Small Device, Big Appeal


Ultrahandy, ultramobile, and ultra-low-cost, miniature PCs may one day unseatconventional laptops as the machine of choice for 1-to-1 programs.

Small Device, Big Appeal

Mini-Note weighs only 2.6
pounds, ideal for toting
around in backpacks.

LAST YEAR, the Fresno Unified School District undertooka pilot program to put Asus Eee PCs inthe hands of students in four classrooms at each of 16 ofits schools, at a ratio of one laptop for every two kids. With7-inch screens and weighing a scant 2 pounds, the computersare small enough to fit on students' desks right alongsidetheir textbooks and papers, yet still equipped with the powerto give students access to web-based educational contentwithout leaving their chairs.

"When we collected the laptops for refurbishing during the last week of school, all of the teachers wanted us to assure them that they would get them back in the fall," Fresno CTO Kurt Madden says. "Student engagement went way up in the [participating] classrooms."

After an in-house teacher survey confirmed the value of the miniature PCs, the district decided to expand the program for the new school year. Although it had been working for a year with major partner Hewlett-Packard on the design of the company's Mini-Note PC, as a backup plan in case the HP device was never released, and to move forward with the experiment, the district selected the Eee PC for the pilot. Then, in July, with the Mini-Note set for rollout, it announced it would acquire 7,000 of the new machines and place them in 350 to 400 of its classrooms.

Fresno's effort is one of many similar pilot programs that school districts have launched to explore the use of smaller computers-- referred to as ultramobile PCs or UMPCs, netbooks, ultraportables, ultra-low-costs, or internet devices-- in the quest to engage students through technology. Reacting to this new drift in the marketplace, a number of companies in addition to Asus and HP are introducing their own ultraportable offerings-- including Dell, Fourier Systems, Intel, Everex, One Laptop per Child (OLPC), and Acer. Could these little machines become the next engine for powering 1-to-1 programs within schools? Or are they simply a new category of products attractive to early adopters but otherwise in search of an entrenched customer base?

Defining the Ultraportable

When IDC analyst Bob O'Donnell, the company's vice president for clients and displays, put together the report "Worldwide Ultra-Low-Cost Notebook 2008–2012 Forecast: The Disposable Notebook Opportunity" in May, he described a type of device that filled the gap between smartphones and full-size notebooks, with a clamshell design and a screen measuring 7 to 10 inches diagonally; running Microsoft Windows or Linux; capable of supporting third-party applications; and possessing a keyboard and wireless broadband connectivity. The cost was sub-$500.

The study estimated that fewer than 500,000 such units had shipped in 2007, dominated by Asus, but predicted that these little computers could capture about a third of the entire PC education market by 2012.

Within 45 days of the report's publication, O'Donnell says, new entrants arrived on the market with products that stretched the notion of the ultraportable, costing more than $500 and with greater functionality-- larger displays, more storage capacity, more software. At some point, O'Donnell says, IDC will reconsider its definition of the "ultra-low-cost notebook," but for now the projections will stay in place.

Most pointedly, O'Donnell believes the devices will face strong challenges in the consumer and business markets. He references a recent Best Buy flyer he received in his Sunday paper: "There's a Toshiba notebook in there for $399. It had a 15.4-inch screen with a hard drive and optical drive and Windows Vista. How do you argue with the value of that?"

But for their size and student-friendly applications and mobility, O'Donnell says the small PCs still make good sense for schools. "They fit the needs of that market relatively well."

Liz Crawford, marketing manager for education at HP, agrees. Computers such as HP's new model, the Mini-Note PC, are "affordable and the right device for kids," she says.

For example, the Mini-Note's keyboard is 92 percent of the size of a standard keyboard to accommodate tinier hands. There's a scratch-resistant screen, a special "dura key" coating to make the printing on the keys last longer, and a "drive guard" feature that protects the hard drive if the machine is suddenly moved or dropped. And a weight of 2.6 pounds and screen size of 8.9 inches makes the Mini-Note "perfect for sticking in backpacks," says Crawford.

She acknowledges that certain Mini-Note configurations are priced higher than some of the full-sized notebooks HP sells, but the entire line is built for durability and portability. "Education is so price sensitive," she says, "so this is a good fit."

Software is a big part of fitting the education market too. Fourier Systems approached other software publishers to equip its Nova Centro, including the software in the price of the machine. "When you buy a Nova computer, whether you buy Centro or 5000," says Fourier Marketing Communications Manager Rebecca Citrin, "nobody has to worry about having 20 CDs to load and install." Fourier's offerings come outfitted by, among others, LanSchool, which provides classroom management software; LearnStar, with instructional and assessment software; and Netsweeper for internet filtering.

coming attractions

Expected out this month is Dell's newentrant in the ultraportable space, the Inspiron Mini 9.The device has an 8.9-inch display and four to five hoursof battery life, and will run Linux or Windows XP on theIntel Atom N processor (used in Intel'sown Classmate PC Netbook). The price was yet to bedetermined as of this writing.

Potential Obstacles

A major challenge faced by all the vendors producing little PCs is student acceptance. A generation of young people exposed to cutting-edge gaming technology and used to computing at home on high-powered, low-cost PCs may not get excited about devices running a last-generation operating system on hardware that was considered speedy several years ago. "I know my son was surprised when he played with an [ultraportable]," says Dell Client Product Manager Jason Donovan. "He got pretty bored because of how slow it was."

An additional barrier is the same one that surfaces whenever a school wants to adopt any form of technology: lack of back-end support in the form of ubiquitous wireless network access and teacher training.

"You have to look at everything, not just the client itself, but the software, the applications, the curriculum," says Mark Horan, vice president and general manager of Dell Public Accounts. "You have to look at the infrastructure, the servers, whether schools have the storage space to provide for 1-to-1 programs. And then, what sort of professional development do you need to have for the teachers? If you don't have a backend piece that will support a whole bunch of new appliances in the classroom, then your 1-to-1 program will fail."

Rave Reviews

Pender County Schools in Burgaw, NC, doesn't have a 1-to-1 program yet, nor is one in the planning stages. But Lucas Gillispie, instructional technology and media coordinator, convinced the 7,800-student district to invest in and test-drive four Asus Eee PCs. His initial impressions, recorded on his district blog site, were favorable:

"At first I thought the fonts would be difficult to read, but everything scales nicely, and there's very little side-scrolling while browsing. The keyboard, though small, is much easier to use than I anticipated... Wireless was very simple. I turned it on, double-clicked 'Wireless Networks,' selected my wireless signal, put in the passcode, and I was online."

He believes that for 95 percent of classroom operations, the Asus and other devices like it would work. "Anything students can do online, they can do on this," he says. "I think an ideal situation is to go ahead and take it with the Linux installation and focus on it being an internet-integrated tool where you rely on open source software or web-based tools that are free. That eliminates a great deal of the cost."

The former chemistry teacher is loath to give up his demo unit, which he has come to rely on for keeping notes while attending college to earn his master's degree in instructional media. Until that day arrives, he puts it into the hands of everybody who asks about it. "Everybody who has had a chance to play around with it, the response has been really good," he says. "They say, 'Oh, I want to get one of these.' They're just amazed at the portability of it."

Dian Schaffhauser is a freelance technology writer based inNevada City, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.