A summer IT buyer's guide, Part 1: Hardware for K12 schools

A summer IT buyer's guide, Part 1: Hardware for K12 schools

Summary: This is the first of an eight-part series on our favorite thing to do during the summer: spend our budget before it gets cut!

TOPICS: Tablets

The new academic fiscal year is upon us, many of our students have left for the summer, and all there is to keep school IT staff company is a stack of purchase orders and a few surly janitors. Some of the purchases were set in stone months ago, especially those related to infrastructure that are eligible for E-Rate reimbursement. Many others, though, are just loose requirements and guidelines. In this first part of an eight-part series on IT purchasing for the upcoming year, we'll take a look at several bits of hardware that should be on everyone's short lists for consideration. Software and service recommendations will be coming soon. Spend those budget lines on July 1st before the budgets get frozen and cut in October!


No, the PC isn't dead. It's breathing is a bit shallow, it's pulse a bit thready, but students still need to be able to sit down in front of something with a keyboard and monitor. They need to be able to write papers, produce videos, develop presentations, and much more. I've always been a fan of thin clients as substitutes for PCs in mainstream productivity settings and there are some very interesting options available. 1:1 is becoming a standard in districts that can afford it (although many are opting for tablets instead of laptops) and more than a few schools are discovering the joys of media labs with high end workstations. And if you didn't tap E-Rate this year, there are still decisions to make about infrastructure to support all of that computing goodness.


I'm going to lump laptops, thin clients, desktops, and workstations together under the "Personal Computer" category. Here are my top picks: Lenovo is growing fast as a PC provider for schools. Their laptops are durable (their Thinkpads are tanks built for enterprise applications, but can be pricey; both their IdeaPad and Essential lines are very solid, reasonably-priced choices for laptop carts and 1:1 applications). There are a variety of snappy choices that are small enough for primary grades and powerful enough for secondary students. Lenovo desktops, though not as well known as their laptop lines are also generally very cost-effective choices. I have yet to meet a Lenovo I don't like. There are cheaper choices, but I've met plenty of Acers and their ilk that I definitely don't like (or that don't like the abuse students and teachers dish out). And even their new ultrabooks are within reach of many schools.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Intel's Learning Series for K-8 applications. In particular, the Convertible Classmate is a great choice if students and teachers want a touch interface but tablets come out lacking in the way teachers want to use the machines. A strong ecosystem of related hardware and software for science, robotics, and more is readily available. Check out the Learning Series Page for vendors.

I've come to love workstations. They aren't cheap, but if you're interested in teaching professional content creation or allowing students to really explore design and multimedia, there is no better choice. These aren't for 1:1; they're for dedicated media labs or IT/graphics/design programs in vocational-technical schools and are powerful enough to ensure that students spend their time creating rather than waiting or avoiding software that chugs on mainstream PCs. My top picks are all from HP who have an incredibly comprehensive lineup.

I used the Z1 All-in-One workstation at an Adobe workshop a couple of weeks ago and was blown away by its performance and form factor. This thing begs to go in a computer lab. An Elitebook Mobile Workstation is my primary portable machine. It's no ultrabook, but if you need serious multimedia power on a cart or as a 1:1 solution for students in appropriate voc-tech shops, it's a great choice. Finally, their small form factor Z210s remain outstanding desktop workstations, particularly if you already have usable monitors and are just looking to upgrade hardware.

Thin clients remain great choices for increasing the PC footprint in a school inexpensively and in an easy-to-manage platform. Dell recently purchased Wyse and has a wide selection of everything from zero clients (essentially dumb windows into multi-user PC or server) to mobile "cloud PCs" for complete desktop experiences.

Userful isn't as well-known but has several interesting Linux-based solutions for thin clients and multiuser computing. Their software can handle everything from desktop lockdown to computer and lab scheduling and students can have


I hesitate to recommend tablets for most school settings because, too often, they're gadgets rather than teaching tools. Too few people have taken the time to really develop good teaching models around them. And yet, tablets can be really compelling for young people and teachers alike. New apps are emerging all the time and interactive textbooks get better and more plentiful by the moment. So, regardless of the current state of teaching with tablets, I'm going to throw out two recommendations.

The iPad 3 has a brilliant display, a huge apps ecosystem, and is incredibly fast. It isn't necessary for everyone and the last thing I want to see is taxpayer dollars giving 4th graders latest-generation iPads. That being said, the new iPad has powerful use cases for simulations, study resources, assessments, and more. And the display has the added benefit of being easier on the eyes for long periods of reading than any I've ever used.

In many cases, though, the Intel StudyBook represents a great choice for students of all ages. Science apps are included and accompanying hardware can be had from multiple vendors in the Intel Learning Series ecosystem. It's not the fastest tablet and there's no retina display, but it's inexpensive, rugged, and already has learning models and tools built around it through Intel's research and professional development.


Interactive whiteboards and projectors have become key pieces of instructional technology in many classrooms. Although too many function as glorified whiteboards or movie screening tools, there is a huge amount of content available, both from vendors and created by teachers that can guide their use in the classroom.

Vendors worth checking out? Luidia, Dell, and InFocus all deserve a look. Luidia in particular has rolled out some great tools to leverage tablets with their inexpensive hardware and software solutions.

Coming soon: K12 software

Topic: Tablets

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Hmm...

    Not choosing Mac for professional content creation? Seems weird. We also like iLife/iWork in K-12 (KS1-KS2 in the UK).
    • crap

      sorry no government to pay for your i-carp here.
    • ...mmH

      Choosing Mac is fine for that application, yes.

      Of course, you do have to consider that Macs aren't the cheapest thing out there (especially for the hardware), they aren't typically rolled out to Joe Student (as that would be a tremendous waste of money), and they lack the horsepower that you need for stuff beyond standard image manipulation and making videos in iMovie (i.e. rendering images).

      Plus, as soon as you're using a program that's available on Windows on a Mac, you've thrown your advantage away (due to the power and cost disparities).

      They aren't general-purpose computers, which is what the topic of the article is.
      • Where do you get your information?

        First, Many School districts and businesses have found TCO on Macs cost-competitive with PCs. Second, in what way does a 2.4 GHz quad core i7 let a lone a 12 core Xeon, "lack the horsepower that you need for stuff beyond standard image manipulation and making videos in iMovie (i.e. rendering images)"
        There is a reason that Macs reign supreme in many digital rendering houses.
        Finally, the idea that because a program is available on both platforms that there is suddenly parity is a joke only someone who has not used a particular program on both platforms would believe. The idea that audio editing on a Windows machine is equivalent to audio editing on an OSX box is ridiculous. The idea that digital image manipulation on low cost PCs with Photoshop is equivalent to using the same app on the Mac would only come from someone who does not work in the field, where colour accuracy and proper gamut are not just luxuries, they are indispensable.

        And how, pray tell, are Macs not "general purpose computers"?!? Clearly you know next to nothing about the platform, so why are you posting your thoughts?
        • You aren't making good comparisons either

          Of course the previous poster didn't know what he was talking about but...a few corrections are in order. You know that the Mac pro does not use a "12 core Xeon" right? That it is actually a two socket system with a six core Xeon in each socket right? And you also know that Dell, HP and many others will sell you a Windows 7 machine in the same configuration, right?

          So you are making the comparison between a top of the line Mac Pro Vs a "low cost PCs with Photoshop" which isn't particularly relevant. Of course at the dual socket Xeon level of performance, the Windows machine will cost just about the same as the Mac Pro. But when comparing like machines at like prices, yes there is parity.

          As far as color accuracy etc, that has more to do with the display than it does with the computer itself. There again, don't compare Apple's top of the line $999.00 panel with the $150 panel from Best Buy. Here again, the equivalent display from another manufacturer will probably cost you just as much...but they are available. And if you really wanted to, you could hook up the $999 Apple panel to your HP workstation.
        • Update...

          Just checked the Dell Web site and discovered you can get the T7600 workstation with Dual 8 core Xeon's for a total of 16 cores - and yes, buy the time you get done configuring one of these it will be north of $10K but if you are talking about top of the line power, there you go. If you try to configure a Mac Pro the same way other than two less cores - you will once again come out at about the same price. All I'm saying here is compare apples (Apples) to apples - not the 12 core Mac pro to your basic windows desktop.
        • MAC Comment

          MACs are great for video editing etc. but for general purpose use there is little difference between MAC and PC, and it does come down to TCO where the PC is lower than the MAC. The info you have above is plainly wrong and only applies to a certain class of device.

          I can comment as I am conversant with both platforms, but clearly at an Enterprise level (and this is where Education needs to be..not at boutique level), then you use the best tools for that space....which for now are in the MS space....

          I still would use MACs in niche areas though.....

          What cornpie says is pretty accurate as well in my opinion.
  • The choice should be driven by standards

    What would be most helpful is a list of activities to be done and the standards which will be supported to accomplish that goal.

    For example, all documents will be delivered and received in Open Document formats. Perhaps Adobe PDF formatted documents are acceptable. The school and/or student can choose anything they want as long as it produces Open Document and PDF formatted files.

    This might not be the right policy for every school, but there should be some policy.

    The school might decide to have a web host service that will produce documents according to their policy. Documents would also be available and submitted through a web server. Put HTTP and HTTPS in the list.
    • The choice should be driven by standards

      and by actual REQUIREMENTS too.....
  • Windows shill

    nuff sed
    • Windows shill?

      William Farrel
  • not

    god i hope no one takes this advice.seems you are pointing folks to more than they need for thier kids .how about a acer laptop that can be used at home and at school or any of the other companys who have sub 400 dollar laptops?.not every one can aford much more than that and most cant even pay that. why not do what a lot of smart folks are doing buying refurbish systemsfor thier kids.and remember 40 percent of dont even have internet services so a laptop would be the way to go so aleast they could go were their is free wifi to do home work.
    • what not

      Your posts serves as a potent warning of how important it is to not drop the ball on our children's education.
  • Tablets are not for schools

    Too often, the battery is glued in (Apple are you listening?) and that is a waste of tax payer dollars. In addtion, assesment on a tablet is difficult at best .
  • How, exactly, is that a waste of taxpayers' dollars?

    You make this statement categorically, as if it is just true, per se. It is not. There are many advantages to non-removable batteries, especially to organizations like schools.
    In what way is assessment difficult on tablets. Did you really expect these statements to go unchallenged?
    • batteries

      Non-removable I like....the issue of serviceability is another issue
  • What About the Livescribe Smartpen?

    It would be interesting to use a device that helps students study and avoids distracting functionality of other devices (i.e. browsing web, listening to music, texting, etc.)