Laptops, who needs them?

7th November 2003 at 00:00
Time was we all thought we did. Remember our righteous indignation about the government schemes that failed to provide the resource we all knew we needed. But that was when our choices were a little more limited. Sure, there were alternatives, but we were rather wary of them. Not so now. Handheld devices are creeping into classrooms and getting a warm welcome. They aren't replacing our laptops and desktops, but they are giving us more flexibility to do what we want where we want.

So what do we need to think about when looking for something more portable than a big, heavy black box in a bag?

Obviously how portable it is. Is it easy to carry? Will the batteries last? A Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) might only get used for 30 minutes a day; a portable word-processor could be on all the time.

What's it for? Is it an admin tool, a learning tool or both? It must do what is needed at the time. Most handhelds are "instant on" meaning there is no waiting for the machine to warm up. But then there might be no keyboard and entering text or data with a stylus is a lot slower. You might also want something that lets you format the text too.

You will also want to think about how you get the information out, or move it to somewhere else, such as on to a network or over the internet. Most devices now have infrared links, but that doesn't mean they will automatically talk to each other.

And, of course, there is always price. For the same money you could have one device that does it all, or a handful that do one thing.

Difficult decisions. This guide wont give you the answers, but it might help you make your own mind up.

Becta recently published the results of a long term research project. The report, and a summary are available at research. Further help can be found at these websites:;; RM Tablet PC

Windows XP

Battery life around 4 hours.

Dimensions (mm): 303x231x23

Weight: 1.4kg (with battery)

Price: from pound;749 (clearance price for student tablets pound;649)

Tel: 08709 086868

www.rm.comA portable PC without a keyboard or mouse. Control is through a stylus and entry is through handwriting recognition, an on-screen keyboard or dictation software. It is about the size and weight of a small-town phone directory, Stevenage perhaps.

Everything a PC will do. Very portable as it is roughly the size of only half a laptop - the screen.Lighter than expected. Easy to use. The handwriting recognition is very good, although keyboarding is still quicker. Built in wireless and Ethernet connectivity (infrared too) means that files are easily saved and printed on a network. External floppy disk drive or CD writer are options. It will link directly to a printer. A bigger screen and keyboard (plus mouse) can both be added, as can external CDDVD and floppy disk drives. Any PC software compatible with Windows XP will run on it.If you are mobile and want the capabilities of a PC but without the problem of having to find somewhere to work, just cradle this in one hand and write with the other - a very easy way of working.

Like carrying a clipboard backed up with all the power of a PC and with the option to convert it into a conventional laptop. A device you can use anywhere to do (just about) anything.

Psion Netbook

EPOC operating system.

Battery life 8.5 hours.

Dimensions (mm): 235x184x35

Weight: 1.1kg

Price: approx. pound;600

Tel: 01628 648889

A highly portable device about half the size of a standard laptop. It carries like a well-stuffed clutch bag and will tuck neatly into a TES folded in half.

Just about everything you need to do in a school. It comes with a standard, office-type suite of programs. with address book and diary to keep you organised. Internet connection is possible. "Instant on" means just that, no waiting for electronic fanfares. Compact and straightforward with a keyboard that doesn't seem cramped. Unlikely to need the regular attention of a technician.Through both cable and infrared connections it will share files with your desktop or let you print directly. Can be easily networked with an added wireless card.

There are numerous applications available for Psion. As well as a wireless card, a modem can also be added for handling emails and surfing the net. As it will also sit happily on a network, it can offer the functionality of a much more powerful machine. With its portability, and the instant on feature, it will allow you to do all that a laptop will in a more compact way. Small enough not to notice that you are carrying it, yet big enough to work on with ease. With the potential to be a bigger and better tool than it seems, it is ambitious beyond its size. Sony Clie


Palm OS

Battery life 5 hours.

Dimensions (mm): 75x141x22

Weight: 293g

Price: pound;509

Tel: 08705 331122

PDA with built-in camera, both still and video, sound recording and MP3 player.

A 21st-century communication tool that lets you capture images, sounds and text and share them with the world. Plus a diary and address book. It has a keyboard and built in and Bluetooth connectivity allowing it to communicate with other, similarly equipped devices. Instant "wow" factor. The camera and voice recorder are impressive. The keyboard is small but fine for those used to text messaging. Easily links to a desktop to save and share files. Will connect directly to a printer, or a phone to send emails. There are hundreds of Palm applications available such as dictionaries, maps, games, city guides and tools for presentations. With a memory stick you can record and play video. As well as replacing your diary, address book and notepad, it also means you won't need to carry a camera, tape recorder or mp3 player. Bigger than most PDAs but also makes a bigger impression. A serious tool that is a lot of fun. You could photograph work or record pupils' comments for assessments, or create multi-media reports from school trips. If you're not sure what to do with it, the pupils will have plenty of ideas.


Palm OS

Battery life 25 hours

Dimensions (mm): 314x235x48

Weight: 900g (without battery)

Price: pound;289

Tel: 020 8492 3690

A merger of the Alphasmart and the Palm, creating a hybrid tool for word processing and organisation. As well as writing it also acts as a PDA, runs a word processor, a spreadsheet and several games. The screen can be turned length ways and graffiti-style writing used instead of the keyboard. Full-size keyboard with a large, letter box screen. Easy to use, light and highly portable. Files are easily saved on the machine and it will link to a computer through a cable or infrared for two-way sharing. It will also print directly. As it runs the Palm operating system thousands of additional applications can be loaded, including books, maps and data-logging. There are also two slots for adding memory. If you need a PDA but also want to use a fully functioning word processor with a proper keyboard, then this will do the job. Could be more useful with a bit of tweaking. A notepad for doodles, and a dictionary perhaps. The diary and address book will be useful when machines are issued to individuals.

Alphasmart 3000

Battery life 700 hours (not re-chargeable)

Dimensions (mm): 314x235x48

Weight: 2.1kg (with battery)

Price: pound;169

Tel: 020 8492 3690A portable word processor about the size and weight of a school atlas.Word processing. Rather like a calculator in that it does one thing but does it reliably and without complication. Light, easy to use, robust and straightforward. Easily connects to a PC or Mac to download files although up to eight files can be stored on the machine itself. It will connect directly to a printer, by cable or infrared. Additional software, called Smart Applets, can be added although only a very limited number are available, such as Co:Writer, a text predictor, and Kaz, a typing tutor.Easy to use, uncomplicated, highly portable. Think of it as a draft book before linking to a desktop to complete the writing task. As text creation is probably the major use of computers in classrooms these machines can quickly expand a school's ICT capacity. Useful writing tool for pupils with SEN such as dyslexia or some physical disabilities.

Palm Zire

Palm OS

Battery life 10 hours.

Dimensions (mm): 74x112x4.8

Weight: 100g

Price: approx. pound;75

Tel: 0118 974 2700


Basic PDA with address book, diary, notepad and memo pad as well as a handful of games. It has a monochrome screen with no backlight, so it can be difficult to read. About the size and weight of a packet of small cigars.It will help keep you organised and you will never be short of something to write on. Through synchronisation with your computer, anything noted can be the start of a word processed document. A straightforward piece of kit that does the basics well. A USB lead will co-ordinate it with your computer, or you can beam to other, similar devices through infrared. The Palm operating system has thousands of additional programs available, such as books, travel guides and presentational tools. It will slip into your pocket and become one of those things you take everywhere with you. Like your doorkeys. A no-frills device that will keep you organised. Classroom use will be limited for traditional tasks, although with additional software it could be used for activities such as data-logging. Notepad and pencil

No batteries required.

Sample tested from WH Smith. Reporter's pad pound;1.25

Dimensions (mm): 125x200x20

Weight: 140g

HB pencil pound;0.29 The most enduring recording system yet devised. A combination of processed, compressed wood pulp and graphite. Size and weight vary. Create text and graphics and record computations. The only device tested capable of three-dimensional formats. However, graphics are purely representational and it can't handle multimedia. Is that it? Universally taken for granted, although it is a powerful medium in skilled hands. Very flexible format with an output that is not dependent on peripherals such as printers. Some examples are very valuable, others, such as dubious notes regarding uncompleted homework, can be discarded instantly. Various shades and formats of paper are available. Likewise pencils, which can be supplemented with tools such as paint or pens. Each needs to be carried independently which can hinder portability. Very much a part of the fabric of our existence. Almost universally available except when noting down numbers from the answer phone. Output heavily dependent on skill of user. Dominant tool in classrooms due to price, flexibility and reliability. Obsolescence unlikely for the foreseeable future.

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