Let the Ed Tech Hardware Battle Royale begin

Big tablets? Little tablets? Convertible tablets? Netbooks? Is the 1:1 Holy Grail in there somewhere?

New toys arrived on my doorstep this past weekend. I love the new technology smell when you open those boxes. In this case, one box had a Motorola Xoom tablet that I purchased through my day job for testing, product demos, etc. Not cheap, but a remarkably cool product (more on that later). The other box was courtesy of Dell with press demo models of their 3 mobile educational products (an Inspiron Duo, a Latitude 2120, and a Streak 7).

What these 4 products gave me, though, were the state of the art in non-Apple ed tech hardware, touching on every form factor weighing on the minds of school and district CTOs everywhere as they finalize their budgets. Can we fit in 1:1 this year? If not, can we leverage some inexpensive mobile devices to reduce those student:computer ratios? And if we answered yes to either question, do we want netbooks, convertible tablets, large tablets, or small tablets?

Some may be looking at standard laptops, especially in the Apple world where MacBooks are increasingly attractive from a feature and cost point of view. Even in Apple-land, though, the decision is increasingly between iPod Touches (essentially small tablets) and iPads.

So does one of these form factors represent the Holy Grail of Ed Tech hardware? I wish...as always, the decision comes down to the curricular needs (among many other factors) of a given set of students. What we do have, though, are for the first time, mature choices in tablet, netbook, and laptop forms, running flavors of Windows, Android, OS X, and iOS. And choice is good.

I'll have a lot more to say about these devices in the weeks to come as my kids, their teachers, and I put them through their paces. Android Honeycomb? We got it. Customized Android 2.2 for small tablet use with 4G data connections? Oh yeah. Intel's latest generation dual-core Atoms? Check. Convertible laptop/tablet hybrid that made my 8-year old forget about his Convertible Classmate? I have one of those, too.

A couple initial impressions, though, as my kids descended upon new screens and I was nearly overwhelmed with gadget lust:

  • Older kids loved the 7" tablet. It went everywhere, the graphics were "better than the Wii" (not that the Wii is known for it's graphics performance, but the tablet quickly became the handheld gaming platform of choice), and thumb-typing was easy. This device also provoked the most arguments over who could take a turn next.
  • I finally get the tablet thing. It's a completely compelling platform for consuming all types of content and the 10.1" Xoom has a great interface, awesome browsing, and very easy reading. I've claimed this one; my youngest son remains an iPad fan since his favorite learning application, Lobster Diver, doesn't run on Android (and yes, that does mean that apps can make or break a platform, no matter what Google says about the mobile web).
  • Keyboards are still really useful. And yet the touch interface has become second nature for people like me and my 1-year just slides her finger across any LCD she sees when she wants it to display something different.
  • Dual-core Atoms are pretty darned fast.
  • The Latitude is the only device that no one competes for; nobody argues over it or asks to borrow it. Keyboards are great, but without touch...

As I said, lots more to come on these devices, but the call of the tablet is very strong.