silver case occupies 14.7- by 9.7-inches of desktop space and is 1.3-inches in the front, but 1.5-inches in the back, making it decidedly wedge-shaped. Only the G580 is bigger.
Rather than the Intel Core i or Pentium processor used on the others, the ProBook 4545s goes its own way with an AMD A4-4300 chip that runs at 2.5GHz. It is not only the fastest chip of the bunch, it is the only one of the five systems here to be able to automatically boost its speed to 3GHz when needed to compute itself out of a jam. The system comes with 4GB, a high-performance 500GB hard drive and an optical drive that can read and write a wide variety of DVD discs.
As is the case with the other four systems, the ProBook’s 15.6-inch display can show 1,366 by 768 resolution, but rather than Intel hardware, it has an ATI Radeon HD 7420G graphics accelerator. This means it can’t use WiDi to wirelessly connect to a projector or TV screen. There’s a Web cam as well as a dual microphone array that can help your voice get through on a video conference.
Its array of ports is second to none with a pair of USB 2.0 and USB 3.0, HDMI, VGA and audio. It can get online via wired Ethernet jack or 802.11n WiFi and includes Bluetooth. The black keys measure 19mm and are comfortable to use and the system’s large gray touchpad worked well with Windows 8. It is also the only system of the five to include a security-conscious fingerprint scanner.
Despite having SRS premium sound built into the system, the ProBook 4545s’s audio sounds tinny and thin. It, however, can get very loud.
As far as performance goes, the AMD hardware didn’t disappoint with the ProBook coming in second place behind the G580. Its 1,022.4 score on the Performance 8 benchmark was 22 percent faster than the lagging F55A. The system lasted 3 hours and 41 minutes on its 4,400 milli-amp hour battery pack, slightly off the F55A’s pace, but lost contact with the Lab’s WiFi LAN at 95-feet, the shortest of the bunch.
As a teaching and learning tool, the ProBook 4545s did an excellent job of connecting to our classroom devices. It also did well displaying BrainPop, NASA videos and the University of Colorado PHET science simulations.
To get inside to clean it out or replace components requires loosening only one screw, but that’s just the start. You’ll need to hold both battery release latches open at once to release the cover, something that might require having a helping hand.
The system comes with Windows 8 and an extensive array of security software as well as a program that monitors the hard drive and prevents damage if the ProBook is dropped. It was the only one of the five to include a disc for repairing or replacing the system’s software and – like the G580 – its one-year warranty can be boosted to three years for just $100, a bargain.
Although the ProBook 4545s lists for $500, with HP’s educational discount, it can cost $450 for schools. This makes it not only an economical high performer but a great package for teaching and learning.
+ High performance
+ High-speed hard drive
+ Great assortment of ports
+ Inexpensive warranty extension
- Thick and heavy
- Short WiFi range
*: with educational discount
Big and bold, Lenovo’s G580 is a mixed bag for classrooms. Easily the largest notebook of the five, it makes up for its heft with the latest processor technology and excellent components that deliver peak performance.
The G580 is easily the largest of the five, its glossy dark brown finish has sparkles in its surface and actually looks black. It can be a lot to carry around at 1.4- x 14.6- by 9.6-inches, but weighs in at 5.2-pounds, the second lightest of the bunch after the Inspiron 15.
With its AC adapter, the system has a travel weight of 5.7-pounds, right in the middle between the heavier ProBook and the lighter Inspiron 15. As is the case with the others, the G580 has a three-prong plug.
It comes extremely well equipped with the newest processor of the group: Intel’s third generation Core i3 3110M model. Like the other Intel-based systems here, it lacks Turbo Boost technology to automatically raise its base 2.4GHz speed for tackling tough tasks. Only the AMD chip in the ProBook can do this. The system comes with 6GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive and a DVD drive for reading and writing a wide variety of discs.
As is the case with the other four systems, the G580 has a 15.6-inch display that can show 1,366 by 768 images. As opposed to the others, it is fed with pixels by the newer Intel HD Graphics 4000 imaging engine.
Its keyboard has comfortable 18.9mm keys, but the system lacks the social networking key of the Gateway system. Its touchpad is mounted flush with the wrist rest and is nicely textured, but its response was often too jittery. There is a Web cam above the display as well as a microphone for making videoconferences a snap.
Around its periphery the system has two USB 3.0 and one USB 2.0 connector as well as HDMI, VGA and audio. In other words, the G580 is one USB port short of the ProBook or the Inspiron 15, but better equipped than the Asus or Gateway machines. In addition to a flash card reader, the system has wired Ethernet and 802.11n WiFi. The G580 doesn’t have WiDi built-in.
On the other hand, the G580 lacks Bluetooth so it can’t link with a wireless keyboard or mouse. Because of this, it got stuck on connecting with our wireless keyboard, but it flew through the other compatibility tests. The system’s audio lacks SRS or name-brand speakers, but was clear, although not particularly loud.
All told, it is a high-output machine that ran rings around the group. Due to its up-to-date processor and an extra 2GB of RAM, its Performance 8.0 score of 1213.0 was half again as high as the F55A’s result and 18-percent faster than the next closest competitor. The system’s 4,400-milli-amp hour battery powered it for 3 hours and 27 minutes, only a minute longer than the Gateway system and at the back of the pack. Its WiFi system lost its online connection 105-feet from the router, roughly in the middle of the group.
To get to the system’s RAM, hard drive and fan, just loosen a pair of Philips screws and slide the large panel off of the bottom. Everything is at your fingertips and ready for maintenance.
Overall, it performs its instructional duties well with the ability to run the science simulations, NASA video and BrainPop lessons without a lag or glitch. The system comes with Windows 8, McAfee’s Security Center (with a month of updates) and Cyberlink’s Media Suite of software. Its 1-year warranty can be augmented to 3-years of service for a reasonable $120.
In the final analysis, the G580 is a powerful notebook that can complete a classroom’s most challenging tasks, but it’s a bit big for small hands.
+ Top performance
+ Latest processor technology
+ 6GB of RAM
- Thick, large case
- Doesn’t include Bluetooth
How High and Low Can You Go?
Big or small, you get what you pay for.
There are as ways to answer the question of how best to outfit a school with notebooks as there are teachers, students and schools. The possibilities range from ultra-cheap econo-boxes to ultra-luxurious budget-busters.
Sleek and silver, the 15-inch MacBook Pro weighs 4.8-pounds, just slightly lighter than the Dell Inspiron 15. It is powered by a 2.4- or 2.7GHz Intel Core i7 processor that can be boosted to 3.4 or 3.7GHz, depending on the model, if needed. It comes well equipped with 8- or 16GB of RAM and 256- or 512GB of solid state storage, making it, simultaneously, one of the best-equipped and -designed computers on the market.
The centerpiece of the MacBook Pro is the system’s ultra-high resolution Retina screen that can show 2,880 by 1,800 resolution. That’s five-times more detailed than the typical notebook’s display. Oddly, at 15.4-inches, it’s slightly smaller than the industry-standard 15.6-inch display.
In addition to a pair of USB 3.0 and a FireWire connector, the MacBook Pro has audio and a Thunderbolt port. This high-speed connector allows it to work with a small variety of hardware that is available at the moment.
As beautiful and functional as the MacBook is, there’s a big snag. It costs $2,200 for the base model or roughly what all five of the machines in the main story cost, putting it out of the reach of most schools.
At the other extreme is Dell’s Inspiron 17, a large notebook that sports a Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. It adds up to a 6-pound system that is not that all that much heavier than the 15.6-inch systems here. The payoff is a huge 17.3-inch display that makes it equal parts desktop and laptop.
It has a great group of ports, although, like its smaller cousin, no VGA connection for older monitors and projectors. The system can run for almost four hours on a charge and outperforms anything at its price. The Inspiron 17 has something that the MacBook doesn’t: a DVD player and writer.
At $450, it is my current Blue Light Special for computers for schools because its large screen means that the Inspiron 17 is a desktop computer that can go where you go.
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 every day during the schoolyear. After unpacking each notebook, we went through them thoroughly measuring, weighing and trying out all of their 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 institutions that have old wiring with two-prong outlets.
After examining each port and connector, setting up its WiFi networking and 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 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. The emphasis here is on the ease of replacing the hard drive and RAM as well as giving it a periodic cleaning with compressed air. While each system was running full blast, we checked to see if it got hot and measured the temperature with an Fluke 62 mini IR 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 Performance Test 8.0 benchmark suite of tasks that simulate actual use. This series 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.
No computer is an island, and we tried to connect an array of typical classroom items to each system, including an Iomega eGo external hard drive, a KeyRight keyboard and a Matias Bluetooth keyboard (for those notebooks that had a Bluetooth radio). This was followed by connecting the system to an NEC NP-UM330W projector with its HDMI port. 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 Options 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 battery’s rundown while it played a series of You Tube videos. We waited for it to run out of power.
Finally, we used several online educational resources to gauge their interactivity. After working with BrainPop’s history of the Harlem Renaissance and NASA’s video of sun spots, we used the University of Colorado’s PHET vibration mode simulation software. 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.