A tisket, a tasket, a netbook in my basket

HPMini01I greatly enjoyed Clive Thompson’s recent Wired article on netbooks. For years laptop manufacturers have been giving us more and more powerful computers: bigger hard drives, more memory, faster processing chips, etc. What netbooks have shown, however, is that many laptop users actually need less, not more. When 95% of laptop use is for things like e-mail, instant messaging, basic office productivity software, Facebook, YouTube, and so on, people don’t need a super workhorse computer. Instead, a less-capable computer works just fine and other concerns such as portability (size and weight) and cost become more important.

I recently purchased my second netbook, a HP Mini, to go along with my Dell Mini 9. I have used these netbooks for a full day of presenting – which usually includes showing very large PowerPoint presentations with embedded videos, Web surfing, and using Microsoft Office – without a hiccup. I tote along in a small bag my 2.4 pound netbook, wireless broadband dongle, portable external hard drive, and presentation remote and I’m all set. Throw in my cell phone, iPod or iPod Touch and headphones, a paperback book, and a Moleskine pad and pen and my road warrior status is downright bearable (shhh – don’t tell my wife!).

For many schools, I think netbooks can make a lot of sense. At $300 to $450 per computer, the price is low enough for many districts to start thinking about a 1:1 deployment for students for the very first time, either for entire schools or for smaller grade- or class-level pilot projects. Scatter a few more-powerful machines around the school building for students who need to do heavier-duty work (e.g., photo or video editing) and this becomes a workable solution for a number of school organizations. Of course full-fledged laptops still have their place and many schools may find that the more-traditional approach works better for their 1:1 needs.

Schools that are considering purchasing netbooks should do a careful job of comparison shopping. For example, I wouldn’t recommend either of my netbooks for schools. The keyboard for the Dell Mini 9 is just too small for me and my right pinky finger is always looking for the dang apostrophe key (which Dell moved to the bottom row). In contrast, the keyboard for the HP Mini is wonderful (it’s 92% of the size of a full keyboard) but HP in its infinite wisdom decided to use a proprietary VGA port, necessitating the purchase of a separate converter cable to connect to a projector (which has resulted in a lot of angry customers). Schools may find that other models such as the Acer Inspire One, Lenovo Ideapad S10, or Asus Eee PC 1000HE are more workable solutions. Since the technical specifications of netbooks are all basically the same right now, design issues such as the keyboard layout often are the distinguishing factors. I strongly recommend a hands-on test drive of a particular netbook model before you make any kind of large-scale purchase.

I really like my HP netbook a lot. Like others, I have been quite surprised to find how useful this less-capable laptop has been to me. Because of its small size, I take it places I never would consider taking my Lenovo ThinkPad X61 Tablet and indeed am gravitating more and more to using it as my primary computer whenever I travel anywhere. What’s really exciting to me is to think about what these small laptops will look like just a year or two from now. I’m guessing that they will have much larger solid-state hard drives and include much of the capability that currently give larger laptops a performance advantage. A netbook that can do what today’s laptops do, in just a couple of years? That’s a winning combo!

Photo credit: HP Mini

19 Responses to “A tisket, a tasket, a netbook in my basket”

  1. Thanks for sharing about your netbook experiences. As I write this, I am looking at no less than 10 Dell Mini 9’s in different stages of imaging as we bought a bunch of those for student use. They are great if using for JUST net apps (which is why be purchased them…to use them as statons for a math program our students use), but the hd is just too small for much more than net apps and with lots of different kids logging on, they fill up fast. I agree that the netbook is a great solution for schools but you are right in that there needs to be some shopping/testing before a school buys a whole bunch of ’em. We bought Dell becasue that’s who we get all our machines from but now we are looking at the Asus models for future purchases because the Dell Minis just don’t compare…less computer for more $$ in my opinion. Thanks for the post, Scott.

    Jeff Richardson

  2. Scott,

    Thanks for this great post. I have been playing around with the same concept and having a school go into the cloud. As more of our day to day applications in schools can be accessible via the web, the netbook is a great alternative in a tough economy to extend the classroom and promote student driven work. We are a Mac school but the potential/affordability of the netbook is too big to overlook.


  3. Thanks Scott for the conversation starter. A similar conversation has bee going on in the GCT forum also. Before I comment on the minis I need to comment on your road kit…What no Kindle???…put it on your list because on the road it is a must. At CUE in Palm Springs I had a conversation with a presenter about a book he recommended and 60 seconds later I was reading it LOL.

    Now for the minis. We are going 1;1 for 3 grades next year and we have looked at Asus and Acer. Acer is also promising a new 11 inch version in June.

    Here is my question As we test drive we are trying to figure out where “the wall” is for the minis. Besides heavy photo or video editing exactly what is it they can not do? What would the rational be for going with a traditional laptop?

    The only thing I have run into with the Acer is the screen resolution is just under the recommended specs for Google earth but so far that has not been a problem and I am thinking the 11 inch will solve that problem.

    Please somebody help me out here..I really am trying to figure out what the real limitation is and so far I have not hit on anything the students would not be able to do… but I do not want to overlook something!

  4. I agree with the weight and the utility. What is missing is the software, and I think Apple has gotten it right here. I say this as a teacher who has always been in PC-laptop schools.

    I realize there are free web 2.0 alternatives to iMovie, Garageband, etc., but they aren’t nearly as well designed or as seamless. I also realize there are big cost differences, but I think the value that the Apple software offers is worth it.

  5. Be sure to test with students. Keyboard size might be a non-issue for tiny hands (maybe even easier for them??).

  6. @Barbara Barreda: Like your experience with Google Earth, we’ve had a little trouble at home with certain Web-based Flash programs that assume a certain screen resolution (e.g., Webkinz). Other than that, no significant issues other than those already noted. Battery life is important, too, of course.

    @Bob Irving: Those are great programs. The question is how often are they used by students? If often, then definitely go with a full-fledged laptop. If not, the model I describe above maybe could work. Go with what best meets your needs!

  7. Scott – I’m thinking about how backpacks are getting heavier for students, and scoliosis is becoming more of an issue as textbooks are getting thicker.

    This is great as laptops are getting lighter. My desktop replacement laptop is 12 pounds and I love it, but have not enjoyed bringing it on the road with me.

    I finally gave in and purchased an Asus Eee 900 for $174 (I couldn’t resist). It weighs 2.2 pounds and feels like 2 ounces after what I’ve been carrying around. It allows me to do what I need to do on the road.

  8. I hope Apple has something like this in the works because I think this is the future of laptops in schools.

  9. I enjoyed that article in Wired as well, and found it very interesting to hear the various experiences presented in the comments with Netbooks in schools. I wonder though if the smaller size is a good trade off for limited memory and computing power. Netbooks are well suited to travelers and conference goers, but students really don’t have the same portability requirements.

  10. @Bob Irving via Scott: Excellent point… we’re looking at a laptop program and the problem that we keep running into has to do with exactly that issue- most of the projects that students are doing revolve around video and audio editing, which may not work well on a netbook, but which work perfectly on a MacBook. The question is “Is it worth it to buy MacBooks when the students are doing 3 or 4 video projects per year or would we be better served with netbooks and a Mac computer lab for project work?”

  11. Are you still offering the Castles (k-12 leader) Program from Iowa State?

    Im interested, but I’ve gotten no responses to my email inquiries.

  12. You may know already that the New South Wales Department of Education here in Australia has just announced that it will provide netbooks to high school students in the state’s public schools (from Year 9).

    Interestingly, the two models they are trying are two you suggested as possibly better for schools – the Lenovo and the Acer.


  13. Here’s a question for readers: How many of you working in schools have super antiquated software applications on your machines?

    Who’s running Office 2000? Anyone got Mathblaster on a Comp 32? What about Printshop? Integrade?

    Replacing/refreshing the software applications on district owned computers has always been the greatest challenge in the schools where I’ve worked. Our buildings just couldn’t afford the site licenses for the latest versions of anything.

    Which makes Netbooks an even smarter choice. They’re like investing in a never-ending software upgrade.

    Because they rely heavily on web based applications, you’re not stuck with the challenge of replacing outdated software all the time.

    As long as you believe that web based applications will continue to grow in sophistication and that new, free services (Think Voicethread, Animoto, Gcast, PBWiki, Google Docs, Teacher Tube….should I keep going?) will always rise to compete with existing products, then there is no reason to invest in portable tanks.

    Any of this make sense?

    PS: I’ve got a Lenovo S10, and like Soctt, it quickly became my primary computer. I carry it everywhere with a 16 G jump drive and life is pretty much grand. The only thing that I “can’t” do is tons of picture or video editing and storage of my iTunes library.

    Give it a few months, though, and I’ll bet that my iTunes collection—-like my Kindle books—-will all be stored on a server somewhere so I can access them anywhere.

    PS: Scott—Ditch the external hard drive from your road kit. Post your PPTs in Google Docs. Then, open up the commenting features when your presenting and your participants will have an automatic back channel chat room.

  14. I was just having this conversation today with one of our IT guys and I too want to know what do you have to give up? As someone who is at an “upstart” we can afford to innovate and look at options like this. Here is the software list from a 1:1 school that I am familiar with. Since I’m not a techie, what can’t you use (or find a replacement for)?
    Microsoft Office 2007, AllwaySync, Adobe Acrobat Reader, Altiris Client (software for re-imaging, automatic data backup and recovery), Audacity, Blackboard BackPack, Blender, CamStudio, Cute PDF, DyKnow Classroom Vision and Monitor (Grade 6/7/8 only), Firefox Finale, NotePad 2008, Freemind, Gadwin PrintScreen, Geometer’s SketchPad, GeoGebra, Google Earth, Google SketchUp, Inkscape, Inspiration 8, Jing, Logger Pro, MathType, Molecular Workbench
    Norton Antivirus Corporate Edition, Paint.Net, Padowan Graph, Photostory, Population explorer, QNext, Real Player, Quicktime Player, SAM Animation, Seeing Math Interactives, Sibelius, SmartIdeas, Smart NoteBook, Timeliner XE, UltraKey, WinPlot, Virtual Ti Calculator, XNView

  15. Blair, I don’t have all of these but think that many of these would run a little slower but otherwise just fine. Your limitations are going to be around RAM and chip speed. Probably the best thing would be for you to buy one, load it up, and see how it works before you go larger-scale…

  16. You can also consider using USB Flash drives so each and every student can have all their assignments with them at all times.
    By doing so, you can save our resources as well.
    Please take a second to visit http://www.usb4students.com providing USB Drive solutions for elementary schools, High Schools and colleges.

  17. Remember that some students, and faculty, will require large screens.

  18. the target audience

    Most rapid successes in the commercial world come from people who built something that they themselves would use, knowing (or hoping) that there were many others out there like them who would be similarly compelled. Their second advantage came from…

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