The Pro's And Con's Of Tablet PCs In The Classroom

Considering tablet PCs for your classroom? Cincinnati Country Day School put the Toshiba M400 through its paces.

Moore’s Law, in one of its variations, observes that computing capacity per dollar of cost doubles every 18 months. Rarely has this been more apparent than with the Toshiba Portege M400 tablet PC, which doubles the capacity of the Portege M200 at the same price.

Beyond the basic specifications, the M400 has much to recommend it as a tablet PC for use in schools.


Usability

A student-friendly 4.5 pounds, the M400 is Toshiba’s third-generation ultraportable tablet PC. The M400 retains the magnesium alloy case introduced in the M200 but adds shock-absorbing components around the LCD panel and inverter, main chassis and hard drive. Like the M200, the M400 features a 3D accelerometer, but adds a software utility that parks the hard drive heads when jarring is detected.

In a school environment, screen breakage is a significant concern, with a broken screen carrying a $1,000 price tag. As with the M200, a transparent polycarbonate mask covers the screen. In our experience, the mask prevents screen damage in all but the most traumatic incidents and costs only $300 to replace.

From the standpoint of usability, Toshiba has moved various ports and controls closer to the front of the M400 chassis, where they are easier to reach. Lest this seem trivial, students in class can reach front and side controls without standing and peering over the tablet to reach the rear.

For example, compared to the M200, the wireless on-off switch has moved from the left side to the front. Two USB 2.0 ports have moved from the rear to the left side (a third remains at the rear), and an IEEE 1394 i.LINK port has been added on the left. The Secure Digital card slot has moved to the right side, and it now accommodates memory sticks and xD picture cards.

Improvements

The emergency stylus, i.e., the stylus you have in reserve when someone borrows your primary stylus, has been moved from a bracket under the M200 battery to a separate slot on the bottom of the M400 case. Gone are the days of removing the battery to retrieve the emergency stylus. The M400 also internalizes the optical drive (CD and DVD reader and writer), available as a USB-attached unit on earlier models, which students often forget with frustrating regularity, disrupting multimedia-based lesson plans.

Disadvantages

Our concerns about the M400 relate to the design and placement of the primary stylus, which is stored in a spring-loaded slot on the right side of the unit. Unfortunately, it is easy to fail to notice that the stylus is missing.

While Toshiba sells a stylus tether, it is mechanically too frail to be useful. The stylus latches into its storage slot by its plastic pocket clip, which breaks all too easily, and prevents the stylus from latching properly. A replacement stylus costs $30.

Jeffry A. Spain is network administrator at Cincinnati Country Day School in Ohio, now in its 11th year of one-to-one computing, with 650 tablet PCs deployed to students and faculty.

Oct 31 2006

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