Getting the Perfect Laptop

9/15/2006 By: Mark Smith

For most districts, the dream of arming their students and fellow educators with laptops — perhaps reaching the vaunted status of being a one-to-one school — holds a powerful appeal. Yet whether your district is making that push to get laptops into the hands of each student or simply considering upgrades to your mobile carts, you're facing no shortage of possibilities and questions. Technology & Learning breaks down some of those concerns so you can make a better decision for your school.

Buyer's Checklist
  • Be sure that the laptops' platform will fit your needs-will it accommodate your software needs, and will your tech staff know how to troubleshoot it?
  • Make sure you get a strong warranty and service plan, and factor in replacement parts like batteries.
  • Don't try to save money by purchasing laptops with outdated technology.
1. Which platform is best?

Mac, Windows, or Linux? Making a decision about which platform to integrate into your district depends on a host of factors, including legacy software, security, training concerns, and cost. Ultimately, you will have to balance those issues to come to a decision that best fits your district.

Michelle Thatcher, former managing editor at T&L and senior associate editor for CNET.com, says software compatibility is the biggest hurdle that districts face when making a platform decision.


The Fujitsu LifeBook S2110 has a 13.3-inch display.

"If the district has already invested a significant amount of money in software for Windows, for example, they'll probably want to purchase more Windows machines to protect that investment," Thatcher says. "Administrators should also think about future software purchases — there are generally more third-party programs available for Windows than there are for Mac or Linux [machines]."

Like Thatcher, Pete Anderson, a mathematics teacher at Hermitage High School in Richmond, Virginia (Henrico County Public Schools), sees the Windows platform as a boon for software choices, but he notes that Macs also have distinct advantages. His district recently moved from a Mac-based system to PCs.

"The greatest asset of the Mac platform is its easy-to-use operating system and the functionality/integration of its key software, iLife," Anderson says. "Security, in terms of the threat of a virus to [Hermitage's] system, was not nearly an issue on the Mac platform as it is with a PC."

Before making the leap to a new system, Thatcher says, make sure your new laptops work seamlessly (or without seriously cumbersome workarounds) with existing network infrastructure.

"Administrators should also think about staff costs," she says. "Will it be more costly to hire and retain a Linux support technician than it would be to hire and retain a Windows support technician? Remember that you'll have to train every staff member on the new platform when the switch is made."

2. How powerful should these laptops be?

Few districts can claim to be so flush with cash that they can supply laptops on the absolute edge of the technological horizon. But that doesn't mean your students and teachers should be working on cheap, bottom-of-the-barrel machines with a life expectancy about as long as the latest boy band.

"You definitely pay a premium for the latest-and-greatest components, and that premium is difficult to justify unless you really need every bit of processing or graphics power (think databases, graphic design, or CAD programs)," Thatcher says. "I wouldn't necessarily get components that are two years old — that will limit the life span of your investment — but you can do well with components that are maybe a generation old."

Thatcher cautions that previous-generation Macs such as iBooks and PowerBooks that are not based on the new dual-core Intel processors might be cheap right now, but buying those models will be investing in a fading platform. The new Macs will allow users to run legacy Mac programs through its Rosetta translation program (for a review of the new MacBook, see the August 2006 issue).

That said, Anderson believes a district can't go wrong with buying the fastest processors available, though he's more conservative about elements such as screen and hard-drive size. Most students will not need more than 20 GB hard drives, he says, because many schools — like Hermitage — use their district's servers as mass storage space.


The Gateway E-100M laptop

3. Should my district buy the same version for both students and educators?

For the sake of your IT staff's sanity, and ultimately your pocketbook, stick to the same platform and even try to keep the actual specs of each laptop as uniform as possible. This will make it easier to service your district's laptops, and it will also mean having to store fewer types of replacement parts and accessories.

Anderson points to his personal experiences at his high school. Although he recommends slightly different specs for educators' laptops — for instance, bigger hard drives than student versions — he says keeping the variations to a minimum helps cut down on troubleshooting time.

"At one time, I had a different model laptop than my students (both were Macs)," he says. "The result of this was that the materials that I created did not always work on the student machine the way I intended. Currently, our high schools are PC, and the middle schools are Macs. File transfers between these two platforms are not easy tasks and are sometimes impossible."

4. What accessories are must-haves?

So you've decided to purchase a package of laptops for your district — you've narrowed it down by processor speed, hard-drive space, memory, and platform. But the devil is in the details — replacement parts, accessories, and service plans.

"It goes without saying that a lengthy warranty should be part of the deal," Thatcher says. "Most businesses expect a three-year warranty on parts and labor, and I think that makes sense for schools, as well. Other things to purchase include spare batteries and spare AC adapters because those elements tend to get lost easily."

Anderson suggests wireless mice and other ways for educators to access their laptops wirelessly, thus freeing them to interact with their students. "The teacher needs to get away from the front of the room and [still have] some control of the information [that goes] to the student," he says.

Other issues to consider include means to secure laptops (such as locks), protective sleeves or laptop bags, and docking stations where educators and students can plug their laptop in to a larger screen for longer computing sessions, Thatcher says.


Toshiba Satellite A105 laptop

5. I want to start a laptop program in my school. How much do they cost?

Most districts have a powerful incentive to cut costs and corners due to tight budget constraints, but don't let the urge to save cash overwhelm common sense. You get what you pay for, and if you opt for the cheap way out, you'll end up paying for it with less computing flexibility and laptops that have one foot in the technological grave.

Thatcher suggests taking the middle road between being miserly and being a fiscal libertine. Conscientious districts should look at laptops with 14- to 15-inch screens in the 5- to 7-pound range, she says. (Remember that leasing rather than purchasing laptops might be a good solution for your district; see "The ABCs of Technology Leasing" in the September 2005 issue.)

"There are inexpensive machines in other form factors, but for some reason the bulk of the budget-minded systems are that size," Thatcher says. "In my experience, laptops on either end of the size spectrum — either very large or very small — tend to cost more."

Although consumers can get a bare bones laptop from $600 to $1,000, she says, districts would be wise to look into slightly more costly models — $1,000 to $1,300 — that have newer technologies and more components. That additional expenditure will mean laptops that stay relevant for longer. Note that these are consumer prices; districts can often secure much better package deals with manufacturers.

"Obviously the newest features, such as HD-DVD drives, will cost more, as will the newest components," Thatcher says.

Mark Smith is managing editor of Technology & Learning.

Tablet or PC?

Comparing tablet PCs with laptops is like comparing apples and oranges. As Anderson and Thatcher both note, tablets offer students the ability to take hand-written notes and jot down math formulas, but the format has its limitations when compared to laptops. (For a look at the Fourier Systems Nova5000 tablet, see Mike Brown's review.)

As a math teacher, Anderson likes the tablets for their flexibility with expressing formulas and so on. But tablets have yet to meet some basic needs, he says.

"Ask the student to do their math homework in OneNote and then share it with anyone else (who doesn't have the same tablet or OneNote software), and you'll find it can't be done," he says. "When the tablet software figures out how to export in PDF format, then I'll have another look."

As with most computing decisions, the decision whether to focus on tablets or laptops is a matter of preferences.

"I love tablets and use one myself, but they generally cost more than an identical laptop," Thatcher says. "Unless you have a solid plan in place for using that tablet functionality, you'd probably be better off with the less-expensive laptop."

Who's Who

Here's a sampling of a few companies that offer laptops to schools and businesses.

Apple
www.apple.com

Averatec
www.averatec.com

Dell
www.dell.com

Fujitsu
www.fujitsu.com

Gateway
www.gateway.com

HP
www.hp.com

Lenovo
www.lenovo.com/us

RM
www.rm.com

Samsung
www.samsung.com

Sony
www.sony.com

Toshiba
www.toshiba.com

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