Product Focus | Feature

A Home for Netbooks at School

A stable of affordable netbooks are winning over educators even in the age of tablet computing. After all, they can address basic computing needs and provide access to the web at a price that's hard to beat.

Pushing a netbook program in a school setting these days is a bit like suggesting the purchase of an external modem or analog surveillance camera. Sure, it might work, but aren't the technologies a bit dated? Besides, the lackadaisical laptop computing experience offered by the typical netbook no longer seems to be enough; users want the intrigue of smartphones or tablet computing.

So what could netbooks possibly offer a district that some other gadget wouldn't be better at? Try this: addressing basic computing needs and providing access to the web at a price that's hard to beat. As long as wireless internet access is available, there are no extra service fees required. Netbooks have a screen size larger than a smartphone and a keyboard that's more familiar than a pad or tablet.

Those are the lures that drew Wentzville School District in Missouri, now in the process of preparing for a 900-netbook rollout to freshman English students in the spring semester. Technology Director Richard Wilson specifically chose Acer Aspire One netbooks because the district has had a good experience with the machines in mobile and science class labs. "They've been really solid and come with a two-year manufacturer's warranty, which is a big thing," he says.

The district was afforded the luxury of buying the netbooks thanks to an anonymous $500,000 donation earmarked for instructional technology. The unexpected gift replaced funding already set aside to purchase interactive whiteboards for classrooms and digital e-books for school libraries. So the budget was redirected to the district's 1-to-1 netbook initiative, which may be powered in part by cloud-based versions of Moodle for course management and Google Apps for Education for collaboration and e-mail.

Wilson admits there was a "lot of discussion" about the relative merits of netbooks and tablets. The former won out during the first two years of the program because of "the familiarity and comfort level" district staff and teachers have with the mini-laptop device. Price mattered too: Wilson expects to pay between $200 and $300 per netbook; most of the tablets his district has evaluated were more than $500. "Right now, with the resources we have, the netbooks just made more sense. Then, in a few more years, we'll make the transition to the tablets."

Affordability was also a factor at Coleman Tech Charter High School in San Diego. This year-old school is almost entirely cloud-based. At the start of the school year, says Assistant Principal Neil McCurdy, each student receives a netbook, which, like at Wentzville, is an Acer Aspire One. "Because of the price of [these] now, we can just give the kids a computer when they enroll in the school, and it's theirs to keep as long as they graduate from Coleman Tech," he explains. By then, he adds, "Those computers will be devalued anyway. We won't be able to use them for anything else."

Microsoft's Amazing Deal
Assistant Principal Neil McCurdy at Coleman Tech Charter High School in San Diego uncovered a little publicized program offered by Microsoft through its MSDN service. The MSDN Academic Alliance provides free access to a multitude of Microsoft software titles, including operating systems, developer tools, and productivity applications. The membership comes in two flavors: Developer, which has a more extensive list of offerings but is slightly pricier and intended for STEM-related academic departments; and Designer, which has about half as many programs and is intended for design, art, illustration, and similar departments.

At Coleman Tech, McCurdy will spend $499 on the Developer edition to obtain the 32-bit version of Windows for deployment on student netbooks and drive students to a download site to obtain other applications that the school will use throughout the year.

Microsoft has teamed up with e-academy, which offers software distribution, tracking, and authentication for Academic Alliance administrators through a service named ELMS (for e-academy License Management System). There's no additional charge. ELMS allows students to be provided with a URL to a hosting site, where they can download the software they need for the academic year.

Top Features
The latest list of 10 best-selling consumer models in Amazon's netbook category feature familiar names: Acer, Toshiba, Asus, and Samsung. With a single exception, all list new for less than $300 (the Samsung NP-NC110-A03US is $330), and education prices from education resellers could be even lower. All but two models sport 10.1-inch display sizes; the exceptions, the Acer Aspire One models, have 11.6-inch screens. From there the similarities just continue.

The most common processors found in the latest of this year's netbook releases are the Intel dual-core Atom (N450, N455, N550, or N570) or AMD's dual-core C-Series Processor C-50. Hard drives are all a standard 250 GB. Only the Acer Aspire One models include 2 GB of RAM, upgradable to 4 GB; the others come with a single gigabyte, expandable to 2 GB. At Coleman Tech, McCurdy intends to exploit that difference. Since the model he's purchasing comes with the 64-bit version of Windows 7, he'll replace that with the 32-bit version of Windows 7 to make an extra gigabyte of memory available for computing operations.

The six-cell lithium-ion battery technology for the latest crop of netbooks ensures that they'll last through a respectable seven hours of usage. (Several claim more, depending on power settings and level of component usage.)

Other common features include 802.11b/g/n wireless; 10/100 Ethernet; built-in webcam, mic, and mono or dual speakers; a graphic processor for media acceleration; three USB ports; and a digital media-card reader. No models come with a CD or DVD drive--adding that requires use of an external media drive that can plug into one of the USB ports. Screen resolution with almost all of the models is 1024x600; the Acer Aspire One AO722 and Samsung NF310 boast 1366x768 resolution.

At first glance, netbooks may appear to be a commodity purchase, but the delight is in the details. Almost every company designing these has something unique that sets its device apart from the pack.

For example, the Acer Aspire Ones have touchpads that support circular motion scrolling, pinch-action zoom, and page flip. The Asus Eee PC netbooks feature matte displays instead of the seemingly ubiquitous glossy; plus, they also come with 500 GB of Acer-hosted web-based backup and storage.

The Toshiba NB505-N508OR includes some useful utilities. An "eco" button lets the user launch a little program to adjust power settings based on the type of computing being done at the moment; the computer activates a light when the user is in "eco mode." The same model includes a media controller for sharing across a home entertainment network; a bulletin board program for managing to-do lists, calendars, and favorite photos and documents; and ReelTime, a taskbar tool that shows a visual timeline of recently accessed files in thumbnail form.

Unheralded Advantage
Gone are the days when netbook makers would put Windows XP, Windows CE, or Linux on their machines and call it a day. Now every netbook of note includes some version of Windows 7, either Windows 7 Starter or Home Premium. Nobody would mistake Starter for a fully turnkey computing experience, but it offers a collection of programs for doing the basics--using the internet, sending e-mail, creating documents, playing media, and connecting to networks. The Home Premium edition--a $120 upgrade when purchased directly from Microsoft--adds a few crucial features some users will care about: 64-bit support and the ability to create and play DVDs (using an external player). A chart compares features; to get to it, look up "compare windows" in Bing.

Both the Wentzville district and Coleman Tech's use of the devices may point to the unheralded advantage of the netbook: It can serve as a comfortable, portable "cloud terminal" that allows the user access to all of those applications in use at the school but hosted somewhere else. The combination of cheap hardware and web-based software "totally transforms everything," Coleman Tech's McCurdy declares. "We know kids have access to computers at home," he says. "It changes the kinds of assignments we give them. The kids are more connected to each other, especially with all the social media software and things they can do on the cloud. It's a pretty easy sell."