Ultra-low cost laptops in colleges

The market for ultra-low-cost laptops is continuing to move forwards. At the point when the Asus EeePC/Asus RM miniBook were released, it created a buzz in education. Basically it was easy to see how it would be possible to imagine that every student could have a device, which is cheap, light and small enough for them to have available all of the time.

Over time in the UK, we've seen the ratio between students and computers improve. Although, in colleges the latest Becta reports said that the numbers are going the wrong way - according to 2005/6 FERL/Becta Survey there are 4.5 students per computer, down from 4.1 students per computer in 2002. In most colleges this has been through adding more fixed computers - ie take the students to the computers, not the reverse.

When you've got a laptop that costs less than £250, suddenly it seems possible to make a huge leap - to providing a laptop for every full-time student, and through that changing the delivery model of resources. But the first miniBook release was only the thin end of the wedge. What's happened since then?

RM miniBook

The miniBook is a small format, 0.9KG laptop with a 7" 800x480 screen, with a battery life of 2-3 hours.

RM launched the first Windows XP version of the RM miniBook/Asus EeePC in January (with a higher specification - 8Gb storage and 1Gb RAM - and a higher price - £269).

Last month they launched the lower-cost Windows XP miniBook, at £225 (with 4GB solid-state hard drive, and 512MB of RAM).

Read the specifications and other details here

HP 2133 miniNote from RM

RM have now launched the HP 2133 miniNote, a higher specification notebook, running Windows XP Pro/Windows Vista Business, with a 8.9" screen running at 1280x768 and weighing in at 1.3Kg (1.5Kg with a 4 hour battery), which costs £385.

Intel's new Atom processor


At the Intel Developer Forum, in Shanghai, there was a lot of focus on the new Atom processor, a new chip that helps to reduce power consumption, and is a building block for low-cost, ultra-portable devices. There were some new designs on display there - one from MSI got a lot of coverage (see right), because it was claimed to have a 6-hour battery life and a 10-inch screen.

And there's more coming...

It's clear that we're still in the early days of lower cost, more portable laptops, and we'll see more product launches over the next few months. In fact, by the time we get to the summer holidays, the choice for laptops for individual students is going to be even bigger. So now's the time to be thinking about your strategy for the future, and considering how that will allow you to take your college provision forward.

So what does this all mean?

In the past, it's been unlikely that the majority of colleges would be able to, or want to, give a laptop to every one of their students. It wasn't just because of cost, but also because of size and weight, as well as battery life. The new laptops are reducing size and weight, and some are even addressing the battery life issue.

I think by this time next year, it will be possible to have a strategy of reducing the number of PCs fixed to desks, and rapidly getting to a 1:1 PC:Student ratio. And if you can do that, how would it change your learning model? And what contribution could that make to achievement by your students?

Comments (2)

  1. chrisgrant says:

    Battery life has to be the killer objective!

    However small and portable the devices become, it doesn’t necessarily represent value for money to have a laptop on charge for half the working day! We’ve a number of trolleys stocked with full size laptops, most of which claim to offer around four hours life, but the pattern of use just doesn’t allow for this. Reality is that they are charging up as much as they are in use.

    It would be interesting to know from anyone alreay using ultra-small laptops in the classroom whether the long term battery life is good. We suffer with very poor battery performance in laptops after around 18 months of use and charging – and thus the TCO rises with the replacement parts.

    It’s early days in this market sector; these devices will clearly develop much further in the coming year or two. I will be happy once anyone can offer me a standard sized onboard ‘all-day’ battery.

    Has anyone yet questioned the health and safety implications of periods spent using very small screens and keyboards?

  2. Ray Fleming says:

    Hi Chris,

    I agree with your battery comments – it seems that it’s the thing that will hold back mobile devices for a while.

    Interesting observation about the H&S implications of using very small screens and keyboards.

    Couple of my thoughts:

    – For some reason, as I understand it, students appear to be in a different category from staff, because they’re not employees! It amazes me that whereas schools have to do proper ergonomic audits etc for staff, there’s no obligation to make sure that students are comfortable etc.

    – From my personal experience, I don’t sit for long periods using a laptop, without plugging it into a monitor and external keyboard. Happy to do it for meetings or when I’m away from the office, but when I’m sitting at my desk, I always plug in. If I don’t, I get a strain in my neck (probably amplified by a back injury decades ago).

    Fortunately, I’m able to control that, and make sure I have a properly adjusted screen and keyboard. But equally I have lots of colleagues that use laptops all of the time, and never seem to want an external screen.

    The compromise around smaller screen sizes is that the bigger the screen, the greater the power requirement, and the shorter the battery life.

    Catch 22?


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