Ed Tech Battle Royale: Tablets and netbooks and hybrids, oh my!

Yes, tablets will kill netbooks. And I still say Windows 7 feels antiquated and unintuitive versus Android and Ubuntu.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

A couple weeks ago, I mentioned that Dell had sent me three of their flagship educational products for review. At the same time, I received a Motorola Xoom WiFi tablet for the day job. Given that Dell had sent a netbook, a hybrid convertible tablet, and a 7" Streak tablet, the Xoom's 10.1" form factor rounded out a perfect test of the state of the art in ed tech personal computing. With my wife looking suspiciously at the rapidly multiplying devices, cords, and adapters, I set out to put these devices through their paces, letting my kids and colleagues beat on them mercilessly (well, not so mercilessly on the Xoom since I can't send that one back).

Obviously, a hardware test featuring Dell and Motorola is hardly all-inclusive. There are plenty of other players in the ed tech personal computing game (perhaps most notably after Google I/O, Samsung and Acer with their Chromebooks which beg for a school that has embraced Google Apps for Education). However, the trend towards tablet usage, the popularity of the convertible netbook segment created by Intel's Convertible Classmate, and the ongoing debate over the value of netbooks (ruggedized or otherwise) means that this shootout represents the most important form factors across much of K12. We'll look at actual notebooks later and decide where their value lies in secondary education.

Click here to view a gallery of the hardware I've been abusing for the last month.

Dell Latitude 2120

Let's start with the exact hardware. Dell sent me a Latitude 2120 netbook in a lovely shade of "Schoolhouse Red." Honestly, I think my favorite feature of these netbooks is the dodgeball-style rubberized covering that won't fingerprint, won't slip out of kids' hands, and protects the machine from bumps and drops. It's a bit heavier than many netbooks, but the chunkiness is never a bad choice for younger users.

Dell largely markets these machines to K-8. While the spill-resistant keyboards are best-suited to juice-box laden children, they're not bad choices for older students either. The keyboard may not be the best for 17-year old football stars, but it's quite usable. Most likely, though, the Latitude will find niche users as tablets take over the world (more on that in a bit).

The 2120 I have, for example, sports a high resolution touch screen. It's a resistive touch screen, so it's no iPad with a keyboard, but many kids with development disabilities can handle a touch interface while their instructors and aids can make use of the keyboard. The touch screen works out of the box with Ubuntu Linux 11.04 as well as the included Windows Vista (yes, really, and no, I don't know why they're still shipping Vista) and the optional Windows 7.

The 2120 can also be had with antimicrobial keyboards and may be the only netbook that I would let my 17-year old take to school with him (he's done in 3 of them so far, including a convertible Classmate, but needs to type his work). It's a pretty tough little machine. I didn't let him test the tablets. He's not coming anywhere near my Xoom.

This ruggedization doesn't come cheap (but prices are in line with comparably equipped Classmates). My model with the high-res touch screen, 2GB of RAM, Win 7 Professional, and a dual-core Atom processor topped out around $600. They are, however, Latitudes, and Dell not only expects 4-5 year lifespans, but continues to produce replacement parts and compatible docking accessories for much longer than they do for their other lines. Carts for the netbooks are quite cost-effective and include management utilities for the docked machines, so there is definitely value here. You simply have to decide if netbooks are the right choice or if tablets really will take over the world.

Next: If you're hedging your bets on the tablets... »

Dell Inspiron Duo I really love the Dell Inspiron Duo. I've always had a soft spot for the convertible Classmate and this is very much a natural evolution of the convertible netbook in a snazzy consumer skin. None of this turning the screen around nonsense for Dell. Check out the video:

Cool, right? The video screams consumer, though, and this very slick little netbook is not for sticky-fingered, juice-spilling 8-year olds (although my 8-year old, who tends not to be terribly sticky) adopted my test unit immediately. This netbook, however, would be right at home on a middle or high school student's desk and its tablet mode feels very iPad-meets-Windows-7. That's actually not a particularly bad thing, especially when so much educational software still hasn't ported to iOS or Android.

It's a great book reader in tablet mode, multitouch works wonderfully, the screen is extremely clear and bright, and (I know, most of you are dying to hear about this) Ubuntu 11.04 also works really well out of the box. So well, in fact, that I stopped bothering with Windows 7 and just enjoyed using a touch screen with the Unity interface of the latest Ubuntu release. Again, though, I'll get back to the whole Windows 7 thing later.

So what's not to love? Dual core or not, the processor remains an Atom and this remains a netbook at heart. The keyboard is quite comfortable, but large-handed older students will still feel a bit confined for extended typing. It also will not support some of the more advanced processing that some students will need to do. Finally, to accomodate the flipping screen, the bezel is quite thin. It has a tendency to flex while you're carrying the computer. Like I said, it's not ruggedized. This is a consumer device that just happens to work very well in educational settings.

And that's really the key. I wouldn't hesitate recommending it to most parents looking for a really practical iPad alternative for their kids and, quite frankly, would probably recommend it over iPads for school deployments, too, especially for older kids. It has a keyboard, is thin and light enough to feel iPad-ish, can run a variety of Windows software (or Edubuntu), and supports gestures and touch just like a real tablet. And it starts at just $50 more than a base iPad. If I was to "lose" (wink wink, nudge, nudge) one of the items that Dell sent, it would be a very tough call between this and the Dell Streak.

Keep reading to find out why »

Dell Streak 7
Although my 8-year old was drawn to the Inspiron Duo, all of my kids (and their friends, and even my wife) wanted to use the 7" Dell Streak.

I can't blame them. It has an incredibly clear and bright screen, performance is excellent (a dual-core Nvidia Tegra processor will do that for you), and it has just about every bell and whistle from GPS to accelerometer to dual cameras that you could want. It even has optional 4G available pre-paid on T-Mobile (which, when you can find service, is mighty fast). With WiFI only, it's only $399 and the pre-paid 4G only adds $50. 7" for the original netbooks was tiny, but on a high-resolution screen with an UI optimized for small touch screens, it's quite effective.

Fast hunt and peck is possible in landscape mode on the virtual keyboard and thumb typing is natural in portrait mode. As with most Android devices, the predictive text is so good that you can enter text pretty quickly.

The only problem for me is that this device feels fairly redundant with a large-screened smartphone. I'd actually be inclined to just use the Streak with a Bluetooth headset for my phone full time if it supported voice calls other than Skype. It isn't so big that it couldn't go in a large pocket but the large screen is a significant improvement over my phone's 3.7" screen. It isn't, however, enough of an improvement to warrant carrying both on a regular basis or paying for data usage on both.

This is largely an adult problem, though. The average student doesn't have a high-end smartphone. The Streak is more portable than larger competitors, relatively rugged (the screen, for example, is made of Corning Gorilla Glass), and the entire unit feels very backpack worthy. The screen is large enough to make content consumption (and creation, though not with large amounts of text) a vastly better experience than on an iPod Touch and, no matter what Steve Jobs says, the 7" form factor is a great in-between for students.

The Streak is running Android 2.2 which was initially a bit disappointing. However, seeing how many compatibility issues exist with Honeycomb (Android 3.x), this didn't turn out to be much of a disadvantage. It remains a pleasure to use and is the tablet of choice in my house.

Next: It might be my kids' tablet of choice, but... »

Motorola Xoom

While my kids and their peers might generally prefer the form factor of the Streak, my loyalties lie with the Motorola Xoom. It isn't necessarily a better device. Aside from size and Android version, the two are quite similar in terms of hardware. They even both have that Gorilla Glass that is particularly difficult to damage.

Where the Streak looks like a PSP or other handheld gaming system, the Xoom can't be mistaken for anything other than a tablet. No one will wonder why you have a phone in one hand and a Xoom in the other, To be honest, I often do. The Xoom is a perfect information resource while I'm on the phone, giving me easy access to everything from my email to high-resolution pictures from the web or a camera, to a separate video conference. The size of the screen makes the Xoom useful in ways that even the largest-screened phone just can't be.

I didn't expect to like the Xoom for the same reasons I never jumped on the iPad bandwagon. With the falling costs of thin, light laptops, what did the Xoom or iPad really buy me, anyway? I have a phone, I have a laptop. Why would I want a mashup of the two?

As it turns out, I now take my tablet everywhere and often leave my laptop behind. My tablet can shoot movies, hook me in to video conferences, and I'm actually getting close to being able to touch type on the virtual keyboard. I'd rather read and review documents near their full size and surf the web with a full touch interface and plenty of room (and speed) for tabs galore. Product demos, videos, and interactive sites are a lot better on a large tablet than on a phone and there are those who would argue that the large touch screen is actually more conducive to many learning and teaching activities than a laptop that gets moved from desk to desk or stays tied to a projector.

I'm well on my way to becoming a tablet convert, but what about students and teachers?

The size of the Xoom (and iPad for that matter) lends itself to teaching far more than the 7" Streak. Whether you're taking attendance or guiding a group through a web-based activity, a larger tablet, though still extremely portable, is also easier to see in a group setting. Passing the Xoom from person to person beats doing the same with a laptop any day. The form factor simply encourages interactivity.

The 7" tablet actually does the same, but having used both for quite a while now, I'm convinced that bigger is generally better from an instructional point of view. I hear larger Streaks are on the way, though. It would be very easy to envision a 10 or 11 inch Streak with an instructor and a room full of 7 inch Streaks that students are using for everything from real-time feedback via TweetDeck to blogging or audio/visual/textual documentation of science experiments.

This isn't to say that students will only want mid-sized tablets and teachers will only want large tablets. As this market matures, competition breeds choice, allowing teachers and learners to use the devices that suit their needs best.

Interestingly, Dell is developing administrative utilities to manage a wide variety of portable devices that are making their way into schools. They are looking at not only controlling a heterogeneous computing environment from a single console but finding ways to integrate Xooms, iPads, Streaks, and whatever else might walk into schools. This allows that personalization and choice I mentioned above and, more importantly, allows parents with the means to do so to buy the device that is most appropriate for their kids (or most affordable). Dell's ambitious project is even looking to remote deployment of apps in heterogeneous environments.

Next: So what's the take home message? »

Wrap-up My desk is covered with cool, useful hardware. When I leave my work cave, my bag is filled with cool, useful hardware. And I can think of all sorts of ways to use this hardware in school. The question is, which hardware represents the best value and utility for your students and teachers?

This ed tech hardware roundup has shown me a couple of things:

  • Tablets remain useful, but most often where you have specific needs for a keyboard, ruggedization, or managed deployments. The Latitude 2120's greatest strengths are its manageability and lifespan.
  • Windows 7 is old school. I want it to start predicting text for me and scale well to a variety of screen sizes. I want the touch support to be truly intuitive and natural and the virtual keyboard to be exceedingly usable. Windows 8 had better look and feel a lot more like iOS and Android. Or at least like the latest incarnation of Ubuntu.
  • Ubuntu is, so far, the best mobile-meets-desktop OS. It's beginning to combine the best features of both in an easy-to-use, easy-to-install distribution.
  • 7 inch or 10 inch, all that talk of tablets cannibalizing netbook sales is completely realistic outside of certain niche use cases
  • Unless, of course, the netbook converts to a tablet like the Inspiron Duo. Lenovo and Asus are getting into this game as well and there's good reason for it. Personally (and I know a lot of people will disagree with me), I'd rather see Android or Ubuntu running on them than Windows to take better advantage of the form factor, but these represent a very nice compromise between the two.

As often happens in these sorts of comparisons, there is no real winner except for schools and the students who attend them. The four devices I looked at represent 4 distinctly different choices that schools have to better and more individually meet students' needs. Just make sure you know what those needs are before you run out and buy a bunch of Inspiron Duos because they're "the best of both worlds" or a fleet of Streaks because they're fairly cost effective in a 1:1 deployment. Who knows? Maybe you'd even be better served by iPads.

Or not.

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