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

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!
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

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.

Userfulisn'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

Editorial standards