A New Take on Tablets

Until recently, tablet PCs have been niche products that were underpowered, fragile, lacked compelling software, and didn't have the functionality of a standard laptop or desktop computer. This is no longer true. The now-robust technology, once relegated to the medical and financial services markets, is finally making inroads in K-12 education at prices comparable to the traditional laptop. Here, some questions to help you decide whether tablet computers are in your future.

Buyer's Checklist

Why should I consider a tablet PC?

If you're considering purchasing a notebook computer, you should at least consider a convertible tablet. A convertible tablet computer is able to do everything a normal Windows XP laptop can do and has the added functionality of being able to directly interact with the screen using a stylus (see next question).

What can I do with a tablet PC that I can't do with a laptop?

For this question, let's ask the experts in the field who have chosen tablet PCs over notebooks. James Polzin, assistant superintendent of Hinsdale Township High School District 86 in Illinois cites two primary reasons his district went with tablets:

  • students can use the stylus to annotate documents in the digital texts they read, and
  • the "digital ink" function lets users handwrite directly on the screen and have notes appear as they are written, or be converted from handwriting to text.

George Tuttle, technology consultant for the Pocahontas Area Community School District in Iowa, adds some other reasons:

  • with a projector in the classroom, the tablet can function as a notebook and interactive whiteboard (using a standard VGA cable, hook your tablet to the projector and everything you write on the tablet will appear on the wall), and
  • compelling new student learning tools designed specifically for the tablet PC, such as xThink Calculator and xThink MathJournal (www.xthink.com).

Almost everything a student can do with a regular piece of paper can now be done on a tablet PC (except fold it into an airplane -- tablets are not very aerodynamic). Students can take notes on a tablet and then file those notes using Microsoft One Note software. They can use new applications like the xThink products noted above. Teachers can use the tablet as an interactive whiteboard and then convert the class sessions into Acrobat files to publish on the Internet. Students can send a teacher a homework assignment via e-mail and then the teacher can mark it up just like they always have, albeit with a much larger color palette.

ViewSonic Tablet PC V1250

Can I save money by choosing a tablet over a laptop?

In some situations, yes. As mentioned above, a tablet can be used as an interactive whiteboard in any classroom outfitted with a digital projector. Interactive whiteboard solutions range in price from $600 to over $12,000. From purely a cost perspective, certainly a tablet is as good as the $600 interactive whiteboard solution. So then the question to consider is whether an $1,800 tablet provides as much or more value than a $1,200 traditional notebook computer plus a $600 interactive whiteboard.

What's better: a traditional slate tablet or a convertible tablet with integrated keyboard?

Tablets come in two basic flavors:

  • Traditional tablet or slate tablet with no keyboard or pointing device (other than the stylus). An external mouse and keyboard can still be used, but these input devices are not integrated. Advantage: these tablets are typically quite light and thin. Disadvantage: lack of integrated keyboard and monitor stand. Vendors selling traditional slate tablets include Fujitsu, Gateway, Motion Computing, and NEC.
  • Convertible tablets with integrated keyboard and mouse. These units are heavier and thicker than their slate tablet counterparts. Most convertibles have a hinged screen that allows the system to either lie flat in the tablet configuration or swing around into a traditional laptop configuration should you need the keyboard. Advantage: fully featured notebook plus tablet. Disadvantage: weight. Vendors selling convertible tablets include Acer, Fujitsu, Gateway, HP, Toshiba, and ViewSonic.

Most of the educators I spoke with feel the convertible version is a better choice for schools. However, two vendors, NEC and Motion Computing, only offer a slate tablet. Districts would be wise to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of both designs.

Is screen size important?

Once again we turned to the experts. "Hinsdale primarily looked for portability to allow students to carry the tablet PC from class to class," says Polzin. "Screen size was not a priority." On the other hand, Tuttle found screen size to be very important: "14 inches was key since that is the size of a normal laptop." Industry representatives we talked to from Toshiba and Gateway indicated 12.1 inches or larger is preferable.


What criteria should I use to choose the appropriate tablet?

Everything is a trade-off when making any technology choice. All of us would choose a very inexpensive, very light system, with the fastest processor, largest possible hard drive, and maximum memory. I've been looking for this computer for a long time; I just haven't found it yet.

That's where the tablet PC overview matrix below comes in handy.

It includes most of the feature categories necessary to make your technology decision. So, for instance, if you are interested in 1.5GHz or faster sub-$2,000 convertible tablet, you would be able to narrow it to the Acer TravelMate C300, Gateway M275E, and Toshiba Portege M200. If you then added a couple more criteria-under 6 lbs with a 14-inch or larger screen-you would end up with only one system, the Gateway M275E. Then again, if weight isn't as important as battery life, you would choose the TravelMate C300.

Tablet PC Specs: Click here for larger version.

Test-Drive It

You've chosen the tablet PC you believe will work best at your school. Now what?

Once you decide on one of the various models of tablet PCs, have your vendor of choice send you a demonstration unit (they will be very interested in doing this, especially if you don't buy systems from them right now).

It's true you will be sucked in by the cool factor once you receive your chosen tablet. Fight it. Put it through a few sample days at school with you and then hand it over to a trusted teacher for a day or two and then have him or her report back. Then pass it to a trusted student and let them use it for a day or two. Repeat the test with a traditional notebook. If the student and teacher are not raving about how they want a tablet at the end of this test, then maybe the tablet isn't right for you. If the feedback you are getting indicates you should choose a different mix of features, take a look at the matrix, and demo a different unit. If tablets are clearly wrong for your environment, keep this article, wait another year or two, and then follow this process once more.

Eric Svetcov, CISSP, is president of Palint Technology, Inc. and former director of technology for St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco.