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The LIttle Big Chromebook

Chromebook2It 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.

The R15’s Smaller Siblings

Acer R 13 - R7-371 angle to rightIf 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.  

Bringing the Galaxy into the Classroom

600x600_19With 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.

600x600_27The 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.

600x600_21It 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.

 

A

600x600_20

Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 Education

$369

 

+ Excellent software

+ Good balance between performance and battery life

+ Thin and light

+ Includes case

+ Split screen operation

+ NFC

 

- Can’t power tablet while using keyboard

- Lacks an HDMI port

 

 

Yet Another Encore

Encore-mini_WT7-C8-tablet-420$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.

Talking Tablet

T15-angleThere’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.

Inspiring Choice

Inspiron11_3000Who 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.

Inspiron11_3000_6With 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.

Inspiron11_3000_7In 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.

A

Inspiron11_3000_2

Dell Inspiron 11 3000

$479

+ Price

+ Five computing personalities

+ Right size for variety of tasks

+ Performance

+ Battery life

 

- Screen wobbles

- Neither VGA nor LAN port

 

Top Speed Chromebook

Acer Chromebook 13 CB5-311_AcerWP_start-bar-02While 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. 

Tegra K1 Die Shot (1)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.

 

An Extra Inch

MaxPNGWith 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.

 

 

Tidying Up those Tablets

Gc35538_powerdock5_1The biggest downside of the digital classroom is all the portable gear that now inhabits schools, from notebooks and phones to tablets and speakers. If only there was an inexpensive way to organize and store the gear while it’s charging. Enter, Griffin’s PowerDock 5 Charging Station + Storage, which at $99, can end slate chaos, at least as far as warehousing goes.

The design is ingeniously clever. Inside the 5.1- by 8.3-inch stand is a 50-watt power supply that sends out five streams of 5-volts of electricity to power and charge all sorts of devices; each device can grab up to 2.1-amps while connected. On the side are five USB outlets, which line up with the storage rack’s opaque plastic dividers that hold the devices.

The Charging Station does the rest, doling out power to each and every system. It works with tablets, phones and even portable hot spots. In fact, it can power just about anything that uses a USB-power plug.

Gc35538_powerdock5_3All you need to do is put the devices in between the dividers and plug their power cords into the USB outlet on the side; it can’t power devices that don’t use USB power. The computer rack can comfortably accommodate a variety of slates in their cases, from both iPad models, and just about any Android tablet up to those with a 10.1-inch screen. Beyond that, the charging rack gets unwieldy.

The result is that rather than having a warren of power strips and extension cords, each Charging Station can neatly store and consolidate the electrical cables for five systems into one power cord. Happily, it uses a two-prong plug, so the system works easily in older schools with antiquated wiring.

Over the source of several weeks, the Charging Station worked well, powering a variety of gear and never got more than warm to the touch, even when it was charging two iPads, an Android tablet, a Windows tablet and a Samsung hot spot. It can work with devices up to about an inch thick and everything fits in neatly.

The best part is that the Charging Station can put an end to leaving the classroom at night with stacks of tablets charging with individual power adapters. While the typical classroom will need five or six Charging Stations for a one-to-one arrangement or two or three if the devices are to be shared, they don’t take up a lot of precious shelf or table space and have soft rubber feet so they won’t scratch a countertop.

Gc35538_powerdock5_8If the gear travels to the kids, the Charging Station stand can be used on a cart. When it’s time to start digital school work, it’s easier and safer for students to grab a system from the rack rather than from a pile of slates or a shelf.

Because of the variety of items it works with, the unit doesn’t come with the charging cables you’ll need, but you likely to already have them. The problem, and it’s a small one for schools, is that with the tablets and the power outlets next to each other, you really don’t need cables that are 3- to 6-feet long. My advice is to either buy some shorty cables or get Velcro tie-wraps.

In fact, its only shortcoming is that you can’t stack the Charging Station units to make best use of a classroom’s limited space. Griffin and others, make cube-shaped storage systems that can be stacked, but they cost a lot more than the Charging Station’s $99, which is one of the best classroom bargains available today.

 A+

Gc35538_powerdock5_7

Griffin Technology PowerDock 5 Charging Station + Storage

$99

+ Neat, efficient storage for five tablets

+ Full USB charging

+ Works with iPads and other tablets

+ One power cord for up to five tablets

+ Inexpensive

 

- Can’t stack units

The System Mover

Carrier30_01Getting a class’s tablets from A to B isn’t as easy as it seems, but lockncharge’s Carrier system can help. The big part is a lockable cart that can store and charge up to 30 mobile systems at once, from Chromebooks and small notebooks to Android and iPad slates. The small, but deceptively useful, part is a small plastic basket. It can hold five systems at a time. Just grab it and pass the systems out. The equipment should be out in the fall.

 

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