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Freebee Friday: Chromebook Test Drive

C731tLooking to try out Acer’s latest rugged Chromebook? The company is offering trial loaner machines to schools at no cost, all you have to do is apply and then listen to a call with their marketing people. A few weeks later, a Celeron-powered C731T touch-screen Chromebook will arrive to try out. There’re neither shipping fees nor any obligation to buy any systems, making this one of the best freebees we’ve seen.

More iPad for Less Money

Ipad-201703-gallery1The latest iPad is like a breath of fresh air by replacing the Air 2 line at a steep discount. The updated 9.7-inch iPad is powered by the latest A9 processor, has enough battery to last for 10 hours of use and comes in silver, gray and gold. It combines iOS software with access to more than a million apps, many of which are free educational programs. It comes with 32GB of storage, WiFi and Apple’s Retina 2,048 by 1,536 resolution screen. Starting on Friday, it’ll be available for $329, $309 for students and teachers and $299 for schools -- at least $70 less than the retiring Air 2.

Super Secure Systems

CyberWith hackers seemingly hiding behind every server or WiFi access point, digital security is as important as door locks and video surveillance at schools. It might start with strong passwords and having an air-tight network, but the digital safety of every schools often comes down to the systems a district buys. These two notebooks are among the most secure available today, but neither skimps on the ability to teach or learn.

Which you choose depends on whether you value keeping malicious software out of your school or you want to make it easier to log in. Personally, I think all new system should have both of these advances built in.

X360 g2HP’s EliteBook X360 1030 G2 just might be the most secure convertible notebook ever created. It not only has a fingerprint scanner, Trusted Platform Module (TPM) and HP’s SureStart method of not allowing the system to start up with suspect software, but adds the company’s new Sure Click security feature. Sure Click supplements malware protection by running any newly opened Web browser window in an isolated virtual machine within the processor, essentially cordoning it off from the rest of the computer. That way, if it contains malicious software, it can be shut down without any detrimental effect to the computer. The Windows 10 system weighs just 2.8-pounds, yet has two USB 3.0 and one Type C ports along with an HDMI connection and audio jack. There’s a 13.3-inch HD screen, your choice of a Core i5 or i7 processor, 8- or 16GB of RAM and 128-, 256- or 512GB of solid state storage. It comes with a Wacom pressure-sensitive stylus and starts at $1,700.

Galaxy Book 12in Silver_3Meanwhile, Samsung’s 2-in-1 Galaxy Book should give it competition for most secure status. The Windows tablet not only lets you log onto your system via a wireless link with your phone, but has a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) for remote log-ins. The Galaxy Book lets you link your phone to it via an NFC (Near Field Communications) to Bluetooth connection that is encrypted in Samsung’s Flow software. Just swipe your finger or enter your password on your Android phone and the Galaxy Book system picks up from where you left off. An evolutionary step up from the Tab Pro S, the Galaxy Book continues as a tablet with a snap-on keyboard cover. On the other hand, it’s not a one-size fits all system, with 10.6- (1,920 by 1,080 resolution) or 12-inch (2,160 by 1,440 resolution) Super-AMOLED screens. They’ll all run Windows 10 software, but the 12-incher will use a Core i5 processor while the 10.6-incher will have a Core M3 chip; both have at least 4GB of RAM and either a 128- or 256GB solid-state storage module; the smaller Galaxy Book also will have a 64GB option. The larger Galaxy Book has a pair of USB C ports, a micro-SD card slot and Samsung’s S-Pen for writing or drawing directly on the display, while the smaller Galaxy Book makes do with a single Type C USB port. The good news is that rather than an expensive option, each Galaxy Book comes with its backlit keyboard cover. It’s coming in the spring.

Thems (Not) the Breaks

Acer Chromebook 11 N7 (C731) right facing Google menuIf notebooks always seem to be breaking before their time, Acer’s Chromebook C731 Chromebooks have been designed to last and last. The system can not only stand up to drops of up to 48-inches and being shaken but its keyboard can shrug off 11-ounces of water spilled on it. Water miraculously drains through a pair of holes underneath. It meets the most important of the Army’s Mil-Std 810G requirements for rugged computers.

Acer Chromebook 11 N7 smallPowered by Google’s Chrome operating system, the C731 can’t run Windows software, so it is limited compared to PC systems. With an expected software update later this year, it will be able to work with most Android apps, including the free versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Inside, the system has a Celeron dual-core N3060 processor, 4GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, which should be adequate for most school work. The $230 C731 has a standard 11.6-inch wide-XGA screen while the $280 C731T adds the ability to interact with it via a 10-point touch interface. Either way the C731 weighs less than 3 pounds and has a full day’s worth of battery power.

Any Which Way You Can Dock

HorizontalDockMacBookPro201615TB_LP_R9The dearth of docking stations designed for Apple’s MacBook Pro notebooks is at an end with the latest pair of devices from Henge Docks. They not only have the same dark gray industrial design of the current systems, but work with everything from the 13-inch MacBook Pro (with or without the Touchbar) to the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. They should be out in a few months.

Starting at $499 the  Horizontal Docking Station lets you connect to a variety of accessories by placing the notebook into the dock, while still being able to use its screen and keyboard. The dock has more than a dozen ports and can Horizontal hengedrive four separate screens while connecting to a wired network, HDMI, audio and SD cards. The dock not only charges the system’s battery, but give access to your choice of a pair of USB-C or Thunderbolt ports.

The company does a flip with the Vertical Docking Station that is simpler and starting at $149, it's much less expensive. Slide your system into the dock and it can connect with a display, keyboard and mouse. You get pass-through access to two USB-C connections.

Chuck the Keyboard

A12Is Lenovo’s Android-based Yoga A12 a mini-notebook or a tablet? The answer is a definitive yes. One of the first systems to replace the mechanical keyboard with Lenovo’s touch-sensitive Halo surface that has the outline of the keys, the A12’s 360-degree hinge allows it to be a traditional notebook, tablet or upright presentation machine. You tap it just like a regular old keyboard, but since the keys have no height, the whole A12 can be slimmer and lighter. First used on a Yoga system, Halo includes haptic buzzing feedback as you type and learns your style of typing to improve its response. The A12 system weighs under 2.2-pounds, despite having a 12.2-inch HD screen. The $300 system is powered by an Intel Atom x5 processor and comes with 2GB of RAM and 32GB of storage.

Big Books

Samsung 9With the choice of 13.3- and 15-inch screens, the latest generation of Samsung Notebook 9 systems provide a huge amount of freedom of choice for schools looking to outfit an entire campus. Both have the same slimline design, the latest Core processors from Intel and the luxury of HD screens. They top out at 1.8- and 2.2-pounds for the 13.3- and 15-inch systems and have batteries that can be topped off with an extra two hours of charge in just 20 minutes of being plugged in. They fully up to date with the combination of a pair of USB 3.0 as well as a USB-C port, HDMI and audio; the larger 15-inch model also has an older USB 2.0 port.

Dock City

Henge cWith the right docking station an iPad can be transformed into a desktop computer that works better for stationary classroom tasks like writing and viewing video. All you need to do is snap the pad in place and you have all the amenities of a full computer, like USB and audio connections. The Henge Gravitas Mobile Dock can inexpensively turn a recent iPad or iPhone into a mini desktop.

Its brushed aluminum finish matches the look and feel of current iPad’s industrial design, but the Gravitas dock is made of a specially alloyed zinc alloy that’s nearly three-times denser than raw aluminum. This not only gives the Gravitas dock a more substantial feel, but it should stay put on a desk and provide a stable base. Its bottom has a thoughtful rubber base so cables won’t pull it around.

At only 3.5-inches across, the Gravitas dock works with most recent iPads and iPhones. The package comes with two inserts so that the Gravitas dock will fit everything from an iPad Mini or iPad Pro, Air and Air 2 to an iPhone 6, 6s, 6s Plus or the newer 7 and 7 Plus models. It can also work with iPads that are held in slim covers. 

Henge bUsing the Gravitas dock couldn’t be easier. Just plug the USB cable into the back of Gravitas and either an AC adapter or a computer if you want to synchronize the software on the pad or phone. Then, slide the phone or tablet directly into the dock’s opening and press it into the dock’s built-in Lightning plug. On the downside, none of the Gravitas docks work with older iPads that use the long narrow 30-pin port.

It has a well-placed indentation so you can easily get to the device’s Home button, but the dock lacks the magnetic guides that the Logitech Base Dock has. Regardless of whether you use an iPad Mini, large Pro or an iPhone, the device sits about 1.5-inches above the table top with the device held securely at an angle of 82-degrees. This makes it easy to read and tap the display, but the iPad can wobble when it’s been tapped, it must sit in portrait mode and its angle isn’t adjustable. 

Henge dWith an audio-out port and a USB connection, the dock can be used to drive a set of speakers, charge and synchronize the pad while it’s in place. Because the Gravitas’s audio connection lacks a volume control, Henge advises against using it with a set of headphones, but it worked fine for me.

The package includes a USB cable that can be plugged into an AC adapter or a computer, but Gravitas lacks a way to connect an external monitor or projector. While you can’t directly plug a keyboard and mouse in, a Bluetooth keyboard, like the Logitech K-780 that I used, should do just fine.

At $69 ($88 with an extra 12-watt AC adapter), the Gravitas dock is a bargain that can go a long way to turning any recent iPad into the equivalent of a desktop computer. It works particularly well with the large-screen iPad Pro. On the other hand, it includes only a 90-day warranty – hardly inspiring for a device that will need to stand up to the daily use and abuse at school.

Still, the ability of the Henge Gravitas Mobile Dock to turn recent iPads and iPhones into desktop computers makes it the best – and most stylish – place to stash an iPad.

A-

Henge a

Henge Gravitas Mobile Dock

$69 ($88 with AC adapter)

+ Solid heavy base for iPad or iPhone

+ USB and audio-out ports

+ Works with recent iPads and iPhones

+ Comes with USB cable

 

- Short warranty

- Can’t adjust angle of screen

- No video-out port

Tablets on the Cheap

Tablet compositeMaybe you don’t need to get and expensive tablet to fill your school with digital education. The truth of the matter is that there are now inexpensive alternatives that are just as rugged and powerful, but cost much less. A case in point is the latest two-in-one systems from Asus, E Fun and Insignia, which all deliver Windows 10 for less. They also include the snap-on keyboard that can turn the tablet into a fully-functioning notebook.   

Which of the three you get depends as much on your school’s need for long-lasting systems, how big a screen is right for your classrooms and how much – or little – they cost.

                                EFun Nextbook Flexx 9

NextbookThe NextBook Flexx 9 is the value choice among tablets, which lets districts deploy more for less or specify that this is what parents should buy for their children. The Windows 10-based system starts with an 8.9-inch wide-XGA screen and includes a quad-core Atom processor and a scant 1GB of system memory that will likely prove to be too little. You get 32GB of solid state storage and the ability to add up to a 64GB SD card if that’s not enough.

The system should be able to run for a full school day in light of its 4,900 milli-amp hour battery pack. It provides the minimum as far as connections goes with a full-size and micro-USB ports. The system has a micro-HDMI connection for plugging into a monitor or projector and you can get online via its WiFi and Bluetooth systems. All told, at $98, it is the bargain of the school year, particularly in light of its inclusion of Office Mobile. 

Insignia Flex 11.6" 

4421400_saIt may not include a stylus but Insignia’s Flex 11.6” tablet does a lot for $200. Based on a quad-core processor, the Flex comes with Windows 10 preloaded and 32GB of solid state storage capacity, which can be augmented with an SD card. It has USB 3.0 and HDMI ports for connecting with the world.

With the largest display of the three tablets here, the Flex’s HD display can present material in full 1,920 by 1,080 resolution, something the others can’t. The system comes with 802.11ac WiFi and Bluetooth for online work. It lacks the pull out stand of the T102HA but the Flex has a snap-on keyboard that just might be the most comfortable of the three to use, is 0.4-inches thick and weighs 1.8-pounds.

              Asus Transformer Mini T102HA C4 GR

T102haAt $279, it might be more expensive, but the Asus Mini T102HA takes the idea of spending a little more to get a lot more to the extreme. It also uses a quad-core Atom processor, but its wide-XGA display is 10.1 inches, in between the larger Insignia and smaller EFun systems.

It allows you the luxury of 4GB of RAM as well as 64GB of solid state storage. Like the other two tablets you can add more with an SD card. The system can connect with 802.11AC WiFi and the latest Bluetooth 4.1 accessories and it has a thoughtful loop for holding the stylus while it’s not being used. The T102HA’s pull-out back leg allows the system to sit up on its own, something most tablets can’t do. For those who like the personal touch, the T102HA’s keyboard not only snaps into place, but can be had in four colors.

The system’s metal case is strong and rugged and the whole thing weighs in at about 1.8-pounds. It comes with a full-size USB 3.0 port, the T102HA has a micro USB port and a micro-HDMI connection for a projector or display. A big step forward is the systems fingerprint scanner, which can be used to log into a network, online storage facility or Web site. 

Freebee Friday: One Program to Rule Them All

ParallelsThe notion that PCs are PCs and Macs are Macs is an outdated idea with the advent of the ability of Parallels Remote Application Server 15.5 to virtualize apps for a wide variety of platforms. It works with clients ranging from PCs, Macs and Chromebooks to iOS, Android, Linux, Windows Phones and even Raspberry Pi systems. This is all without sacrificing ease of use, security or the touch control that makes each system unique. The software is constantly monitoring use to balance the resources among users. It’s free to try the server software out for a month with 50 user licenses.

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