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Sounds Good to Me

Minx and 85Audio is as much a part of the modern classroom as notebooks, tablets and projectors, but speakers are generally the least mobile of the gear we teach with and often an afterthought when designing a classroom. That is, until now with the advent of high-quality audio systems that can link to a variety of sources with Bluetooth wireless.

Of the hundreds of wireless speakers that are available, I’ve chosen two to try in the classroom: Braven’s 850 and Cambridge Audio’s Minx Go. They both take up a surprisingly small space, sound great and can run for more than a full school day on their built-in batteries.

While they can each use an off-the-shelf audio cable, Bluetooth is the key to making them versatile. Just about every classroom device made today – from notebooks and tablets to digital music players and phones – has Bluetooth built-in. For those that don’t, there are often add-on Bluetooth radios.

To see how flexible they are, I used each with four different sources, including an iPad Mini, Microsoft’s Surface RT, Sony’s Tap 20 portable desktop PC and an LG Nitro phone. Each speaker offers the bonus of having a USB outlet for charging a phone or tablet.

They are not perfect, though, when it comes to filling a classroom with sound. Unfortunately, neither has a Near Field Communications (NFC) chip built-in that can make the initial set up as easy as tapping the source to the speaker. Plus, both lack the ability to plug in a microphone to turn the speaker into a class-wide public address system. On the other hand, the Braven 850 lets you use it as a speaker-phone for hands-free calls.

The bottom line is that each speaker pumped out surprisingly strong sound and can connect across the room so you can put it where it sounds best. Which you choose probably has a lot to do with how generous your school’s tech budget is.

Braven 850

850-f_1Beneath the Braven 850’s sophisticated black and silver case is a high-quality audio machine that pumps out rich sound for hours and hours on battery. At $300, unfortunately, it’s a potential budget buster.

At 4.2- by 9.3- by 2.7-inches, the 850 is rectangular and slightly larger than the curved Minx Go. It’s sturdily built, but if your school is rough on its equipment, the 855s model is made of aircraft grade aluminum, waterproof and costs the same $300.

It doesn’t have the pull-out tripod leg of the Minx Go and doesn’t need it because it sits flat on a table or desk. The speaker’s stainless steel screen makes it look elegant and it picks up fingerprints less easily than the Minx Go’s case. At 3.4-pounds, though, it’s more than a pound heavier than the Minx Go and a bit overweight.

The system has control buttons on top and connections on the side for a headphone jack, USB port for charging a phone or tablet and power. The speaker comes with an audio jumper cable and an AC adapter for charging the mammoth 8,800 milli-amp hour battery pack; unfortunately, the battery is not removable.

While it lacks any LED indicators to show that it’s on, the 850 makes a fog horn sound when you turn it on. It worked well and connected on the first try with the iPad, Surface RT, Tap 20 and LG Nitro. The 850 had a range of 25-feet, just short of the MinxGo’s range.

850-overview-top_1_1Inside, the Braven 850 has a powerful amplifier and an APTX digital signal processor for enhancing the audio. The system’s two speakers are rated at handling a total of 20-watts and the 850 has a passive radiator in the back. Unlike the Minx Go, the 850 includes DTS and SRS audio enhancements available and the ability to use a pair of 850 units with the True Wireless technology that’s on some phones and tablets. 

It all adds up to rich and deep sound, regardless of whether it was playing a spoken work radio documentary, music or the soundtrack from a DVD. It worked well with Internet radio, online curriculum and Web videos. Using it as a speakerphone for a parent-teacher conference or listening to a district curriculum conference call is a big bonus for teachers who have only two hands.

The 850 also has something the Minx Go doesn’t: a five element battery gauge that tells approximately how much battery capacity remains. I’m not entirely sure you’ll need it because the speaker ran for a phenomenal 37 hours and 50 minutes of constant use at half-volume on a charge, while alternating between Bluetooth and a direct connection. That’s one-third longer than the Minx Go’s battery ran for, and likely to give teachers the option of charging the speaker only once a week of typical use.

The long-distance leader, The Braven 850, can turn any classroom into a sound studio, but at $300 costs twice what the Minx Go does.



Braven 850

Price: $300

+ Full, rich sound

+ Speaker-phone

+ Can charge tablet or phone

+ Battery gauge

+ Exceptional battery life


- Expensive

- Heavy


Cambridge Audio Minx Go

Minx-go-black-1368797664Made of a glossy white or black case, the Cambridge Minx Go portable speaker will fit into any classroom décor. It’s not only smaller and lighter than the 850, but costs half as much.

In addition to an AC adapter to charge the Minx Go’s battery pack, the speaker comes with an audio cable and a soft felt bag, a luxury that the 850 doesn’t provide. The Minx Go measures 4.9- by 9.1- by 2.3-inches, or slightly smaller than the 850. The speaker’s finish picks up fingerprints too easily and you might need to spend time wiping it down with its soft bag.

At 2.3-pounds, it’s also quite a bit lighter, making it easier to move from room to room. Its curved front and upward angle mean that it can disperse sound more effectively in a large room than the Braven 850. Because of this, the speaker has a pull-out leg to keep it from tipping over.

The Minx Go is powered by an amplifier and digital signal processor that can make the audio sound fuller. It, however, lacks the DTS and SRS audio enhancements that the 850 provides as well as the ability to use it as a speaker phone for hands-free calls. There’s an array of four speakers inside, including a pair of 2-inch woofers and a pair of ¾-inch titanium tweeters. The 850, the Minx Go has an active radiator that pushes sound out of the back.

Minx-go-side-black-1368797664The sound quality is quite good, with excellent balance. It’s not as rich or deep as the 850’s output and lacks high-end definition. It worked well with Internet radio, Web videos and online school content, but can sound slightly hollow at times.

While the Minx Go was able to remain connected 27 feet from the source – slightly farther than the 850 – its battery life couldn’t hold a candle to the competition. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but the Minx Go ran for 24 hours and 15 minutes, one-third shorter than the 850’s astounding battery life. Still, it’s more than enough for several days of schoolroom use between charges.

Unlike the Braven 850, the Minx Go has a single LED to let you know that it’s turned on or ready to receive a Bluetooth connection. On the other hand, it lacks the 850’s incredibly useful battery gauge; it does have a light in the back that turns red when the battery is about to go dead.

It might lack some of the amenities that the 850 provides, but the Minx Go delivers high-quality, affordable sound that can go where you go. 



Cambridge Audio Minx Go

Price: $149

+ Inexpensive

+ Four speakers

+ Tripod leg

+ Can charge phone or slate

+ Good Battery life


- No battery gauge

- Can’t use as speaker-phone



The Complete Classroom

Samsung-smart-school-67-0Why take your chances with equipment and software from a variety of vendors that might or might not work together when Samsung can outfit a school, an entire classroom at a time. The center of attention is Samsung’s 55-inch interactive monitor that is just as good for a teacher marking up a map of the 13 colonies as it is for students trying to solve math problems for the class to see. The teacher and students use Galaxy Note 10.1 tablets to do their assignments, and at any time the teacher can have any of them shown on the class’s big screen.

Soti mobicontrolSoti’s MobiControl is the glue that binds the Samsung School together with the ability to remotely configure systems, load software and lock-out settings. The best part for BYOD schools, the software works with PCs, Macs, Androids and iPads.

In the Samsung School classroom, flexibility is the key with the teacher able to display his system, monitor any student’s screen or share content. At any time, the teacher can give the class an on-the-spot assessment. The typical classroom with 20 students including all hardware and software costs about $20,000.



Best for Less

M5-583_touch-glare-Win8WP-3The latest touch-screen notebooks may appear to be out of reach of your school’s budget but Acer’s Aspire M5 squeezes a lot of technology into a small price tag. For instance, the M5-583P-6428 model costs $700 and is available only through Best Buy but combines a fourth-generation Core i5 processor with a 15.6-inch touchscreen. It has educational amenities, like Intel’s Wireless WiDi system, four speakers and a backlit keyboard.

Mighty Mite

Boxi - Top Front LeftElmo’s Boxi MP-350 seemingly does the impossible. It’s tiny and weighs just 1.1-pounds, yet can fill a 68-inch screen and move easily between rooms. Rather than a traditional lamp, the MP-350 uses a laser and puts a 1,280 by 720 image with 300 lumens on the screen. It has WiFi built-in as well as the ability to project from up to four sources at once. It sells for $659.

Pad Protector

Hammerhead bWe all know that iPads are just too easy to break, but Hammerhead’s Folio case can protect them from classroom abuse. The case is made of padded polyurethane and works with all full-size pads except for the first generation pads. In addition to waking the tablet when it’s opened and letting it go to sleep when closed, Folio can prop the screen up on a desk. It costs $40 and is available in black, brown, gray, purple or red.


Freebee Friday: Putting Parents in the Classroom

LT_FLyer_SchoolIf you’re interested in encouraging parents to get more involved in their child’s education, you can do no better than using LivingTree as a communications platform. The free online service connects parents and teachers with the ability to talk, share calendars and discuss documents. It can even help set up in-class volunteers and works with PCs, iPads and Android devices. 

One-Stop Management

  • Symantec_SMM_1Are you spending too much time going between programs to manage the variety of devices on your campus? Symantec’s Mobile Management Suite provides a single place to keep track of and configure a variety of platforms. In addition to managing the device, the Symantec software can send programs to specific recipients and provides a single sign-in for a variety of school uses and protection from viruses and attacks.

STEM Data without the Wires

LoggerPro3_ScreenshotUnfortunately, from the beginning, collecting and distributing data from sensors in science labs has involved wires, and lots of them. Vernier’s Logger Pro 3 sets the pace with the ability to share experimental data wirelessly without a cable in sight. The software works with the LabQuest 2 device and iPads, Chromebooks and the variety of Android phones and tablets on the market. Perfect for everything from a teacher lab demo with the data going to every student to small group work where each kid does their own analysis, the software allows annotation, statistical analysis and curve fitting operations.

The No-Maintenance Projector

Acer K520 aIf you hate climbing on ladders to periodically change burned-out projector lamps and clogged air filters, Acer’s K520 is for you. Not only does the projector not have an air filter, but its innovative hybrid illumination engine has a rated lifetime of 20,000 hours of use, or about 12.5 years of harsh daily school use.

At 3.4- by 12.6- by 9.1-inches, the K520 is a mid-sized projector that stands at the border between portable and installation units; it comes with a padded case. The projector has adjustable feet front and back as well as four threaded mounting points underneath for a permanent set up. Weighing 9-pounds, the K520 can easily be handled by a single installer.

Inside the white and silver projector is a Texas Instruments Digital Light Processing (DLP) chip that projects XGA (1,024 by 768) resolution in 30-bit color. This is a step down from current WXGA projectors that put out a wide-screen 1,280 by 800 image, but more than adequate for most classroom uses. It has a 1.1X optical zoom lens and a 2X digital zoom.

K520 illuminationRather than a traditional high-pressure lamp and a prism that splits the light into its red, blue and green components for the DLP chip to turn into the projector’s image, the K520 uses an innovative hybrid arrangement that is a combination of LEDs and lasers. Red and blue light come from banks of LEDs, while the beam of a blue laser is bounced off of a phosphorescent disc that converts it to green light. These red, blue and green beams of light are then aimed at the DLP imaging chip and on through complicated lenses to project the image on the screen. 

Not only is the solid state illumination engine in the K520 more rugged than a conventional quartz bulb, but it is rated to last 20,000 hours of use, or roughly 12.5 years of use for 8 hours every school day. Compared to the typical high-pressure lamp that lasts roughly 2,500 hours and costs $250, a school can save a lot of money over its projected life, plus have the peace of mind of knowing that you’ll never have to interrupt a lesson because of a lamp blow-out.

Because of the complex illumination technology, the K520 has a calibration routine that takes roughly 30 seconds to cycle through all the colors and make sure they’re balanced. Happily, you don’t have to perform the calibration more than once or twice a year. On the other hand, the projector lacks a test pattern that can help ease aiming and optimizing a projector.

Acer k520 dThe projector’s simple control panel is matched by its minimum of inputs, including HDMI, VGA, S- and composite-video ports, but does without either a wired LAN jack or WiFi connection. The projector also lacks a VGA-out link for streaming video from the K520 to another projector. There’s also audio-in and -out as well as an RS-232 and USB ports for monitoring and remotely controlling the projector.

In addition to turning the projector on and off, setting up the source and fine-tuning the image, the K520’s remote control can start or stop media on a notebook if the projector is connected using a USB cable; it’s not included. The remote has the creature comfort of a backlit keypad, making it particularly good for lights-off lessons, but lacks a laser pointer.

The projector starts up in 13-seconds and shuts itself down in 5-seconds, making it particularly good for stop and go lessons during the school day. On the downside, it emits an annoyingly loud beep when turning it on or off. Plus, when you start up or change the source, it takes the projector a couple of seconds to display the material.

Acer k520 bIt’s quick to warm-up and the K520 puts 2,068 lumens of light onto a screen in Bright mode. Unfortunately, the entire image takes on a greenish cast, and I prefer using the Standard or Presentation modes. There are also Video, Picture and Education modes as well as the ability to create your own custom set-up by dialing-in the brightness, contrast, gamma and other settings. Overall, the projector delivered smooth video and can project 3-D material, but you’ll have to get the special glasses.

In addition to working with a conventional white screen, the projector can be tuned to different colored backgrounds, including yellow, pink, blue and green. This makes the K520 particularly appropriate for quick set up in non-traditional teaching areas. The projector can create up to a 25-foot image, has a sharp focus and a 96-percent brightness uniformity. While its reds and blues are rich and flesh tones are realistic, the K520’s greens are a little weak. It delivered a nearly perfect bright white and showed excellent grayscale imaging. On the other hand, when using an analog source, there’s a slight rippling to the images.

While it’s on, the projector uses an economical 133 watts or about half that of comparable traditional projectors. Using the system’s Eco setting can reduce that to only 97 watts but the image starts to wash out with the lights on. The projector keeps its cool with a 98-degree Fahrenheit exhaust temperature. On the other hand, its fan runs loud at 41dBA, 3-feet from the projector’s exhaust.

The projector’s warranty might be a little troubling for an educational institution. It comes with the standard 1-year coverage for the system as well as the expected 90-day warranty on the bulb. But, the K520 doesn’t have a traditional bulb and its solid state illumination engine should outlive a lamp by years. It’s all new technology without a track record and I’d be more comfortable with projectors of this type if they included a four- or five-year warranty on the illumination engine. After all, it’s rated to last many times more than that.

Because it doesn’t ever need to have its lamp changed, the K520 is potentially the most thrifty classroom projector I’ve seen. It has estimated operating expenses of only $23 per year if it’s used for 8 hours every school day during the school year. That’s roughly one-tenth the cost of many of its competitors.

At $1,200, the K520 may cost twice as much as traditional projectors, but its ace in the hole is that it has low operating expenses and will never need to have its lamp changed. That can save seven or eight lamps over its projected lifetime, or as much as $2,000. That alone makes the K520 a bargain. 


Acer k520 c

Acer K520

Price: $1,200

+ No lamps or filters to change

+ Backlit remote control

+ Uses half the power of conventional projector

+ Low operating expenses

+ Sharp focus


- Expensive

- XGA resolution

- Warranty


See it All

ClassView_image1In addition to inexpensive 8-, 9.7- and 13.3-inch classroom tablets, LearnPad’s ClassView software not only lets you teach and give assessments, but at any time you can send a text message to any individual student or see what’s on their screen. Because it is Web-based, ClassView can work on a variety of platforms, from PCs to iPads and Android slates, making it easy to fit into any teaching landscape. 

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