Buying netbooks for schools

Let’s first establish exactly what a netbook is. Essentially, it’s a mini-laptop designed for mobility, wired and wireless access, the internet and general office applications. Weighing in at around 1.3kg and including a TFT screen, usually 10.1in in size, the netbook is a natural solution for the classroom.

Buying netbooks for schools

In order to be as portable as possible, netbooks don’t have an optical drive. Instead, most have a trio of USB ports, a D-SUB output (allowing connection to a projector or monitor), an SD card slot, integrated speakers and microphone and headphone jack ports. Netbooks also have a built-in camera, allowing video conferencing using applications such as Skype.

Keyboards tend to be slightly smaller than those on standard laptops. Memory and disk space vary, ranging between 160GB and 250GB on the latest models. Battery life also varies, with some netbooks offering up to ten hours of power away from the mains, depending on usage. However, extensive use of multimedia applications can reduce this considerably and be aware that over time battery life will reduce.

Netbooks currently come preinstalled with Windows XP or Windows 7 Starter Edition, a stripped-down version that loses some of the full edition’s visual thrills. The only feature limitation worth noting is that Starter 7 netbooks can’t join a Windows domain. Make sure you speak to your network manager or technical support before choosing the operating system to check compatibility.

Netbooks typically use an Intel Atom processor. Dual-core Atom processors have started to arrive, and certainly help when running a number of applications at the same time, but don’t expect a big boost in performance.

The education difference

The education sector is less affected by the netbook’s lack of an optical drive than businesses. Much of the software is installed over the network, and children aren’t encouraged to load software on to the school’s netbooks themselves. In fact, having no optical drive is arguably an advantage.

Pupils are also unlikely to be performing demanding, processor-intensive tasks, so the operating power of a netbook shouldn’t be a major issue either. Since web applications don’t require a specific operating system, most of them work perfectly well on netbooks. More and more schools have lesson activities on learning platforms and the netbook is an ideal device for accessing this content.

Battery life

It’s rare to find a full-sized laptop costing less than £500 that offers more than four hours of battery life. In contrast, netbooks cost around £300 and offer anything up to ten hours of battery life.

However, battery degradation is a fact of life for all mobile devices, and it shows the importance of opting for a netbook with a longer battery life.

If a battery lasts for four hours when new, it will tend to last half as long after a couple of years. This affects the total cost of ownership, with replacement batteries adding 10% to 20% to the overall cost, so make sure you factor in the cost of additional batteries when making your decision.

Storage and charging solutions

There’s an increasingly diverse range of charging trolleys on the market that allow 30 or more netbooks to be stored and charged in one mobile unit. This type of charging unit allows all your netbooks to be charged in one place and costs in the region of £1,500 (exc VAT). See Lapsafe for examples.

In-class “cabinet” solutions, including those that allow as few as six netbooks to be charged in a class, are available too. These have the advantage of allowing the devices to be stored in individual classrooms, encouraging small group and individual pupil use. They cost around £500 exc VAT, and are sold by Loxit, among others.

For an even more flexible solution, there are portable netbook charging units – essentially storage boxes that allow charging netbooks to be moved from one classroom to another. Additionally, these can be taken on field trips or residential visits. Again Loxit is a good place to look; expect to pay £700 exc VAT.

“By having small charging cabinets in classrooms, we don’t have to worry about the netbook trolley moving around the school and also we don’t have the concern of where to store the unit, ensuring storage space is optimised for other uses,” explained Marilyn Whiskerd, head of Towers Junior School in Hornchurch, Essex, who decided to install individual charging cabinets in the classroom.

“The most valuable aspect of this approach is that the devices are available to teachers and pupils directly in their classes, ensuring they get extended use in lessons.”

Keyboard and screen size

A good-quality keyboard is also important. In recent times, netbook keyboards have become larger, similar to those found on conventional laptops, so this is now less of an issue compared to the early netbooks.

Another possible limitation is screen size. Most pupils are able to cope well with the small 10.1in screens, but they aren’t ideal for complex spreadsheet-type activities. Their resolution is also limited, with most netbooks having a 1,024 x 600 screen. Visually impaired pupils may also find them unsuitable.

The importance of wireless

Netbooks make it easier to achieve a 1:1 ratio of computers to pupils, but if you do this it’s vital to ensure that an effective wireless infrastructure is in place. Wireless Access Points (WAPs) designed for the home aren’t good enough: they’ll often cause sluggish logons and interrupted network access.

Classroom management software can enable pupils and the teacher to share programs and activities, meaning much more interactive lessons. However, this needs to be installed as part of a wider classroom-based solution.

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