If you think that you can’t afford the security, ruggedness and warranty of a business-ready notebook, you haven’t seen Toshiba’s Tecra C50 notebook. Rather than bulking up a consumer system, the C50 is a pure commercial system that has a 15.6-inch display, a Core i3 processor, 500GB hard drive and 4GB of RAM for $579; a Core i5 version costs $699. The system weighs 5-pounds, is an inch thick and comes with either Windows 7 or 8.1.
For those schools that have invested in iPads and have spent too much time, effort and money repairing and replacing broken units, there’s hope. Zagg’s Rugged Folio encases the fragile pad in body armor that can protect it while providing a real keyboard for typing.
Made of five layers of polycarbonate plastic and a sheet of stainless steel, the Folio case may have soft rubber bumpers and a textured finish, but its skin is solid and able to absorb or deflect the stress of being dropped or abused. The exterior has a soft grippy surface that actually feels better in the hand than a naked pad and is harder to drop.
At 1.1-pounds, the Folio designed to be used with an iPad Mini is significantly heavier than the pad itself. With the Mini installed, the pair weigh in at a hefty 1.8-pounds and is just over an inch thick, making it much bulkier than an iPad. On the positive side, it’s still smaller and lighter than most mini-notebooks and the Folio case can easily be slipped into the outer pocket of a backpack or briefcase.
You install an iPad into the Folio by squeezing it into and under the case’s flexible silicone edging. It’s a bit awkward and feels like you need three hands to do it, but a pad can be installed or taken out in a few seconds. The two fit together solidly and there are cutouts for all the switches and the pad’s camera. The fit is perfect and the iPad feels like it was designed for the Folio case rather than vice versa.
With the case in place, you can use the iPad like a traditional mini-notebook. It has 16.5-millimeter keys that feel a little cramped, but are a big step forward from using the screen-based keyboard. There’re specialty keys for getting to the iPad’s home screen, playing multimedia and controlling the volume. It lacks a touchpad so you’ll have to use the touch-screen.
A big bonus for those who teach in the dark is that the entire keyboard is backlit. It’s easy to adjust the brightness and Folio gives the choice of seven colors.
At any time, you can grab and remove the screen from the base to use it like, well, a tablet, but with its armor covering all the sides except for the screen. Its magnetic clasp actually grabs the slate when it’s close to the keyboard base.
In addition to using it as a notebook or tablet, the Folio case can also be used in tent and presentation modes as well as holding it like an open book. It can’t be set up flat on a desktop with the mechanical keyboard available as is the case with many convertible computers. On the downside, the screen feels a little loose when it’s being used as a notebook and the Folio case has the tendency to tip over when it’s swiped or tapped too vigorously.
There’s no electrical connection between the pad and keyboard and the Folio connects using Bluetooth. The two linked on the first try and re-established contact many times after that. Even though the keyboard isn’t physically connected to the tablet, it can wake it up by double tapping a key. It will go to sleep when you close the lid and wake up when you open it.
Its lithium polymer battery is more than enough to power the keyboard for two years of daily use, according to the company, and it didn’t fail me over a month of using if for a few hours every day. On the downside, it has only the crudest battery gauge and requires a micro-USB connection to charge it, compared to the lightning plug used for charging the iPad itself. In other words, you’ll need to keep cables for both on hand.
If you’re looking for a way to make iPads last a lot longer, Zagg’s Rugged Folio delivers with the closest thing to making them bullet-proof.
+ Tough case
+ Removable screen
+ Long battery life
+ Backlit keyboard
+ Four computing personalities
- More than doubles size and weight of pad
- Tips over
- Battery requires micro-USB plug
It is ironic, though very helpful for schools, that as Chromebooks get bigger screens, they keep their small size and price tags. Take the next-generation Toshiba Chromebook 2, which will carry a 13-inch screen, but is not much bigger and heavier than a 12-inch system. It has a Celeron processor, 2GB of RAM and a full HD screen for $330, although Toshiba also sells a model with a 1,366 by 768 display for a more budget-friendly $250. Because the Chromebook 2 doesn’t require a cooling fan its battery can handle a full day of school work on a charge.
If you liked the convertibility of Acer’s Aspire R15, but thought it was a bit too unwieldy, the system has two smaller siblings. Both have optional pens but go their separate ways on their design details. The R13 uses Acer’s Ezel Aero hinge that allows it to assume six different computing personas, including the ability to have the screen float above the keyboard. While the R13 weighs about 3-pounds and has a WQHD ultra high-definition screen option that can show 2,560 by 1,440 resolution, it will sell for $900. By contrast, the 14-inch R14 model has a more pedestrian 180-degree convertible hinge and 1,366 by 768 display, has five computing personalities and will cost $600.
With so many cookie cutter Android tablets available for schools, increasingly the differentiator will be the software that is included with the slate. In this regard, Samsung excels with its Galaxy Tab 4 Education. For $369, it provides a well-designed and durable tablet that has lots of software for schools and includes a protective case. In other words, the Tab 4 Education has everything needed to get a good start at school.
The black and chrome Tab 4 Ed is sleek and surprisingly elegant looking for a system that will spend its days – and often nights – at school. Oddly, it comes with a white AC adapter and USB cable that don’t match the system.
Overall, it’s a well-designed and –made tablet that is only 0.3-inches thick and weighs 1.1-pounds. One of the smallest and lightest 10.1-inch tablets around, it’s 5-ounces lighter than Toshiba’s Excite Pure model.
Inside is a 1.2GHz Qualcomm SnapDragon processor, 1.5GB of RAM and 16GB of solid-state storage. Unfortunately, Samsung only sells one model, so there’s no version with 32GB or more storage space. You can use its micro-SD card slot to add up to 64GB of storage for a total of up to 96GB of capacity.
Inside, the Tab 4 Ed has several surprising goodies that can help in the classroom and out. There’s a Near Field communications chip that allows the tablet to exchange data by bumping two units together or print by tapping a suitably equipped printer. It also has GPS for field trip work.
The system provides a micro-USB port for charging as well as an audio jack for a headphone. On the downside, the Tab 4 Ed lacks an HDMI connection for driving a monitor or projector, so it might not make sense as a teacher’s tablet. It does work with a Google Chromecast receiver or Samsung AllCast dongle.
The slate’s 10.1-inch screen provides more than one-third more viewing space than an 8-inch tablet, shows 1,280 by 800 resolution and has protective Corning Gorilla glass. It responds to 10 individual touches and has buttons for the Home page, recent apps and going back.
It can do something other slates can’t. You can pull a second app from the side and run two items at once with a split screen. This is perfect for a teacher to show a video in one while writing comments on the other or graphing a math problem in one window while showing how it might relate to the real world in the other. Someday, all tablets will be able to do this, but for now, only Samsung slates can do a two-for.
On the downside, unlike the Galaxy Note line, the Tab 4 Ed doesn’t come with Samsung’s stylus for doing everything from writing equations or sentences to drawing directly on the screen. The system worked well with a generic pen.
A big bonus with the Tab 4 Ed is that it comes with an Amzer silicone case and has a great set of accessories. To start, any school contemplating using a tablet for testing should get Belkin’s $30 Wired Keyboard. Rather than using Bluetooth to connect, the keyboard has a Micro-USB cable that plugs right into the slate. It doesn’t require any software, is self-powered and has comfy 19.2 millimeter keys.
There is one small sang, though. The keyboard takes up the micro-USB port so the slate can’t be plugged in while the keyboard is being used and needs to run on battery power. It’s a small price to pay because the Tab 4 Ed can outlast just about any test I’ve seen. While playing YouTube videos continuously over a WiFi connection, the system’s 6,800 milli-amp hour battery ran for 8 hours and 5 minutes. That should be more than enough for some classes, a few hours of testing and some afterschool activities before it gets charged for the next day.
Samsung sets itself apart from the educational crowd by its software. In addition to including Hancom Office Viewer that can open a variety of standard files, the system works with a wide variety of Google Education apps and can be set up for an entire class of students in a matter of minutes. At the end of the term or year, the system’s contents can be wiped clean with one click. As is the case with Chromebooks, Google sells a $30 management console that lets teachers, IT staffers and administrators perform remote maintenance and updates on the slates.
It all adds up to a powerful tablet that will fit right into the classroom. Its AnTuTu Benchmark score of 16,213 means that it’s slightly behind the smaller Acer Iconia One 7 and Google’s Nexus 7, but it will be able to handle just about any app that you load and still be able to run another alongside it in split-screen mode.
While the Galaxy Tab Ed kit comes with the industry-standard 1-year warranty, if you buy it through CDW, they will add an extra year of coverage that includes accidental damage for $105. The Tab 4 Education includes a dedicated support hotline with technicians who have been trained in what to expect when slates are used in schools. There’s a dedicated toll-free number.
Samsung has done the seemingly impossible by creating an elegant looking tablet that is not only rugged but comes with the software a school needs to create a digital classroom.
+ Excellent software
+ Good balance between performance and battery life
+ Thin and light
+ Includes case
+ Split screen operation
- Can’t power tablet while using keyboard
- Lacks an HDMI port
$100 Android tablets are old hat, but what about a $100 Windows slate for schools? It’s coming. Toshiba’s Encore Mini is a full Windows slate with a 7-inch display that can do just about everything a full-size notebook or desktop PC can. At 13-ounces, it will likely be the lightest PC around, it feels comfortable in the hand and is powered by a quad-core Atom processor with a scant 1GB of RAM and 16GB of storage space. When it is available later this month, it will sell for $120, but should drop to about $100 by the time 2015 rolls around. Personally, I can’t wait.
There’s no shortage of tablets for school, but the DynaVox T15 actually can talk right to students with special needs. Like the T10, the T15 is made for kids with autism, shut-in syndrome and a variety of impairments. It runs on Android 4 and has a sophisticated speech generator that can read what’s on the screen to students in need of some extra help. The system has a 15.4-inch touch screen, can be used with an access switch and comes with a copy of the company’s Compass 2.0 software.
Who says that notebooks must have an upright screen, keyboard and can only be used on the lap or a desk. Not Dell, because the company’s Inspiron 11 3000 is like a Transformer toy that can change among several different configurations depending on what needs to be done.
The company calls it a 2-in-1, but that’s a modest understatement. In fact, I found that the Inspiron 11 can assume at least five different computing personalities appropriate for schools, plus, I suspect, a few more that I haven’t thought of. Rather than having a removable keyboard base, the magic of the system’s multiple personalities is its sturdy pair of hinges that allows the display to rotate nearly 360-degrees.
While the system can sit on a table or lap like a true notebook, it has a touch-screen that can be rotated, allowing it to be used flat on a tabletop, making it perfect for finger painting or drawing a map. Rotate it farther and the system turns into a tablet; the keyboard, which is underneath is automatically turned off. The screen and keyboard base can also be formed into a “V” shaped tent for group work or with the keyboard pointing down and bringing the screen up so that it can be used for collaboration, presentations or viewing videos.
Going between the configurations is easy and takes little effort. On the downside, the screen wobbles a bit too much when it’s in notebook mode and you swipe or tap it.
At 3.1-pounds and measuring 11.8- by 7.9-inches, it is the right size for a variety of classroom uses from the teacher showing a group about vowels to students using it in a physics lab. The system is only 0.8-inches thick, which leaves more room in the backpack at the end of the day. By contrast, Dell’s similar XPS 11 is a few tenths of an inch thinner and lighter, but is more expensive and its keyboard isn’t as comfortable to type on.
With its AC adapter, the system has a travel weight of 3.6-pounds. This makes it great for going from room to room all day in a bag. Fortunately, there’s a large touchpad and keyboard that has dedicated keys for adjusting the system’s brightness, volume and playing videos. The 18.6-millimeter keys aren’t backlit for projector-based lessons but it’s much better than the screen-based keypads on tablets for typing anything longer than a Web site address.
Its 11.6-inch screen shows 1,366 by 768 resolution, which should be just fine at school, but pales in comparison to full HD displays. It can interpret up to ten independent touch inputs, but sometimes didn’t respond on the first try.
The $480 version that I looked at is priced right in the range that schools can afford. It features a quad-core Pentium N3530 processor that runs at 2.2GHz as well as 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. Dell also has an entry-level $400 model that is built around a Celeron processor.
While it can connect via its 802.11n WiFi system, the Inspiron 11 3000 gets by without a wired LAN port and a Trusted Platform Module for secure remote access. The system has Bluetooth and a good assortment of connection possibilities including one USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0 ports. The Inspiron 11 3000 can run a projector with its HDMI connection, but lacks an old-school VGA port. There’s also a headphone jack and an SD card slot; happily, the card doesn’t stick out.
In addition to a recessed power button, the system has a volume control that is handy regardless of what form the system is taking at the moment. It has an LED that shows its battery status, but not one for system activity.
Above the display is a 720p Web cam that has a microphone on either side. The system has Waves MaxxAudio Pro software that lets you customize the system’s sound. It has a pair of speakers.
For such an inexpensive system, it was a surprisingly good performer. Based on its PerformanceTest 8 score of 716.5, it won’t set any records but can handle just about anything that a student, teacher or administrator can throw at it. Even with a bright screen that delivered 292 candelas per square meter of illumination, its 3,600 milli-amp hour battery was able to power the machine for 6 hours and 40 minutes of continuously playing videos over WiFi. That’s more than two hours longer than Dell’s XPS 11 and more than enough for a full day of school work with something left over at 3PM. The Inspiron 11 3000, however, requires a three-prong outlet to charge up, which might pose a problem in an older building.
All in all, the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 brings together everything needed to make it a success in the classroom and does so at a price that districts can afford.
+ Five computing personalities
+ Right size for variety of tasks
+ Battery life
- Screen wobbles
- Neither VGA nor LAN port
While others are content to stick with outdated processors in their Chromebooks, Acer takes a big step forward with its Chromebook 13 and Nvidia’s Tegra K1 chip that powers it. The processor is up to date in every way with five cores and a high-performance graphics engine. Unlike other Chromebooks, it excels at multi-tasking, which allows users to have several apps running without the system bogging down. Still, the Chromebook 13 uses so little power that it doesn’t need a cooling fan.
It all makes for a slim system that has a 0.7-inch profile and weighs 3.3-pounds, not much more than 11.6-inch Chromebooks. The K1-based Chromebook 13 can be ordered in two basic models with a 13.3-inch display that shows 1,366 by 768 or 1,920 by 1,080 resolution for $280 or $300. They both come with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of solid state storage and there’s an HD version that holds 4GB of RAM and 32GB of storage for $380. The systems can run for between 11- and 13-hours of use – depending on which model you get -- and will be available next month.
With inexpensive 7-inch Android slates dominating the classroom scene these days, Dell has an 8-inch that could be the best compromise between price and size. At $200 (with 16GB of storage), the Venue 8 has an HD screen and is powered by an Atom Z3480 processor that runs at 2.1GHz and has 1GB of RAM; an extra $35 adds a stylus and case. It uses Android 4.4 software and comes with the latest 802.11ac WiFi radio. It weighs less than 12 ounces.