The Best Paperless Device: Hybrid / Convertible

The main 1:1 paperless device considerations I addressed in the previous post were:

  1. eBook accessibility
  2. Affordability
  3. All-day battery life
  4. Document creation
  5. Multimedia (photo/audio/video) production
  6. Access all websites
  7. Handwriting / drawing capability (notes, artwork)
  8. Compatibility with peripheral devices

The needs of my classroom — a self-contained, multiple-subject, 6th grade classroom — are varied and run the gamut from reading, writing, and research to science labs, art projects, and video production.  I need a device that can be used for typed documents and standard “computer” purposes, can access every online educational resource available to us (including Flash or Java ones), but in going paperless I also need one that allows for writing, drawing, art, and multimedia production. In other words, I need a device that can do it all. I want my students to be able to have their cake and eat it, too.

This is where hybrid or convertible devices shine. With touch screens, accelerometers, built-in cameras — and sometimes active digitizer pens, as well — these devices allow you to get any of the benefits of a tablet, but they also feature full-fledged operating systems that allow for the unrestricted website access, productivity software, and keyboarding capabilities of a laptop or desktop computer.

But even in the subcategory of hybrids/convertibles, there are a lot of different options: some are touch-screen ultrabooks with larger screens and full-powered processors; others are netbooks (“netvertibles”), with smaller screens and less powerful processors, but much better battery life; while others primarily take a tablet format, with long battery life and built-in cameras, but keyboards must be added or attached separately.  There are even different operating systems available on these devices, but the vast majority are running Windows 8.

After researching and trying out several devices, the one I chose to best fit the needs of my classroom was the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2:

Pros

  • Very slim, lightweight, and portable
  • Rugged, rubberized casing with strong screen (Dragontrail glass)
  • Durable, capable, natural-feeling keyboard (sold separately)
  • Decent front and rear cameras (2 megapixel and 8 megapixel)
  • Capacitive touch + active digitizer for accurate writing/drawing
  • USB, HDMI, SD storage, and SIM card slot
  • Supports the greatest range of peripheral devices (anything that works on Windows via bluetooth or USB)
  • Access 100% of websites, including Flash, Java, Silverlight, etc.
  • 10 hours of battery life (even with non-stop use)

Cons

  • Separate keyboard must be used
  • Lenovo’s keyboard is expensive ($100+) — but you can use any bluetooth or USB keyboard
  • Weaker processor and graphics than laptops/ultrabooks

My first inclination was actually not to use a tablet-format device. Because online research and typed document creation are such essential parts of the 6th grade curriculum, I felt it would be preferable to have a device with keyboard attached (while still including touch-screen tablet and writing/drawing capabilities.) There are actually very few options in this configuration; most of the devices that have active digitizer pens are in tablet format.

However, there was one very intriguing option: the CTL 2go PC NL4, which is a device built to spec as an Intel Classmate PC:

This is a “netvertible” (convertible netbook that can also be used as a tablet) that was designed from the start to be used by children and schools. As such, it has lots of classroom-friendly features, including ruggedized casing, spill-resistant keyboard, and installed software apps for IT management, teacher administration, and classroom activities including camera applications and art/drawing software. There’s a lot to like here, and I love the idea of the Intel Classmate PC: a device that “does it all” and specifically addresses the needs of students and teachers in a classroom. Unfortunately, the execution and hardware decisions involved in architecting this device prevent it from being a viable choice for my classroom, due to sub-par built-in camera (less than 1 megapixel resolution) and, especially, insufficient battery life (4.5 hours).

Various other options were contenders, as well — all of which are versatile devices, but each of which has some important drawbacks to consider…

Other Contenders

1) CTL 2Go NL4 – Intel Classmate PC (Win 8)

As mentioned above, the first — and most tempting — device for a 1:1 paperless classroom was the CTL 2go Convertible netbook/tablet PC. Previous generations of this device used a resistive touch screen instead of a capacitive one — this worked well for writing, but not for finger-touch interactions or multi-touch gestures.  Additionally, older versions of Windows (before Windows 8) were rather clunky and not ideal for touch-screen formats. Finally, the older 2go PCs had weak Atom processors which were barely sufficient, and struggled to handle some tasks (including art and drawing apps that used the pen!)

The newest iteration, the NL4, has fixed many of these issues, due to now using a capacitive touch screen (good for fingers) combined with active digitizer (good for writing and drawing), as well as a more powerful processor. Unfortunately, the Celeron processor it now uses has meant a sacrifice of several hours of battery life, for not much of a boost in performance (3.4 Windows Experience score — compare this to 3.2 for the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 which gets 100% longer battery life on a single charge.)

Pros

  • Rugged, child-proofed design: built-in handle, durable casing, spill-resistant keyboard.
  • Slightly more powerful processor (Celeron)
  • Camera swivels to be used front- or rear-facing
  • Includes Intel Learning Series Software Suite of educational and management applications
  • Capacitive touch screen plus active digitizer stylus
  • Built-in keyboard
  • Access 100% of websites, including Flash, Java, Silverlight, etc.
  • Lots of input and output ports: audio, USB, ethernet, HDMI, VGA, SD Card

Cons

  • Only 4.5 hours of battery life
  • Celeron processor is still not very powerful
  • Low-quality camera

2) SAMSUNG ATIV SMART PC 500T (Windows 8)

The Samsung ATIV Smart PC 500T is a very similar device to the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2, with many of the same benefits and drawbacks. The pricetag of the Samsung was more attractive — especially when considering the cost of keyboard. However, the build quality of the ThinkPad has received much higher marks and better reviews than the 500T, which has had some reports of various issues and questionable durability.

Pros

  • Very slim, lightweight, and portable
  • Less expensive than competitors, and comes with keyboard
  • Decent front and rear cameras (2 megapixel and 8 megapixel)
  • Capacitive touch + active digitizer for accurate writing/drawing
  • Access 100% of websites, including Flash, Java, Silverlight, etc.
  • USB, HDMI, SD card
  • All day battery life

Cons

  • Questionable build quality
  • Weaker processor than laptops/ultrabooks
  • Not attached to keyboard

3) Microsoft Surface Pro (Windows 8)

It would have been nice to have a more powerful processor for full-fledged computing capabilities without lag or limitations. One device that would make that possible (while still offering tablet capabilities, keyboard, and active digitizer) is the Microsoft Surface Pro.

The Surface Pro essentially has the exact same hardware as a full-fledged laptop or ultrabook — it features a Core i5 processor, the same chip found in a Macbook or Mac Mini. But it also works as a touch-screen tablet, and has an active digitizer for accurate writing and drawing with pen.

The more powerful processor has also translated into a higher pricetag (though still more affordable than a Macbook, and on par with top-end iPad), and more importantly, low battery life. However, looking into the future, the next generations of Surface (or similar device) may be the ideal classroom solution, because the newest processors (such as Intel Haswell line) will be full-powered chips with much better energy efficiency, resulting in all-day battery life.

Pros

  • Powerful Core i5 processor
  • USB, HDMI, SD card, etc.
  • Can serve as laptop, tablet, or drawing/writing tablet
  • Access 100% of websites, including Flash, Java, Silverlight, etc.
  • Run all of the full-fledged productivity Windows software
  • Active digitizer with over 1,000 levels of pressure sensitivity

Cons

  • Pricetag
  • Surface “keyboard” is not as good as larger physical/mechanical keyboard (however, any bluetooth or USB keyboard can be used)
  • Insufficient battery life (about 4 hours)

4) Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (android)

The Galaxy Note 10.1 is an Android tablet like many others, but a big difference is that it includes the S-pen active digitizer which opens up opportunities for precise, accurate, and natural writing and drawing, similar to this above devices. In this way, it is similar to the ATIV Smart PC 500T, but running Android instead of Windows.

Pros

  • Less expensive than some of the other options listed here
  • USB, HDMI, SD card, etc.
  • Capacitive touch screen plus active digitizer (S-pen) for more accurate writing/drawing
  • Can be used with either bluetooth or plugin keyboards
  • Android OS can be more secure than Windows in many ways
  • OS may be easier to use for students
  • Many more touch-apps than Windows 8 / Metro
  • Long battery life

Cons

  • Flash is no longer “supported” on Android, making it harder to install and use (but it can still be done)
  • No Java, Shockwave, or Silverlight websites can be used
  • Processor is not as powerful as Surface Pro or ultrabooks
  • Unable to run Windows apps, or to access any peripheral devices that require Mac or Windows drivers

5) Apple iPad (iOS)

The iPad was one of the first — and also one of the most popular — tablet devices being used in schools. For this reason, and because there are many apps available, it can be a tempting choice for a 1:1 classroom. You could certainly try a paperless classroom with iPads — it will likely work better as a paperless solution than a standard netbook, ultrabook, or Chromebook would, due to lack of any writing/drawing capabilities at all on those devices. However, there are several limitations that make it less than ideal and cause some tasks to be difficult… and others impossible.

Pros

  • More educational touch-screen apps than Android or Windows
  • Pretty secure and intuitive OS / interface
  • Has a lot of support resources (like teacher blogs, websites, recommendations, and lesson plans) available on the web
  • Newer models have better processor than Atom (which is on par with A5 chip in iPad 2)
  • Long (all-day) battery life
  • Decent-resolution front and rear cameras

Cons

  • Pricetag (although smaller and older models — iPad 2 and Mini — are more reasonably priced)
  • Not as powerful as ultrabooks or Surface
  • Lack of USB port; much more limited choice of peripherals
  • Google Docs/Drive works better on other devices
  • No active digitizer means writing and drawing cannot be done in a precise or natural way — even the best stylus pens lack pressure sensitivity and do not have a fine-tip (some mimic a fine-point by surrounding it with a clear pad that must push/slide around, making for an unnatural experience)
  • Cannot access 20% of websites (even higher percentage for interactive educational sites); Does not support Flash, Java, Shockwave, Silverlight, etc., so cannot access various educational websites, resources, and games (BBC, Scholastic, NatGeo, PBS Kids, Colonial Williamsburg, SumDog, etc.)

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