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Thinking with the ThinkPad

Lenovo-laptop-thinkpad-11e-front-3Getting a ThinkPad for students and teachers is no longer an impossible dream because the 11e model is the right size at the right price. Based on an 11.6-inch screen and Celeron processor, the 11e weighs in at 3.3-pounds and comes with 4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive for about $550. The system includes the company’s WRITEit and REACHit apps for doing everything from taking notes to submitting homework assignments.

Best Buy

AspireSwitch11_SW5-171_photogallery_02Every once in a while a system comes along that has all the right parts for schoolwork, and Acer’s Switch 11 is one such machine. It starts with an Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of solid state storage space and has an 11.6-inch HD screen. The display is not only touch-sensitive with 10 independent inputs, but the Switch 11's tablet portion can be separated from the keyboard base or attached backwards for a presentation machine. All told, it’s perfect for a backpack or small bag and weighs just 3.4-pounds and sells for $800.

HP’s Either-Or Tablet

HP EESchool slates are available in Android or iPad’s iOS, but HP has a new idea: Build Android and Windows versions of the same system. The HP Pro Slate 10 EE (Android 4.4) and Pro Tablet 10 EE (Windows 8.1) are like two 10.1-inch peas in a pod, powered by Atom processors and include just about everything needed for class. They each weigh roughly 1.9-pounds and come with WiFi, have Trusted Platform Modules and there’s a passive stylus that has a nice place to store it when it's not in use. They're not identical, however, because the Android version has Near Field Communications (NFC), while the Windows tablet has twice as much storage space at 32GB. The best part is they each have optional snap-on mechanical keyboards available, which can instantly turn them into notebooks or desktop computers. The Windows Tablet EE will be sold to schools for $300 while the Android Slate EE will go for $280.

Just Below the Surface

Sp3 class bTo say that Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablet has had a rough start in life is an understatement in the extreme, with the first two generations rating a loud yawn. The third generation Surface Pro 3 system is, however, a winner that is marred only by its price tag. It has all the power of a desktop or notebook, but is small, slim and light enough to carry from classroom to classroom.

Rather than an 8-, 10-inch or 11-inch screen, the Surface Pro 3 has a 12-inch display, making it one of the largest tablets around. It offers nearly 50 percent more usable screen space than an iPad Air 2’s 9.7-inch display. This can yield dividends when trying to squeeze in several items onto the screen or using the display split into two or three zones with separate apps running on each.

It is sensitive to 10-individual touches and has a 3:2 aspect ratio so it looks shorter and wider compared to other slates. This actually makes it easier to hold in the hand than longer narrower tablets.

With 2,160-by-1,440 resolution, the screen is on a par with the displays used on the current iPad Air 2 and the Nexus 9, but is sharper than the HD screen on the Toshiba Portege Z20t, which tops out at 1,920 by 1,080 resolution. It means that images are not only bright and rich, but you can see details that are obscured on other slates or notebooks. The resolution can be overkill, particularly when connected to an XGA projector, but at some point projectors will catch up.

SurfacePro3Primary_WebThe downside of all this screen space is that the SP3 is a bit big at 0.4 by 11.5 by 7.9-inches, making the Nexus 9 or iPad Air 2 look tiny. It is a little narrower compared to the Z20t system, which uses a slightly larger 12.5-inch screen.

At 1.8-pounds, the SP3 is an ounce heavier than the Z20t. It has a two-prong AC adapter, but unlike smaller iOS- or Android-based tablets, it can’t be charged with a USB power plug.

Rather than the iPad’s and Nexus 9’s choice of three color schemes, the SP3 is only available in a single black and silver design. It does have a big bonus: the SP3 comes with one of the best tablet pens around, something absent on most tablets. Made by N-Trig, the active Surface Pen can help when it’s time to draw or write on the screen with the ability to sense 256 levels of pressure. It not only has an eraser button, but tap the pen’s top button and the screen automatically opens One Note to jot something down. Tap it twice and the system takes a screen shot.

Unlike any other stylus I’ve seen, it can be magnetically attached to the tablet’s right side. Unfortunately, it uses a AAAA battery, which can be hard to find in a pinch.

Around its edge, the SP3 has the bare minimum of connections but it outdoes both the iPad and Nexus 9. It has a full-size USB 3.0 port, an audio jack, a micro-SD card slot and a mini-Displayport connector for video; you will need an adapter to connect with an HDMI or VGA port. Microsoft sells them for $40 each but I used a generic DP-to-HDMI device without a snag.

SurfacePro3kickstandp_WebIt can connect to a large screen wirelessly by using the systems’ WiDi set up. It connected to a Belkin Screen Cast receiver on the first try. Microsoft’s $60 Wireless Display Adapter takes this a step further. Plug it into a display or projector and the SP3 can connect using a Miracast-based link. It requires a separate app to mirror what’s on the SP3 and a USB connection for power, though.

The system can get online with its built-in 802.11ac WiFi radio, but the SP3 lacks a wired Ethernet connection. The system can use a USB converter. The $200 dock is a gem that turns the SP3 into a real desktop PC. In addition to access to 5 USB ports, a wired LAN connection and Displayport video, it has an audio jack for a headset or speakers.

Just put the tablet into place and slide the dock’s side arms in to connect and charge the slate. The dock includes an AC adapter so it can stay on a desk all day and be the single connection point for the SP3 tablet. The surprise is that the left side is magnetic and can hold paperclips, memory keys and even the system’s stylus.

If you get the SP3’s $130 Type cover, it can be converted into the equivalent of a full notebook with a full mechanical keyboard and a touchpad. It comes in five colors and adds 0.2-inch to the tablet’s profile.  

One place where the SP3 stands alone is its unique kickstand. The pull-out leg can be set to any angle between nearly vertical and 150-degrees, making it just as good for finger painting as showing a small group a lesson or Web site. The system has a pair of cameras that point at the user (2-megapixel) and out the back (5 megapixel).

SurfacePen_WebInside, the SP3 is one of the most powerful mobile systems around with the choice of a Core i3, i5 or i7 processor. The Surface Pro 3 systems start at $800 for a Core i3 slate with 64GB of SSD storage space that should be more than enough for most schools uses. The test unit I looked at is a $1,300 model that came with a Core i5, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of capacity, but with the educational discount, it sells for $1,169. The lineup tops out with a system that includes a 1.7GHz Core i7 processor and 512GB of storage space for $1,950.

It may lack the iPad’s slick fingerprint reader, but the SP3 has something few tablets have: a Trusted Platform Module (TPM). This can make logging in remotely fast and efficient, but the SP3 family doesn’t offer the ability to use one of Intel’s vPro super-secure processors or the latest Core M low-power ones.

It all adds up to a powerful system that is paradoxically one of the most portable around.  The SP3 scored a 2,078.3 on Passmark’s PerformanceTest 8 series of benchmarks that work with every aspect of the tablet. That’s at least four-times higher than the typical Atom, Pentium or Celeron tablet available. Its GeekBench 3 score of 5,889 was 50-percent higher than either the iPad Air 2 or Google Nexus 9 tablets, making it the current champ when it comes to tablet performance.

The price of this performance potential is that the system’s back heats up to about 110 degrees Fahrenheit, which is on the warm side. It was able to continuously play back YouTube videos for 5 hours and 7 minutes, about an hour short of the iPad and Nexus 7, but about 20 minutes longer than that of the Portetge Z10t system. It should be just enough for a full day of stop and go computing, but might need a lunchtime quickie charge on heavy days.

Sp3 swAs expected, software is the Surface Pro’s strong suit with Windows 8.1 Pro and access to the huge library of Windows educational and administrative titles that your school or district might already own or license. In other words, using the SP3 as a district-wide tablet can mean minimal software disruption for most schools.

In addition to extensive use of OneNote, I went over lessons in Kno’s e-textbooks, examined hand-written equations and graphs in the included trial version of FluidMath. Later I mapped sentence structure with on the SP3’s screen with Morris Cooke’s Explain Everything app and went over science and math simulations on the University of Colorado’s PHET site. All worked perfectly on the SP3’s screen or when projected for others.

Like so many other systems, the SP3 comes with a 1-year warranty, which turns out to be all-too short for tablets used in schools. Adding accident coverage and upping the length to three years costs a reasonable $150; there is a $50 deductible for a claim, though.

All told, the Surface Pro 3 has gone from an also-ran to be the premier tablet for schools with an emphasis on performance, software and a wide range of accessories. Plus, at roughly the cost of a lesser iPad Air 2, the entry level SP3 makes a lot of sense in the classroom.


Sp3 class

Microsoft Surface Pro 3

$1,169 (with educational discount)

+ Performance

+ Stand

+ Dock and accessories

+ Software

+ Trusted Platform Module

+ Active pen

+ Screen size and resolution


- Price

- Displayport video


A Tale of Two Tablets

Ipad nexus compositeAs the inevitable tablets sneak into schools, the battle between iPads and Androids continues to heat up with new school slates from each side. The latest iPad 2 Air and Google Nexus 9 show how far tablets have come in the nearly five years since the first iPad appeared on the scene. The ultimate winners are schools and students with smaller, more powerful tablets that can be a cheaper alternative to a full PC or Mac.

While the $829 iPad Air 2 is more powerful and can hold up to 128GB of apps, data and lesson plans, the $400 Google Nexus 9 can be had for much less. To start, both slates are as thin as it gets these days and allow just enough room for a headphone jack. While the HTC-made Nexus 9 is 0.3-inches thick, the Foxconn-made iPad has a slightly thinner 0.25-inch profile.

The Nexus is the smaller of the two at 6.0- by 8.9-inches versus 6.6- by 9.4-inches for the iPad, which has a slightly larger 9.7-inch screen. In fact, it’s hard to tell it apart from the Nexus’s 8.9-inch display. Both can show 2,560 by 1,536 resolution and respond to 10 individual touch inputs, but the iPad’s screen has a laminated design that eliminates the air gap between its layers and an anti-glare coating. Despite IPadAir2-3up-PRINTits oleophobic coating, it still picks up just as many fingerprints and both should get a daily cleaning. The Nexus has super-tough third-generation Corning Gorilla Glass and its display does a better job on displaying color and the background white on ebook pages, while the iPad’s display has a slight blue cast to it.

Both are lightweights, with the Air 2 weighing just a hair under 1-pound and the Nexus 9 tipping the scales at 15-ounces. They also each have a tiny two-prong AC adapter and with the included USB cables can be charged by a computer.

As far as holding them goes, both of the slates are well balanced, but I prefer the grippy rubberized coating on the Nexus 9 to the iPad’s cold aluminum skin. Both are available in a variety of colors, from the iPad’s white, gray and gold to the white, gray and black for the Nexus 9. The Nexus 9 has a more solid and rugged feel to it while the iPad has the advantage of adding custom engraving on the back with something like a serial number or school name.

N9-grid3They are noticeably light in terms of ports, but both have 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth and an audio jack built in. Nexus 9 has a micro-USB for charging and computer connections and a Near Field Communications (NFC) zone on the back of the device for instantly moving snippets of data between systems or wirelessly printing. Unlike the Nexus 5 phone, though, it lacks the ability to use a Qi wireless inductive charging system.

By contrast, the iPad has a Lightning plug for power and connecting to a computer. It is light years ahead of the micro-USB plug on the Nexus 9 because it goes in either way, preventing a lot of plugging-in frustration.

Both slates have on-off switches as well as volume-up and -down buttons. The iPad is in the lead with a Home button that doubles as a fingerprint scanner, potentially streamlining starting the system and entering passwords.

Ipad boxEquipped with the latest 64-bit processors, the iPad Air 2’s runs on a 1.45GHz A8X chip, a bit slower than the Nexus’s Nvidia Tegra K1 that speeds along at 2.3GHz. Both have advanced graphics engines with 192-cores for quick video and have 2GB of RAM.

The iPad leads with models that come with 16-, 64- and 128-GB of storage space as well as 5GB of iCloud online storage, while the Nexus 9 that I looked at tops out at an adequate 32GB; there’s a slightly less expensive 16GB model as well. It is augmented with 15GB of online storage for two years that’s perfect for stashing photos, videos and the like. On the downside, neither the iPad nor the Nexus have a micro-SD card slot for expanding their storage potential.

One area where they markedly differ is in audio quality. While the iPad’s speakers point down and sound hollow, the Nexus 9’s speakers are pointed at the viewer and sound richer and fuller.

Their operating systems –iOS 8 and Android 5 – are comparable. The variety of Android- and iOS based educational software is increasing everyday with lots of free stuff available for download. The bonus is that the iPad comes with Pages, Keynote and Numbers and there are free downloads of Microsoft’s Word, Excel and PowerPoint. The Nexus 9 has neither, but comes with Polaris Office and has built-in links to Google’s online Docs.

Nexus 9 boxYou don’t buy a tablet for peak performance, but these systems do a lot with a little, and over the course of a month of daily use, neither let me down. I led classes, read ebooks, did science simulations, ran video conferences and used them to nose around the Web for teaching materials. The iPad led the way with a GeekBench 3 score of 4,001, well ahead of the Nexus 9’s 3,227. Both handled the rigors of classroom work without a problem and while playing continuous YouTube videos over a WiFi link, the two were well matched with the Nexus barely outlasting the iPad with 6 hours and 10 minutes of battery life against the iPad’s 6 hours and 8 minutes. In other words, either will deliver more than enough power for a full school day.

With two so equally matched competitors, it all comes down to price. The iPad Air 2 that I looked at was the top of the line $829 model with 128GB of storage and can get data over an LTE mobile network. It’s clearly matched for the $479 Nexus 9, which comes with 32GB of storage space and no LTE mobile connection. There’s an LTE option that adds $80, but also a $400 16GB version. In other words, there’s a roughly $250 chasm that the iPad has to bridge.

 That’s where the other four iPad models come in. You can get the previous generation Air system for roughly what a Nexus 9 costs or either the original Mini model or the newer Mini 2, which are smaller and lighter than the Nexus 9. In the final analysis, any of these mighty mites will excel at letting teachers teach and students learn, which you get depends on your school’s budget as much as how thin you want to go.

Giving Schools the Business

Tecra-C50-B1500-600-03If you’ve always wanted the security, ruggedness and longevity of a business-class notebook, but thought it was out of the reach of your school’s budget, Toshiba’s Tecra C50 is now within reach of most schools. Not a rebadged consumer system, the C50 doesn’t sacrifice anything and can give you the confidence that it will last for three or four years of daily abuse at school.

 The C50 may not be top shelf, but it is a step or two up from the typical Celeron-, Pentium- or Atom-based systems that schools have been buying lately. The $579 B1500 model carries a mid-range Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM and a pedestrian 5,400 rpm 500GB hard drive. That’s about $100 less than Lenovo’s comparable ThinkPad L540 system.

The B1503 version I looked at was equipped quite a bit better with a 1.7GHz Core i5 4210U processor and sells for $700. When the work gets intense, it can speed up to as fast as 2.4GHz. Both systems have Trusted Platform Modules (TPM), but neither system can be ordered with a vPro processor that could have enhanced security even further.

With a 15.6-inch display that can show 1,366 by 768 resolution, the C50 hits the fat middle of the notebook market and matches the display on the ThinkPad L540. It, however, can’t compare to the L540’s optional full HD screen that adds $170 to its price tag. Neither mid-range notebook offer any touch-screen options. With the exception of photo and image editing, the C50 should suffice. The system uses Intel’s HD Graphics 4400 with 64MB of its own video memory along with up to 1.7GB of the system’s RAM and can wirelessly connect to a screen or projector via Intel’s WiDi system.

With a black striated plastic case, the C50’s design is simple and unadorned, making it easy for the notebook to blend into any school. It has a solid feel that is lacking is so many of its competitors. At an inch thick, the system should fit into the typical student’s (or teacher’s) backpack. Its 14.9- by 9.9-inch frame is, however, fractions of an inch wider and longer than the ThinkPad L series.

Tecra-C50-B1500-600-06It won’t weigh them down either at 4.7-pounds. That’s nearly a pound lighter than the comparable ThinkPad L540. Add in the C50’s AC adapter and it can hit the road with a travel weight of 5.4-pounds, roughly what the L540 weighs on its own. Happily, the Tecra C50 requires a two-prong outlet, which means it will come in handy in older schools with elderly electrical outlets.

Its size means that the C50 includes not only a DVD drive but its keyboard has an embedded numeric keypad, two fallbacks to an earlier and better-equipped age of computing. Although the keyboard has firm 19.3 millimeter keys, they’re not backlit. It has a large textured touchpad.

The C50’s array of ports is a happy surprise for this class of system. In addition to a pair of USB 3.0 and one USB 2.0 connections, the C50 has HDMI and VGA ports for projecting a lesson or connecting to a desktop monitor as well as an SD card slot up front. There’s also an audio jack.

With a wired LAN connection as well as the ability to connect via its 802.11ac WiFi radio, it can move data back and forth with the school’s servers. It comes with Bluetooth 4.0 for connecting with a keyboard, speaker or other wireless accessory.

It may not set any performance records, but the Core i5-powered C50 scored a respectable 1,566.5 on Pasmark’s PerformanceTest 8 benchmark that gives every part of the computer a good workout. That’s roughly three-times the performance potential of an Atom system and twice that of a Celeron or Pentium system. In other words, for most schools, it will be a big upgrade in the performance department.

Tecra-C50-B1500-600-04Still, the system was able to run for 6 hours and 7 minutes of continuously playing YouTube videos on a charge of its 3,000 milli-amp hour battery pack. Unlike many newer systems, you can easily change the battery but can’t do much else with the system, like add memory or change the hard drive.

Showing where it will end up, the C50 comes with Windows 7 Pro installed, which should suit most schools, many of which are only now just leaving the XP era of software. The system can be upgraded to Win 8.1 Pro with the included discs. There are other programs included, such as Toshiba’s PC Health Monitor and the Cooling Performance Diagnostic Tool, which runs a 23 minute routine to check on the system’s fan. It’s great for looking into overheating problems.

How Toshiba is selling the C50 is a break. It won’t be available on the company’s Web site, so you’ll have to buy the system through resellers and a handful of online outlets, like CDW.

Although Toshiba provides a one-year warranty, not the typical three-years of coverage that business systems usually get, if you get it through CDW, a full three-year warranty adds just $63. There’s a twist to the warranty: if the system has a major failure in the first six months, the company will replace it. This makes the Tecra one of the best school systems around.



Toshiba Tecra C50 B1503



+ Inexpensive business system

+ Good configuration

+ Windows 8.1 or 7

+ Excellent battery life and performance

+ Warranty

+ Includes DVD


- No touch screen available



Touch on a Budget

TravelMate_B115 Left Angle Open Windows 8Using your fingers doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. Acer’s TravelMate B115 notebook has an 11.6-inch screen that shows 1,366 by 768 display resolution and responds to 10 independent touch inputs and has an anti-glare coating. Weighing about 3-pounds, the B115 is about an inch thick and comes with a 1.8GHz Celeron N2940 processor, 500GB hard drive and 4GB of RAM for $379.





Thin is In

Man using HP EliteBook 1020 in the officeHP’s EliteBook Folio 1020 is among the thinnest and lightest systems around and seems custom designed for district executives who need to travel between schools. The base Folio 1020 system uses conventional materials and weighs an impressive 2.7-pounds, but the real gem is the 2.2-pound 1020 SE model, which has a carbon fiber and magnesium-lithium case; it’s 0.6-inches thick. Both systems are powered by the latest Core M processors, solid state storage and have 12.5-inch ultra HD screens, although the SE model doesn’t have a touch-screen option.

Little Big Phone

Nexus 9 H Image aAs tablets get smaller and phones get bigger, they are meeting in the middle with devices like the Nexus 6. The Motorola-made Nexus 6 is one big phone, that’s for certain. It barely fits into a shirt pocket, occupies 6.3- by 3.2- by 0.4-inches and weighs in at a hefty 6.5-ounces, nearly 30 percent bigger and half an ounce heavier than the iPhone 6 Plus

Still, it feels good int eh hand, but its curved back menas that it wobbles if you use it on a desk. The system’s 6-inch AMOLED screen is one of the best and brightest displays around and can show 2,560 by 1,440 resolution, putting it at least two steps ahead of the iPhone 6 Plus’s Nexus 6bdisplay. Made of Gorilla Glass it should stand up to punishment and the phone has a pair of cameras front and rear that can create 2- and 13-megapixel images.

Powered by a 2.5GHz Snapdragon 805 quad-core processor, 3GB of RAM and 32- or 64GB of storage space, the Nexus 6 uses Google’s latest Android 5.0 software and will cost $650 when it is introduced later this year, although you can get it for a lot less with a two-year service contract.

The Tablet that Projects

Yoga 2 w projectorFlexibility and strength are the watchwords for yoga as they are for Lenovo’s second-generation Yoga convertible tablets. The Yoga Tablet 2 uses Android 4.4 software and is powered by a quad-core Atom Z3745 processor that runs at between 1.3- and 1.9GHz, 2GB of RAM and 32GB of solid state storage. Its 13-inch screen is about as detailed as they get these days with the ability to show 2,560 by 1,440 resolution. It has Bluetooth, 802.11ac WiFi and can be a standalone tablet, a traditional notebook or a presentation machine, yet weighs 2.1-pounds.

It may be bigger and heavier than other tablets, but the Yoga has a secret for teachers: in the thick cylindrical hinge, the Yoga 2 Pro has a micro projector. It can create up to a 50-inch image in wide-VGA resolution, but is rated at only 50 lumens, so the lights need to be off. It costs $500.



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