When Dell offered me a chance to play with the newest netbook aimed at the schools market I jumped at the opportunity- it’s like the walls have ears as we have been talking about when will the perfect device come along we can equip all students with for them to carry between home, school and all lessons and stop us equipping rooms with computers that lie dormant in evenings, weekends and holidays. With Dell being a major supplier to our Sheffield’s BSF project and us about to embark on a massive procurement of equipment through BSF we needed to see these toys.
We’ve been buying netbooks since Asus blasted into the scene with the eee PC and HP have produced our favourite. And, unlike the slates that the market is awash with now that could also claim to be that universal device for all students, the netbook market has matured.
Is this the device that should replace the books in every child’s bag?
The Dell Latitude 2110 set of machines is evidence of this maturation- these are netbooks squarely aimed at the school market: tough rubberised shells, windows for personalised labels on the ‘spines’, option of a hand bag style carry strap by linking security cable connections and a light on the lid to show the teacher when the students are online (I already know that- it’s when the lights on their faces go out!) all make one sit up and ask “is this the device that should replace the books in every child’s bag?”
I tested two models. The one I was excited about was a Windows 7 touch screen version, but that was a flop, the one I was sad to send back was a non touch screen LCD HD screen version.
The drawbacks of early netbooks were small keyboards and small screens. These Dell devices, whilst still being a small as a book cram in really good sized keys (with the option of anti bacterial coating) and the biggest screen size I’ve seen.
The LCD screen version is amazing- a really vivid HD image that a group of students can sit round and view well from a wide range of angles. The stereo speakers blast out some serious sound- loud and great quality. The web cam is excellent, although the small amount of pan, tilt and zoom control seem over kill when a machine that small with a folding lip can be panned, tilted and zoomed by moving it around.
The big let down when using Skype etc was the microphone- any ideas of lounging back in your seat whilst Skyping had to be forgotten- if I wasn’t looming right over the screen I couldn’t be heard- and that’s not a great image to have on the other person’s screen, but enough about me and my face for radio. I don’t know if I didn’t find the right setting to boost the microphone or the problem was with Skype but I want things that just work when you switch them on and so do school students.
The touch screen version carries a double battery pack- which could be an option on non touch screen versions to give them impressive battery life but it made the machine heavy and bulky- with them both living on my desk for a couple of weeks I found myself always grabbing the slimmer lighter model without touch screen when heading off to a meeting, that one fitted neatly inside my document folder.
Touch screen flop
The first draw back with the touch screen is the image quality, now, I’m comparing it to an LCD HD screen so it’s not going to be as good but it was like viewing the images through fog when compared side by side- but this also goes to show how good the HD screen is, users without this comparison wouldn’t notice anything other than it’s not that bright. Can you guess which is which from the photo above?
My real gripe with touch screen on this device is why does it have it?
Firstly this isn’t an Apple, the Windows operating system is menu based and on the small screen that’s really fiddly, and yes it’s nice to get pop-up on screen key boards but only centimetres away is a really good keyboard and mouse touch pad so why would I use it?
I had to force myself to use the touch screen, which isn’t very sensitive so the machine, being small, is constantly rocking back and the base bangs down on the desk, so you end up supporting the screen with your other hand. When you get hold of an iPad you make excuses to use it, it’s so nice to work with- I can’t say that about this touch screen device, I avoided using it as it was frustrating and unrewarding and far from intuitive like an Apple device- features like the way an Apple device instantly resize a form you are filling in to make it big and easy to complete just aren’t there.
To be more precise when touch tiny menu options you look around your desk for something pointy to tap the screen with. If you need a stylus it’s just like the tablet lap tops of years ago. The idea of some students being tempted to push their pens into the screen brings back memories of pre-glass lap top screen getting vandalised.
OK with certain software touch screen will work well- I’m thinking younger students playing games with dragging and dropping. I did a passable finger painting picture in Paint but if I were 5 I’d prefer to get my fingers in some real paint and splat around on a bigger piece of paper.
If the touch screen was on a device like others in the Dell range that flipped and folded into being a slate I could see its use but the mouse and keyboard (that my kids have found easy to use since age 3) is always there to tempt you when things like hand writing recognition let you down (my 5 attempts to write ‘Paul’ is 4 too many).
Desperate need for a fast boot to a web browser
We would be looking to buy a lot of the non touch screen netbooks if they had Dell’s feature called latitude ON like on Latitude E6410 and Latitude E4200 have which is a fast boot to a browser rather than the slow full boot to access locally installed applications. These fast boot devices are aimed at the business market. We feel it’s going to become an essential feature for the education market.
We are working towards a time when we can drop paper text and exercise books and students can boot a device in the time it takes to take their coats off. Then they can work with e-books, web based learning tools etc. 5+ minutes to boot up and download settings at the start of 5 lessons a day is a couple of hours lost a week if people have to rely on a portable computer 100%
Whilst e-book readers, ipads and the like offer this we need it in once device with access to a proper keyboard and set of applications so all students can carry one killer student owned device and their bags and they aren't too heavy as they are no books in the bag. Dell are very close to offering that killer device that could revolutionise the way school equip themselves with computers and the way students use them as natural learning tools not occasional treats the teacher has to plan in, book and set up. We can safely say Dell are at the cutting edge of Netbooks and they still tick more boxes than a slate for me.