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Fabulous Phablet

IMG_20150813_114641Samsung’s Note5 straddles the worlds of large phones and small tablets with a super-portable device that puts the emphasis on the pen. That’s because the Note5 comes with the latest version of Samsung’s S-Pen, which not only allows teachers to mark-up items on the device’s 5.7-inch display, but it feels great in the hand. Its super-sharp quad-HD screen is bright and very rich, yet the Note5 is smaller, and at 6-ounces, is lighter than its predecessor. It not only comes with 4GB of RAM and the latest LTE mobile data abilities but can record and show 4K videos. The wild card for the Note5 is that there’s an optional snap on keyboard that puts it in the same class as RIM Blackberry phones. It’ll be available in a week.

Gen 4 Savings

IPadAir2-iPadMini3-Lockscreen-PRINT2You’re ready, your students are (reluctantly) ready, but are your tablets ready for school? Mac to School has reconditioned iPad 4 tablets ready to ship out at between 25- and 50-percent less than what new ones go for. All have been cleaned up with all worn or broken parts replaced so they are as close to new as possible. At $300 for a 16GB iPad 4, your school could save a bundle.

Surface Protection

Stm duxWhile the third generation Surface Pro 3 Tablets are pretty tough, they still demand a protective cover like STM’s Dux case. Made of aluminum, polycarbonate plastic and reinforced corners, the Dux case weighs just 5 ounces yet can keep dropping a Surface slate tablet from becoming a digital tragedy. Installing the case takes a minute and it doesn’t get in the way of the tablet’s ports, camera, kickstand or snap-on keyboard.

Double-Duty School Slate

Tosh encore 10Built around a bright 10.1-inch screen, Toshiba’s Encore 10K has been designed for school use. At $479, the Windows 10 tablet includes a snap-on keyboard making it just as good to use as a slate as at a notebook. Inside, the system has an Intel Atom x5 quad-core processor and 64GB of solid state storage space as well as WiFi and Bluetooth.


Small Wonders

Quantum  PC Stick aIf you think that micro-computers, like Acer’s Revo One are about as small as PCs gets these days, meet Quantum’s Access Windows Mini PC Intel Stick. At $130, it is not only about as cheap as a computer gets but it can go places and do things that other computers can’t.

Similar to Intel’s Compute Stick, the nano-sized Mini PC Stick is clothed in black, measures 4.3- by 1.5- by 0.5-inches and is no bigger than a pack of gum. It weighs just 3.3-ounces and can fit into a pocket. Rather than having the Intel device’s prominent vent holes, the Stick has a wavy rippled pattern on its surface. The stick’s single LED that goes from red to blue when it starts up.

As far as connections go, it’s slim pickings with a full size USB 2.0 slot as well as a micro-SD card reader and two micro-USB connectors, one of which is for powering the PC. It comes with an AC adapter, but you the micro PC can be powered by a display’s USB port and the system worked with a generic USB hub for connecting to a variety of devices, although the hub was on a par with the size of the computer itself.

Like Intel’s Compute Stick, the Quantum system is powered by an Intel Atom Z3735F quad-core processor that runs at up to 1.8GHz. It comes with 2GB of RAM and a generous 32GB of solid state storage space, but neither is upgradable, although a micro-SD card can give you more space for everything from lesson plans and videos to a gradebook and years’ worth of saved emails

Quantum  PC Stick dThe key to its unique abilities is that the stick has a full-size HDMI connector for plugging into just about any recent display. Behind the scenes, the system has Intel’s HD Graphics video engine with 64MB of dedicated memory. It can use up to 978MB from the system’s RAM.

It was perfect for doing anything from turning an old monitor into an all-in-one computer to adding a PC to a projector, turning it into a connected display capable of directly running an interactive app or Web lesson. Although it doesn’t include a keyboard and mouse, the Stick can connect with any off-the-shelf device, regardless of whether it’s wired or wireless. The system has Bluetooth 4 and 802.11n WiFi built in along with an adjustable antenna, but lacks wired networking; it worked with a generic USB-to-Ethernet adapter.

It all adds up to reasonable, though not stellar, performer that should easily fit into the educational landscape. It scored 504.3 on Passmark’s PerformanceTest 8.0 series of tasks. This puts in on a par with many tablets and small notebooks that are popular with schools. Its ability to get and process HD video was surprisingly good with smooth streams with well synchronized audio.

The best part is that it uses just 3 watts of power so that even if it’s left on 24/7, the system will use less than $7.50 a year worth of electricity over a year. If you’re looking for a minimalist computer that can be put anywhere, Quantum’s Stick does the trick. 


Quantum  PC Stick b

Quantum Access Windows 8.1 Mini PC Intel Stick


+ Tiny micro PC

+ Reasonable performance

+ USB connections

+ WiFi with antenna

+ 32GB of storage space


- Requires micro-USB power

- Doesn’t include keyboard or mouse

How Low Can You Go?

YK3uvhZHiJ3w8HVLH369gIZvcnIk4O9vG9b72BSe4mEIf you’re Acer, how does $170 sound for what they are calling an 11-inch Cloudbook. Rather than Chrome, the Cloudbook 11 uses the latest Windows 10 software, has an 11.6-inch screen and comes with things like a one-year subscription to Office 365 and 100GB of online storage space for the base models and 1TB for the high-end ones. At 0.7-inches thick and 2.5-pounds, it should easily fit into a student’s backpack and has USB, HDMI and audio connections as well as an SD card reader. Powered by an Intel 1.6GHz Celeron N3050 dual-core processor, the basic Cloudbook 11 comes with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of solid-state storage space; the $190 upgraded version has room for 32GB of all sorts of files.

_yHBIkljChTosfKJ2n3p6zpoatYFaND_GhwVeAq4HgMRather than skimping on amenities, the Cloudbook is surprisingly well equipped with 802.11ac WiFi and Bluetooth. In addition to stereo speakers, it comes with a dual-microphone array, but the 1,366 by 768 resolution screen is non-touch, a small price to pay to get to the enviable $170 price tag for the entry-level machine. There’s also a 14-inch version for $200.


Trash to Treasures

Mac to schoolIf your IT staff and teachers have lusted after Apple Macbooks, xServers, iPads and iMacs but the budget doesn’t allow it, there’s another way to equip a school with the computers it needs. Mac to School is a unique organization that acquires, refurbishes and sells a variety of Apple gear to schools for about half of their original price tags.

While many of Mac to School’s wares are upwards of four years old, most look as new as when they were made and will fit into an exclusive Apple or mixed IT landscape. That’s because after the company acquires the systems, it rehabs them physically as well as electronically to as close to new condition as possible.

In fact, Mac to School also runs a repair facility for Macs with certified Apple technicians. After wiping the drive clean, technicians run diagnostics on all its major components, including the processor, display, hard drive, networking gear, ports, battery, Bluetooth and keyboard. They replace or repair any worn or bad parts and fix cracks, scratches and physical defects.

When it’s ready, Mac to School’s technicians put the latest software on the system and can load a custom image, if you like. About the only thing they don’t do is run a burn-in test overnight or over a 24 hour period to look for overheating or intermittent faults.  

UnnamedThe result is that the systems are pretty close to new. Maybe a little better because they have the latest software and patches that can help with performance and security issues.

The company has everything from iPads and MacBooks to Minis, iMacs, MacPros and they even sell classroom packages with carts. On the downside, what’s available is determined by what the company can buy used and you might need to wait until they can get what’s needed. At any time, you can check their inventory to see what fits into your needs, but you’ll have to email them to check on pricing.

The pay-off is that the refurbished systems are generally available at about half of their cost new. All of the company’s products include a 1-year warranty, but customers can get an extra two years of coverage for about $150. Unfortunately, the company doesn’t lease any of its gear to districts who want or need to account for computers as a monthly expense.

I took a look at four Mac to School systems – two MacBooks and a pair of iPads – and found that they were an effective way to fill a school with quality computers on a tight budget. I was astounded that each looked like it was brand new. In fact, they were in much better shape than anything I have that old.

Each came with the original equipment AC adapter, but there were no manuals included; you can get them online. In fact, the biggest faux pas is that one iPad came with the wrong charging cable, but that’s easily fixed.

MacbooksAs far as the MacBooks go, the Air and Pro that I looked at were up to snuff for the most intense classroom and homework with systems that performed without a flaw on typical school tasks for a week. I used them to create, view and share documents. All the ports worked, they ran well on battery power and had Geekbench 3 scores of 1,810/2,858 and 2,272/4,752 on the benchmark’s single- and multi-core tasks. This is on par with their original scores and the Pro model’s scores were very close to a brand new Core M-powered PC notebook, despite being four years old.

On the downside, the Pro and Air’s 13.3- and 11.6-inch screens show 1,366 by 768 and 1,280 by 800 pixel resolution and use Intel’s HD Graphics 3000 with either 256- or 288-MB of RAM dedicated to video. Even today’s entry-level notebooks have more powerful graphics engines, access to more video memory and higher resolution.

The iPads aren’t as old with second- and fourth-generation systems. Still their 9.7-inch screens pale next to the latest iPad Air2 with its fabulous Retina display. Still, they perform as if they were straight from the Apple Store with Geekbench 3 scores of 262/498 and 770/1,413 for single- and multi-core scores.

As to price, the systems are nothing short of a bargain compared to when they were the latest and greatest. For instance, while the revamped Air and Pro go for $400 and $700, when they were new they cost closer to $1,000 and $1,500. And the refurbished iPad2 and 4 models at $200 and $300 used to go for $629 and $529. That adds up to between a 40- and 70-percent discount. In effect, a school or district can roughly double their purchases by buying used equipment.

IpadsA slew of schools from coast to coast are discovering the cost savings by getting refurbished systems. For instance California’s Fullerton School District saved $50,000 when it outfitted schools in a one-to-one deployment while Texas’s Trinity Independent School District cut the bill for computers from $42,000 to $30,000.

If all this sounds like a good technological Plan B that can save a pile of cash, there’s one important aspect to take into account. While they were state of the art two or three years ago, today the refurbished computers’ components and specs are below typical entry level systems. In other words, they run the risk of becoming obsolete in a year or two.

Still, getting refurbished systems from Mac to School can help fill classrooms with computers for much less. 


Mac to school all 4

Mac to School Refurbished Apple systems:

MacBook Pro (MD313LL/A): $700

MacBook Air (MC968LL/A): $400

iPad 2 (A1395): $300

iPad 4 (A1458): $400

+ Roughly half of price when new

+ Refurbished inside and out

+ Latest software installed

+ 1-year warranty with extended coverage available

+ Good variety of models available

+ Performance


- Danger of becoming obsolete


Third Time, the Charm

029_RedIf Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 is too much tablet for your school at too high a price, it now has a little brother that just might be the best Windows tablet to date. While it could still stand to shed an ounce or two, the Surface 3 packs a lot of punch for everything from teaching a math lesson to using reading comprehension software.

Like the Pro 3 and unlike the original RT Surface model, the Surface 3 uses a full version of Windows 8.1 and can run a wide range of general-purpose and specialty education apps. At 1.3-pounds, the Surface 3 is half a pound lighter than the Pro 3 model but 5-ounces heavier than the current iPad Air 2, although the Surface 3 provides a much larger screen than the iPad. It feels good in the hand, never gets more than warm and should be fine for a day of teaching or learning.

Add in the $130 snap-on Surface 3 Type Cover keyboard and you have a 2.1-pound package that is the equivalent of a mid-range notebook or desktop computer. Available in two shades of red and blue as well as black, the keyboard cover has 18.5-mm keys, although the Tab and tilde keys are smaller than the rest. Plus, like its predecessors, the shallow keys take some getting used to. A nice design touch is that the Type Cover is lined with soft felt on the bottom so you won’t be scratching up a library table.

A big bonus is that rather than the Pro’s proprietary power adapter and magnetic connector, the Surface 3 can use a USB adapter with a micro-USB cable, although with a peak power consumption during charging of 13-watts, you should use the included adapter. It should work with most charging carts and enclosures designed for Android and iOS devices.

021_sequenceThe Surface 3 is only 0.3-inches thick, just a hair thicker than the iPad and a tenth of an inch slimmer than the Pro 3. With its unique fold out stand, the Surface 3 is excellent on a tabletop, although using it with the keyboard on a lap can be awkward. It can be set to three angles (22-, 40- and 60-degrees) rather than the Pro’s stand that can be adjusted to just about any angle from nearly flat on the table to almost vertical.

The 10.8-inch display may not be up to the iPad Air2’s 2,048 by 1,536 resolution, but it is more than an inch larger, making navigation and work much easier on the eyes. Its HD imaging should be more than enough and is a big step up for those used to XGA displays. One of the brightest screens around, the Surface 3 uses Intel’s HD Graphics accelerator.

Its 10-point multi-touch screen is not only responsive and accurate, but with the $50 optional Surface Pen, it becomes an art tool with 256-level pressure sensitivity. The pen uses an AAAA battery and comes in colors that match the keyboard.

Pen_v4_001_RedThere’s a shirt-pocket clip at the top of the stylus that conveniently can attach the pen to the keyboard, but there’s no way to attach it to the tablet. That’s where Microsoft’s Surface Pen Loop comes in. Essentially, a piece of fabric that can be attached to the side of the tablet to hold the stylus in place when it’s not in use, the loop comes with the pen, matches the keyboard’s colors and extras cost $5.

It is tightly integrated with OneNote and can do a magic trick in the classroom. Click the button on the top of the stylus and OneNote pops up for quickie scribbles or twice to automatically save the current screen.

Inside, the system is powered by an Intel Atom x7-Z8700 quad-core processor that runs at between 1.6- and 2.4GHz. The $600 model I looked at includes 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage space, but the more popular one at schools will likely be the $500 one that has 2GB of RAM and 64GB of space.

Regardless of which you get, the Surface 3 includes some cool goodies. In addition to a year of Office 365 and 1TB of online storage space with OneDrive, the system comes with an hour of Skype time per month.

It has the basic connections you’d expect from a tablet, with a single USB 3.0 port, mini Displayport and the ability to use a micro-SD card. It has a headphone jack, WiFi and Bluetooth, but no wired LAN port; it worked fine with a USB-to-LAN converter.

The port selection can be augmented with Microsoft’s $200 Surface 3 Docking Station, which is money well spent for teachers and computer labs. In addition to charging the system, the dock can connect with a wired LAN and has four USB ports, two of which are the newer USB 3.0 type. There’s also audio jack and a second mini-Displayport jack.

Its performance isn’t as stellar as the Core processor-powered Pro systems, but is good enough to rate a 775 on Passmark’s PerformanceTest 8 benchmark. That puts it solidly in the middle of current systems. Its battery pack powered the system for a reasonable 6 hours and 40 minutes of continuous video playback over a WiFi network. That’s an hour and a half longer than the high-performance Surface Pro 3 but about an hour short of the iPad’s abilities, but plenty for a full day of sustained school work with a little left over at the end for grading or homework.

004_SilverThe system I looked at came with a 1-year warranty and Windows 8.1, but includes a free upgrade to Win 10 when it comes out, just in time for the 2015-16 school year. It might seem ironic (and a bit of a tease) in a world where you’re likely still using Windows XP (or at best Win 7), but this might be the impetus needed to start the transition.

While I admire its starting price, the costs add up quickly if you want the full package, which I think will be the case with teachers. With the keyboard cover, stylus and dock, the complete system comes to nearly $900. The good news is that Microsoft gives teachers and students a 10-percent discount if you get the Surface 3, cover and pen.



Surface 3

$450 with educational discount

+ Price

+ Beautiful display

+ USB power

+ Stylus

+ Includes Office and online storage

+ OneNote integration


- Gets expensive with accessories

- Heavy




The All-Day Chromebook

Cb 311aThe beauty of Chromebooks at school is that there are now a couple dozen models on the market to choose from, with a variety of screen sizes, processors and even a few with touch-screens for fingertip control. Acer’s Chromebook 13 CB-311 takes this variety a step farther with a 13-inch screen along with a new low-power processor that does better on battery life than performance.

At 0.7- by 12.8- by 8.9-inches, the all-white Acer Chromebook 13 is a lot of computer, compared to the latest 11.6-inch models. It weighs 3.2-pounds on its own and with its matching AC adapter, it travels at 3.7-pounds, roughly a pound heavier than the CB-311’s smaller cousins. Still, it easily fits into just about any backpack or school locker.

The system’s white case makes a statement – whether it wants to or not – compared to the black or gray Chromebooks that seem to be everywhere in schools. It looks great and I can imagine that kids will immediately see the CB-311’s surface as a sticker magnet. It also has more trouble hiding dirt and smudges than darker systems.

While it is well-designed and -made, the CB-13 lacks the reinforcements and ruggedized features that some of the latest 11.6-inch models have. Inside, the CB-311 uses a 2.1GHz Nvidia Tegra K1 processor. Based on ARM’s Cortex A15 hardware, it has four computing cores in addition to an innovative processing section dedicated to power-saving that helps it to get every last minute out of its battery.

Cb 311cIts 13.3-inch screen can show HD resolution, but can neither fold flat on a desk nor has a touch option as is the case with Acer’s and Dell’s 11.6-inch Chromebooks. Unlike many of its peers, the CB-311 comes with a high-power graphics engine that is descended from gaming computers. It has 192 computational cores.

At $300, it is a genuine bargain that is priced like many systems with smaller screens, such as Samsung’s Exynos-powered Chromebook 2. But, for those who need to cut back, there’s also a very economical $225 model that is identical, except that it has a more conventional wide-XGA screen.

In addition to 2GB of RAM, the system has 16GB of storage space, which should be plenty to get through a school year. If that’s not enough, you can add capacity with the SD card slot and the CB-311includes 100GB of online GoogleDrive storage space for two years. After that, it’s about $24 a year.

It has great connection potential with two USB 3.0 ports (one in the back and one on the side) as well as full-size HDMI and audio jacks. While the system has 802.11ac WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0, like most Chromebooks it does without a wired LAN connector. It worked fine with an off-the-shelf USB-to-Ethernet converter for those who like being tethered to the network.

Cb 311dThe CB-311 has a large touchpad and a responsive keyboard with white lettering on 19.5-milimeter black keys. They’re comfortable to use, but aren’t backlit, which would have been an advantage during projector-based teaching. It also lacks Dell’s latest innovation, the student activity light that can signal the teacher that attention or help is required. 

Above the display is a Web cam that can capture 1,280 by 800 resolution video streams and should do just fine for Web journals, video conferences and even snapshots of a lab. Unfortunately, the CB-311’s speakers point down onto the desk and can sound dull and muffled.

While this points to a powerful Chromebook for tackling the classroom’s toughest teaching tasks, there’s something missing: performance. While it does OK and handled all the apps I threw at it, the CB-311 lacks the speed and command that are available with Chromebooks like Dell’s Chromebook 11 and other non-Tegra-based Acer systems.

For instance, it took 10.2-seconds to start the CB-311 up, 3-seconds longer than Acer’s C720p model and scored 1,323 and 614.5 miliseconds on the Peacekeeper and SunSpider benchmarks. That translates into roughly half the performance potential of many other mainstream Chromebooks.

The payoff is that its 3,200 miliamp-hour battery pack was able to continuously play WiFi-based video for 9 hours and 10 minutes. That’s more than twice what many other Chromebooks can run for and more than an hour and a half longer than the newest Dell or Acer 11.6-inch Chromebooks.

That could mean that with the CB-311, you might no longer need to carry the AC adapter with you and always be on the look-out for AC outlets for a quickie charge. With luck, you might even be able to get away with charging the system every other night. That sounds like a good lesson plan to me.



Cb 311b

Acer Chromebook 13 (CB-311)


+ HD screen

+ USB 3.0

+ 100GB of online storage

+ Nearly 10-hours of battery life

+ Quad-core processor


- Low performance potential


Two Sizes Fit All

Ideapad_100_14_Black-8-OutlookAs penny-pinching administrators and IT folks stock schools with 11.6-inch notebooks, 14- or 15-inch systems have come down in price. The latest entry is Lenovo’s Ideapad 100, which has 14- and 15-inch models that start at $250. The systems include a Pentium N3540 processor that can be paired with up to 8GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. Either screen can show up to 1,366 by 768 resolution and use Intel’s Graphics HD system. They come with the right assortment of ports, including USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports as well as HDMI, audio and networking. It comes with 802.11n WiFi as well as Bluetooth 4.0. The good news is that it all fits into a modestly sized case that weighs a tad over 4-pounds for the 14-inch model and just over 5-pounds for the 15-incher.



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