Edu netbook shootout, Round 1

These netbooks still represent compromises in many ways vs. traditional notebooks. However, portability and durability make them well-suited to a variety of educational environments.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

I seem to be accumulating netbook demo units, all of which have features that set them apart from one another, despite similar underlying hardware. The latest generation Intel Classmate and Dell 2110 are both long-term demos, letting me do everything from travel to teach with them, as well as getting a variety of kid impressions of the two units.  The HP Mini 5102 hasn't been with me as long, but certainly long enough to compare it to its netbook brethren. So what makes one more suited to education than another? What models add the most value and why? We're about to find out.

Check out the gallery for more images of the netbooks in this shootout.

This isn't a completely apples to apples comparison. While all are based on Intel's PineTrail chipset and two are marketed exclusively to educational markets, the models in this shootout have different configurations, options, and prices. That's OK, though -- Given that much of their Intel-sourced hardware is so similar, it's a fair comparison to evaluate which netbook as a package is best suited for students or a particular segment of the educational market.  I'll evaluate them based on a few major categories: Value/Price, Performance, Form/Function/Usability, Standout Features, and Target Audience.

To start, I'll just summarize their features (as tested; most have a variety of configurable options):

So about those prices... »

None of these netbooks are the $269 specials we've come to associate with Atom-powered netbooks. Instead, they use the somewhat anemic Atom platform as a basis for meeting educational needs. As a result, they allow us to access more premium features like touch screens, multitouch trackpads, Windows 7 Professional, hard drive G-sensors, and other bits of ruggedization at prices that remain relatively attainable for educational institutions.

And while Atoms won't exactly blow your mind with their performance, all of the netbooks in this shootout provide all-day battery life with normal usage. Just what is normal usage in a netbook designed for 1:1 use with students of all ages? Accessing the Internet goes without saying; using e-books and other materials provided electronically by teachers, taking notes, writing, building presentations, collecting data from scientific probes, interfacing with interactive whiteboards, communicating and collaborating with teachers and peers, and running math software from spreadsheets to graphing utilities all fall within expected use cases. All of the netbooks in this shootout are up to these tasks, although those with 2GB of RAM can obviously handle more of the tasks at once.

On to the comparo - Value/Price »

Value/Price As I mentioned, none of these are cheap netbooks. However, where else can you get a convertible tablet PC running Windows 7 Pro for under $700? That also happens to include a variety of educational software and can interact with SMART boards out of the box? Or how about all-day battery life for around 3 pounds? Systems management utilities? A hardware ecosystem that includes charging and management stations or science probes and software validated with the netbooks? You get the idea.

All of these netbooks have some sort of value add over a standard netbook (or even cheap notebook) that helps justify the price. When looking to these "premium netbooks," though, for your student deployments, ask whether inexpensive full-size notebooks, thin clients (mobile or stationary), or even desktops might serve your students' needs as well or better. You may very well conclude that the netbooks are the way to go, but be prepared to rationalize the relatively high prices for little laptops.

That being said, the hardest cost netbook to justify here is the HP. While a multitouch screen is cool and intuitive for kids, it's simply another input method for clicks and zooms. Because it remains a clamshell laptop, much of the truly usable tablet-y goodness in the Classmate is lost. This feature is also quite cheap to add, meaning that deleting it doesn't save much on the bottom line for the 5102. The Dell 2110 also has a touch-screen as an option. Skip it and go for the high-resolution LCD option.

The 5102 still feels like an executive netbook, not something that should be jammed in a kid's backpack. In fact, here's how HP describes it:

Mini Executive. Maximize your mobility with the lightweight HP Mini 5102, available in three fashionable colors (red, blue or black) with touch capabilities for easier navigation, Face Recognition for easy log-in, and Corel® Home Office.

True, it has a spill-resistant keyboard and its aluminum shell makes for some extra durability, but in a fight, my money is on the Dell or the Classmate. Even though the HP is the cheapest of the bunch, it's the least valuable from a K-12 education standpoint. College kids looking for an easily portable second machine wouldn't do badly looking here, but could probably get what they need out of something much cheaper than any of the netbooks described here.

The Intel Classmate is the most expensive and, as a fully convertible tablet with a host of kid-friendly features, a solid hardware stack included, and a large ecosystem of hardware and software vendors creating products for the Intel Education platform, isn't as tough a sell as its price tag might suggest. It is arguably the most ruggedized, although its slower processor and lower RAM makes it the least future-proof out of the box (not that anything is future-proof these days), but at least the RAM is an easy and cheap upgrade. The sheer versatility of the device and the utterly transformative way I've seen kids use it and adapt it to their learning makes it nearly as valuable educationally as the Dell.

I have to hand first place in this category to the Dell 2110. It's only by a nose and those who have thoroughly integrated Classmates into their teaching may disagree with me. However, at around $600, the meaty 2110 is cheaper than the Classmate, plays well with Dell's own ecosystem of charging, management, and projection tools (their so-called Connected Classroom) and provides a number of useful features (see below) that make the price tag quite easy to swallow. It would be easy to bring down the price by dumping Windows 7 Professional for Ubuntu/Edubuntu and the Latitude management utilities that IT administrators can leverage push it over the edge to take first in value/

Performance evaluations »

Performance I didn't bother with serious benchmarking here. The specifications of most netbooks are similar and the performance of Atom systems has been well-documented. The seat-of-the-pants impressions below are more relevant to students and teachers, highlight differences in overall packages, and continue to paint a picture of the value each netbook represents.

Fortunately, Moore's Law has ensured that we've reached a point in computing where even a very low-end processor can do all sorts of good stuff. In fact, the number of people who actually need a quad-core processor and 8GB of RAM in a laptop is pretty darned low. Windows 7 and Ubuntu both run 2-3 applications well with an Atom processor and a single gig of RAM.

Running those applications "well," of course, is all relative. Does Office 2010 launch instantly with lag-free switching between a web browser window or two and the productivity suite on the Classmate (the only netbook in this shootout with a single gig of RAM)? No, but it's completely acceptable for daily use. Even the handwriting recognition works acceptably for kids and students with disabilities who may struggle with typing. I would also attribute the lag in changing screen orientation when in tablet mode to the processor speed. Again, this is can be a frustration for adults, but the average kid K-6 student won't notice.

The HP, not surprisingly, handled multitasking a bit better than the Classmate since it had double the RAM (but the same processor). The only real standout in terms of performance was the Dell. I use the term standout very loosely, but the overall responsiveness of the Atom N470-based laptop was improved enough over its N450 peers to give me yet another reason to toss it in my bag instead of the Classmate or HP.

It's worth noting that both the HP and the Dell now have available Broadcom HD graphics chips as options. These weren't on my test machines, but would enable far superior support of HD content both online and in the emerging e-textbook market. Video performance when editing content shot with the built-in webcams or making simple corrections to photos in the GIMP were perfectly acceptable on all of the computers. Don't bother with Photoshop.

You certainly won't be running virtual machines or more than three applications on any of these computers, but those lie outside normal use cases in most educational settings anyway. All have completely acceptable performance, but if you're looking to eek out every last bit of zoom from Intel's current netbook platform, then the Dell wins again.

Form/Function/Usability »

Form/Function/Usability Here's where these netbooks start to really distinguish themselves, not so much in terms of one being better than another but in terms of meeting the needs of a particular market segment or educational purpose. If you want a tablet, for example, you're obviously getting the Classmate. I've covered the Classmate extensively already and would advocate till the cows come home for a convertible Classmate in most settings over a dedicated tablet.

All are tolerable for touch typing, but the keyboards on HP and Dell are a real pleasure to use. Both are chiclet-style and about as close as you can get to full-sized. Actually, at around 95% of full-sized, they are perfect for people with smaller hands (like me, as well as their target audience of students) to touch type. The HP and Dell keyboards are also a bit more tamper-resistant than that of the Classmate, from which industrious students are more than happy to pop the keys with the stylus.

In terms of touchpad, the Classmate has the best size and feel. I could never get the scroll region to work, however, even with updated drivers. The Dell's touchpad works well with 2-fingered scrolling and pinch-to-zoom, but its small size left me occasionally hooking up a USB mouse for lengthier sessions of high school scheduling, which happens to be inherently clicky in our particular SIS. This happens to be a pet peeve of mine: I never hook a mouse to laptop. Ever. Mice are for desktops, not one more thing to throw in my bag.

The HP's touchpad was completely smooth and sucked oils and grime off my hands; it wasn't pretty when I gave it to kids to use. However, the touch screen, I found, made me more likely to use the screen for navigation than the smallish, slippery touchpad.

Both the Dell and Classmate feature rubberized surfaces that are extremely durable, tend not to slide off desks or out of hands, and don't smudge or smear. The brushed aluminum HP is already well-smudged and, despite it's handle, simply didn't feel as nice in my hands. Even without a handle, the Dell was easy to hold, particularly because of the 6-cell battery that protruded from its base. The Classmate's integrated, retractable handle also felt more comfortable than the thin metal HP handle (which did, at least, raise the laptop for more comfortable typing.

There isn't a clear winner in this category, but I struggle to recommend the HP. If a non-tablet touch-screen is a must have, then it's a cheap enough option on the HP to make this a good choice. The HP keyboard is also outstanding, but it's matched by the Dell's (and, in fact, by Lenovo netbooks, although they were not part of this comparison). We'll call this +1 for both the Dell and Classmate.

Standout features »

Standout features Many of the more interesting features of these netbooks have already come up, but it's worth highlighting the parts that differentiate them from each other and from their non-educational relatives.

The Classmate has tablet functionality (including both finger and stylus input with palm rejection that makes writing on the tablet very natural), a rotating camera that is functional in tablet and clamshell modes, and solid ruggedization features. It also comes with a complete software stack to support 1:1 out of the box including, as Intel describes it, "Specialized applications for learning, classroom management, and IT management available at no additional cost."

As tested, the Dell 2110 has a great-feeling antimicrobial keyboard, the highest-resolution screen of the bunch, interior and exterior ruggedization features, a companion interactive projector and charging/management station, and Dell's custom hard drive imaging services (available to all Latitude customers). It isn't as education-centric as the Classmate, but is obviously built for the classroom. Maybe the best feature in terms of classroom management is the bright white LED bar on the back of the screen that indicates if the machine is online, making it easy for teachers to see when the Internet may be distracting from another computer-based task or test. Its sound is noteworthy as well; with stereo speakers mounted to either side of the screen, it's sound quality and volume are the best I've used on a netbook.

The HP has a nifty integrated handle, the lightest weight (and the smallest battery/shortest battery life), and a multitouch anti-glare LED that is arguably the easiest on the eyes (although my kids and I all prefer the higher-resolution available on the Dell). HP will also custom image the machines if they are purchased as part of a bid.

The win in this category has to go to the Classmate, with the Dell a close runner up. The tablet functionality and software stack are just too compelling.

Target audience »

Target audience So who will be using these? The Classmate has always been intended for K-8 students. The desktop management software included certainly lends itself to younger grades and the performance, as configured, would be better suited to younger kids. Elementary-age students also respond especially well to the tablet and touch-optimized software. That being said, there is no reason that older kids couldn't benefit from a relatively cheap, durable tablet with a keyboard. It works fine under Ubuntu - dump the software and enjoy the tablet if that's what your older students need.

The Dell is aimed squarely at the K-12 market and students of any age (including those in college) would be very well-served by this tough, snappy laptop. It's small enough for kids and big enough for adults. However, the addition of the Dell Mobile Computing Station (which includes 24 extra chargers, allowing students to leave their chargers at home if the netbooks are deployed 1:1) certainly positions the netbook well in the educational market.

The HP is targeted at middle and high school students and HP has successfully deployed thousands of their Minis, particularly in high schools. Their upcoming 100e (to be reviewed soon) is targeted directly at the K-6 end of the market. For students who need thin, light access to learning tools with a great keyboard for quickly and quietly typing, the HP is worth a gander.

There's no winner here. It's just market segmentation at work.

Wrapup »

Wrapup If we just go by the scores I've given above, the Dell wins by a margin of 3 to 2 (this includes the Dell/Classmate tie in form/function). The Dell is certainly the computer that comes with me more than any other when I'm meeting with clients or teachers or travelling just about anywhere for that matter. It goes in my bag, on my car set, in my bed. It just happens to work very well, both in general and for me specifically. However, I'm not a student in your school.

Your students would be poorly served by simply tossing them a tablet without a curriculum to go along with it or Dell because you've had good luck with Latitudes in the past or, for that matter, an HP Mini because it's thin and light. As with all things, a choice in netbooks, especially for 1:1 deployments, must rely on careful examination of needs and requirements. It must also rely on a curriculum built around a 1:1 model which is far more important than the choice of a particular laptop.

In the premium educational netbook space, though, Dell has put forth a winner in their 2110 and the Connected Classroom to back it up.

Editorial standards