More Hardware Considerations (or “Nightmares About Keyboards”)

A couple months ago, I remember waking in the middle of the night, my heart racing and my mind muddles with thoughts and anxiety.  I couldn’t stop debating whether I had made the right choice for technology; I kept thinking of all of the things that could go wrong:

  • Windows 8 was a new operating system. Would it really prove to be as manageable as previous versions were in the classroom? (Note: I didn’t list “manageability” as one of the requirements for the paperless devices, and the reason is because they are all manageable, and they all have their own tips and tricks and ups and downs when it comes to set up, locking down for security and preventing student tampering, etc. Windows has a bad reputation in some of these aspects, and some of it is valid but it’s actually not a problem if you do it the right way — more about how to do that in a future post…)
  • Would the devices prove durable enough to hold up in a 6th grade classroom? (I didn’t even order protective casing, since it would make the tablets unable to work well in the keyboards, and would significantly add to the cost, and ThinkPads have a reputation for durability…)
  • Would using Bluetooth keyboards be a problem??

Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 Keyboard

This last question is what really kept me up at night, and the reason why is because hybrid devices like the Tablet 2 offer a bit of versatility in the variety of configurations you can go with. This sounds like a good thing — and it can be — but it means the complexity of decision-making is increased, because you are not only considering the main device (the tablet), but also the peripherals you will need to go along with it.  For example, without a keyboard or stylus pen (and maybe even a mouse, for desktop-style computing), a Windows tablet isn’t much better than an iPad or Android (although at least it can access 100% of websites, unlike the Android and iPad).

However, even when considering something as simple as a mouse or keyboard, there are a variety of options to choose from. The Tablet 2 — like other similar tablets — has both a USB port (but only one!) and built-in bluetooth for wireless connectivity.

At first thought, wireless (bluetooth) may seem like a great solution for a classroom; who wants wires everywhere, tangling things up and getting in the way, anyway?

But it’s not that simple. For one thing, wireless devices to not get their electricity from the computer like a USB peripheral would, so they must be charged separately. It’s difficult enough to set up a good way to charge the computing device itself, so adding a second device that needs to be charged complicates things further… and what do you do if it runs out of batteries in the middle of a project?

Another problem is a scientific one: Bluetooth works by hopping around different frequencies in the 2.4 GHz range. This range happens to be the same as the frequency used by most wifi signals (802.11b and 802.11g, for example).

Since the Bluetooth keyboard is constantly changing frequency (and because it has a relatively weak/short range), this helps it prevent interference with signals from wifi and other bluetooth devices. However, the more devices you use in a given space, running in the same frequency range, increases the likelihood of interference.

So, Bluetooth offers some benefits — ease of use, lack of wires to tangle or snag — but also some serious drawbacks to consider: they must be periodically charged (usually with internal batteries), and if you put too many of them in one space (like a classroom) you can run into problems of signal interference, which could slow down typing or receiving wifi packets/data. These are the kinds of thoughts that keep you up at night, especially when you decided to go ahead and bite the bullet and order the $110 Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 keyboards.

For the record, I am well aware that $100+ is ridiculous for a keyboard (I already thought the iPad keyboard was excessive at $60+) However, we had chosen the matching Lenovo keyboard for a few reasons:

  • It seemed durable and comfortable to use — the keys are more solidly secured than cheaper models (which were flimsy and could be popped off), and the size and spacing is more like a laptop keyboard
  • Ease of setup and compatibility with the device; since it is designed to go with the Tablet 2, it works fairly well as a stand to set up the device as a “laptop” format (although I would never recommend using it on your lap), and simplified the procedure of setup.

Now, I was up at night in a cold sweat double-guessing that decision, both because of the excessive pricetag and the potential problems. So… what were the alternatives we could have used?

1) Instead of going with the expensive Lenovo keyboard, you could opt for a different, less expensive Bluetooth keyboard designed for tablets. This would have presented some of the same problems (battery charging, potential interference), but at least would have a more reasonable pricetag.

USB Keyboard tablet case

2) Instead of using a Bluetooth keyboard with inexpensive USB mouse (plugged in only when necessary), we could have opted for a plug-in USB keyboard. This could range anywhere from an inexpensive tablet case/stand ($10!) to a full-sized desktop keyboard (not ideal for space-saving and manageability purposes in a classroom, and the tablet would still need a stand)

 

That’s where the dilemma came in. We could save about $100 per student — and avoid the Bluetooth issues — just by using a cheap case with built-in USB keyboard!  We ended up deciding against this option, simply because the durability of these super-cheap keyboard cases was questionable — the USB cable is thin and flimsy, and the keys are compact and possibly could break or fall off. Additionally, the fold-out stand means that the case falls flat much more easily than the Lenovo keyboard/stand does.  Were these potential headaches worth it?

The verdict is out on that one. I would say that, if you want to try a paperless 1:1 solution like I am, and you are cash-strapped and budget-crunched, it would certainly be worth it to give these less expensive USB keyboards a try (and let me know how it goes!)  Overall, I would stand by the assertion that, if you can choose between a plugin keyboard and a Bluetooth one for a classroom, the USB option is still preferable in many cases.  What we opted for was to try to Lenovo keyboards designed to go with the device, with the understanding that if they didn’t work out for some reason, we would return them within our return window for refund and we would keep plug-in USB keyboard in mind as a backup “Plan B.”

So far, it looks like the Lenovo keyboards may end up working well. They have been in place and used for about a week now — 30 of them simultaneously in the same room (however, would they still work okay if there were hundreds of them being used in rooms adjacent to each other, or in a large lecture hall?) They are working well as stands for the devices, and seem to be functioning fine without interference problems.*

This all just goes to show you that, when you are considering using tablets, the decision is not as simple as just picking “the right device” — you have to consider how you will address all of your needs, and this can include things like keyboards, mice, display systems (monitors, projectors), or other peripherals you will likely need to use in a 1:1 classroom.

* I do need to note, however, that two of the 30 keyboards don’t seem to be able to connect to the tablets. They turn on and blink once, but do not continue to blink showing that they are transmitting/waiting for Bluetooth sync, and they are not being detected by the tablets. Could it be that a small percentage of these Lenovo devices are DOA/lemons?

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