Selecting a Tablet
PC for Use in K-12 Education
I am a
student of Computing based in Lusaka, Zambia (Central Africa) and I
am currently doing some research on Tablet PCs. I came across an
article you wrote in Pen Computing about How
to Select a Second Generation Tablet PC
and thought I could learn a bit. I am trying to create a list of
important factors to be considered, and a list of criteria within
each factor, for choosing between six different Tablet PCs for
possible purchase by a School for its pupils. Would you be able to
help with a few factors and criteria to help me select the best
Tablet PC model? I will really appreciate any help that you can
--Paul Lombe Okpara -- Lusaka Zambia
Technology Editor Geoff Walker answers:
my article was intended to be independent of any specific
application. One of my points was that the selection of a
Tablet PC depends on what's important to the user and what's
important in the specific application. You seem to be asking my
opinion regarding what's important in the K-12 Education
application. I have included a brief discussion below that
offers my opinions on that subject. This discussion assumes that the
School is purchasing the Tablet PCs, not the students. I'll
leave it up to you to separate the information in the discussion into
"factors and criteria".
Price is the ultimate decision criteria for Tablet PCs in
education. Typically the addition of desirable features such as more
memory is curtailed by the extremely limited budget that's
available. If special "education discounts" are available from
the Tablet PC manufacturer, this can bias the decision in favor of
that manufacturer. Sales tax (which can sometimes be avoided by
purchasing online) and shipping charges can unfortunately be serious
considerations when selecting a Tablet PC for education, again due to
extreme budget constraints.
Factor (slate vs. convertible): Students must have a computer
with an integrated keyboard. Trying to rely on handwriting input
and/or clumsy, fragile attachable keyboards just doesn't make sense
in education. Therefore only convertibles should be considered.
Drive: An internal optical drive is generally preferable. An
external optical drive is more expensive, more fragile (i.e., easily
broken when dropped), and more easily lost or stolen. On the other
hand, without an internal optical drive it's a little harder for
students to load games or other non-approved programs (which may be
desirable). The probability of the students needing an optical drive
in normal use (e.g., to load education software or large databases)
should be considered. If the probability is high, then an internal
optical drive becomes a practical necessity.
optical drive brings up the general subject of the extent to which
the Tablet PC is to become the student's "personal" computer.
If the Tablet PC is tightly controlled by the school, then an
internal optical drive is probably undesirable - unless it's
required by the curriculum, as noted above. If the Tablet PC is to
become the student's general-purpose computer (which he must bring
to class, like a calculator), then an internal optical drive is
Size: This depends on the degree of mobility that's
anticipated in the education application. If the students are
allowed to take the computer home every day, then screen size is a
compromise with weight. 12.1" is a good compromise - large
enough to be practical, but not as heavy as a 14.1" Tablet PC.
10.4" is too small for general use. If the Tablet PC is only for
use in the classroom and is not to be taken home, then larger (14.1")
may be better, especially if the Tablet PC is used mostly on a desk.
However, if a high degree of mobility in the classroom is anticipated
(e.g., student teams sitting on the floor in groups and using Tablet
PCs in their laps), then 12.1" is a better choice than 14.1".
Note that this recommendation is specific to K-12 Education. My
recommendation for a college student is to go with a 14.1" screen
because the college student's use is more sophisticated and can
benefit from a larger screen.
Viewing Angle: This is a basic usability consideration.
Students are likely to use the Tablet PC in portrait mode fairly
often, since this mimics the format of a sheet of paper, so good
viewability in portrait mode is important. This is the primary
advantage of wide-angle-view screens; their effect in landscape mode
is less significant.
A full-size keyboard (19.05 mm key pitch) is very
important for anyone who does any significant amount of typing. Any
reduction in key spacing should immediately disqualify a Tablet PC
from consideration in education. The key stroke (travel) is much
less important and is mostly a personal preference item.
Specifications: Durability is very important for Tablet PCs in
the education application. Students treat computers less carefully
than professionals. Features such as shock-mounted hard drives and
water-resistant keyboards should be rated very highly on student
Tablet PCs. Unfortunately, in the real world, any serious degree of
ruggedization puts the cost of the Tablet PC out of reach of most
Software: Given the limited budget of educational institutions,
the software that's bundled with the Tablet PC is very
important. High priority should be given to those Tablet PCs that
include software suitable for students, such as OneNote, GoBinder,
drawing programs, Microsoft Works, etc. High priority should also be
given to those Tablet PCs which include full versions of essential
software such as anti-virus and firewall programs.
The length of the warranty is particularly important on student
Tablet PCs, since they are likely to be subjected to hard use for a
long time. A three-year warranty is much more desirable for a
student Tablet PC than a one-year warranty.
& Support Programs: The availability of low-cost, long-term
service programs for the Tablet PC is important, but the reality of
educational institute budgets is that any program is probably too
expensive. Free phone and email support is important, but it's
likely to be available only to the educational institution that
purchased the Tablet PCs, not the individual students.
Resolution: XGA (1024 x 768) is best for K-12 students. Higher
resolutions such as SXGA+ (1400 x 1050) are appropriate for college
student use, where the applications are more sophisticated.
Outdoor Readability: Most student Tablet PC usage is likely to
be indoors, in the classroom or at home. While outdoor readability
is useful, it's also expensive, so it's probably not an
appropriate option on student Tablet PCs.
The CPU selection is dominated by cost. The lowest-cost CPU
that is still a "full performance" CPU (i.e., not a Celeron or
other crippled processor) is appropriate. The CPU vendor (Intel vs.
AMD) doesn't matter.
Size: If the Tablet PC is to be used mostly in the classroom,
then battery size is irrelevant. If the Tablet PC is to become the
student's general-purpose computer, then battery size is more
important. However, in the real world it's much more practical to
simply buy a second battery than to constrain the Tablet PC selection
based on long battery life. The only thing that should be avoided is
Tablet PCs with unusually small batteries (i.e., Tablet PCs where
light weight is the defining characteristic and battery life has been
sacrificed for weight).
Controller: K-12 student applications don't generally require
3D graphics, so the standard "integrated graphics controller"
that's used in most Tablet PCs is perfectly adequate. Given the
very limited budget of most educational institutions, a future
upgrade to Windows Vista is very unlikely so there really isn't any
reason to require a powerful 3D graphics controller in the Tablet PC.
All Tablet PCs come with wireless; the only option is typically
the addition of 802.11a support. Since all schools that use wireless
use 802.11b or 802.1g, the standard wireless that comes with all
Tablet PCs is OK. The wireless hardware vendor should be selected to
match the hardware already in the school, rather than automatically
selecting Intel (i.e., the Centrino brand). Bluetooth wireless is
nice to have (for wireless peripherals) but totally unnecessary in
As noted above, the importance of weight in the education
application depends on how the Tablet PC is used. In general,
lighter Tablet PCs cost more, so the reality of educational institute
budgets prevents consideration of very light-weight Tablet PCs.
and Accessories: If the Tablet PC is to be kept in the classroom
at all times, then the available range of peripherals and accessories
isn't very important. If the Tablet PC is to become the student's
general-purpose computer, then peripherals and accessories are more
important. Generally speaking, the most important ones are spare
pens, spare batteries, spare AC adaptors, carrying cases, external
battery chargers and external optical drives (if the Tablet PC
doesn't have an internal optical drive). Docking stations and port
replications are not important in the K-12 Education application.
Enough memory to support reasonable performance is required; for
current Tablet PCs running XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 that's 512 MB.
More memory is always desirable, but cost is a major limitation in
the education application. Consideration should be given to buying
the Tablet PC with minimum memory (256 MB) and then adding memory
separately, since aftermarket memory is often cheaper than memory
purchased from the Tablet PC manufacturer.
Drive: The smallest hard drive offered on the Tablet PC is
likely to be 40 GB or higher, which is plenty of space for student
use. Larger hard drives are nice for applications such as video
editing, but in the real world this is unlikely to occur in
Slots: Expansion slots are becoming much less important in mobile
computers as more functionality is integrated inside and more
peripherals migrate to USB. Slots are not an important consideration
for student Tablet PCs.
All current Tablet PCs come with USB 2.0 ports, and that's all
that's actually required for the student application. Depending on
the network in use at the school, a wired LAN port may be required.
A monitor port is highly desirable, especially for home use of the
Tablet PC. Firewire ports and S-video ports are nice but totally
unnecessary. Nobody uses IrDA any more.
The standard audio on Tablet PCs is sufficient for student use.
Array microphones are not necessary.
(pen input subsystem): Since all but one of the current Tablet
PCs on the market use the Wacom digitizer, there's really no choice
here (the one exception is the Gateway Tablet PC, which uses the
FinePoint digitizer). Most Tablet PC manufacturers have learned how
to properly integrate the digitizer, so performance really isn't a
major issue any longer. One minor item that should be considered is
the availability of a tether attachment on the pen; depending on
where the Tablet PC is used, a tether can be important in reducing
the incidence of lost pens.
Security isn't a serious consideration in the student
application. There generally isn't any proprietary or confidential
data involved, and the teacher must be able to access every student's
computer, so biometric security devices should not be considered as a
positive feature on student Tablet PCs. The teacher's Tablet PC
has a different requirement, of course, since it must resist entry by
students seeking exam answers.
An internal modem is required if the Tablet PC is to become the
student's general-purpose computer, since not all students have
broadband access at home. If the Tablet PC is to be limited to
classroom use, then a modem is not important.
Brand: The Centrino brand is totally unimportant. It's
strictly a marketing gimmick on Intel's part - it's their
attempt to force Tablet PC manufacturers to sell Intel-brand wireless
cards rather than other brands of wireless card. It should not be
given any consideration when selecting a Tablet PC for education.
Based in Silicon Valley, Geoff Walker is Global Director of Product Management at Elo TouchSystems. Prior, he was a consultant
with Walker Mobile, LLC (www.walkermobile.com).
Geoff has worked on the engineering and marketing of mobile computers
since 1982 at GRiD Systems, Fujitsu Personal Systems (now Fujitsu
Computer Systems) and Handspring. In addition to mobile computers,
Geoff's areas of particular expertise include displays and digitizers.