Itty Bitty PCs

Listen to the podcast Question: I keep hearing about this little computer called the EeePC. Is it something that would work in our school? The IT Guy says: There is a new kind of computer that is generating a lot of attention in the techie world. The general term that is being used for them is UMPC,
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Question: I keep hearing about this little computer called the EeePC. Is it something that would work in our school?

The IT Guy says:
There is a new kind of computer that is generating a lot of attention in the techie world. The general term that is being used for them is UMPC, which stands for Ultra Mobile PC.

What makes a computer a UMPC? These devices are very small, often weighing only two pounds or less, have smaller than standard keyboards, and small screens, perhaps 7 inches diagonally. I have one sitting on my desk (the Asus EeePC mentioned in the question), and it's less than nine inches wide by seven inches deep, and about an inch thick. It also has no hard drive (4 gigabytes of flash memory instead), and no CD or DVD drive.

It's not totally stripped down, though. It has 3 USB ports, a VGA port for hooking up to an LCD projector, built-in web cam, and wireless networking.

So what's the big deal? There have been small computers around for a while, right? Yes, but not for $399. Typically, small computers actually cost more than their larger counterparts. The low cost of the newer UMPCs is a big part of what is getting technology people so excited.

How do they do it? They use less-expensive components, and they use open source software. They use some flavor of Linux for the operating system, and use Open Office for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations. The rest of the important software (Firefox browser, Skype for videoconferencing) is already free.

By they time this is published, there will be at least three different companies with similar products on the market. The EeePC (in three models) from Asus, the Everex Cloudbook, and the One2OneMate.

I keep showing these to people because I think they represent a technology tipping point—very soon, the cost of providing each student with a laptop will become affordable for many more schools. Yes, I know, there are still a lot of support costs, too, but it's still progress. However, before you run out and buy one, please talk to your IT people! These first-generation devices will work in many settings out of the box, but not everywhere, and they may not be compatible with your district's infrastructure. I have no problem saying that we will see thousands of these in schools before the year is out (some districts have already started buying them), but many other districts will wait until things settle out a bit before they jump in!

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