I have long been disappointed by a basic contradiction–my own research and that of others has shown that 1-to-1 laptop programs are very valuable educationally, but such programs have nevertheless been slow to spread in the US. For that reason I became quite interested in the potential of low-cost netbooks using open source software in US schools, because I saw such initiatives as potentially much more affordable. And our research over the last couple of years has shown the great success of one-to-one programs using low-cost open source netbooks, for example in Saugus and in Littleton.
For several years I thought that a price of $250 for an educational laptop would represent a tipping point, sending many more districts to implement 1-to-1 programs. Unfortunately, the recession intervened since I came to that conclusion, and I suspect the price point is now somewhat lower — say $200.
Some would say that OLPC’s xo represents a great $200 educational computer, but research on its use in the field suggests otherwise. Problems with its screen, keyboard, touchpad, and charger cable quickly renders many XOs unusable. In addition, battery life degrades quickly and the laptop is underpowered. Finally, the tiny screen and keyboard may make it suitable for first grade students, but make it more difficult to use by upper elementary students who are better equipped to actually make good educational use of computers. And, in any case, as it is not available on the retail market, individual schools or districts may not even be able to buy XOs, even if they want to.
Asus has made some excellent sub-$300 netbooks suitable for schools, including the Eee PC 1011PX, which runs for about $270. However, I am particularly excited about a new Asus model, the Eee PC X101, which sells retail for $199. Jim Klein, a guru of low-cost netbooks + Linux in schools, has published a remarkably informative video comparison of the 1011PX and the X101. Much of my remaining comments are gleaned from Jim’s wonderful review.
In addition to being $70 cheaper, the X101 is actually superior to the 1011PX in two important ways. First, it’s thinner and weighs less, always an important factor for a machine that is being carted around by children, whether within their class or back and forth to home. (Its dimensions are similar to those of a MacBook Air, and it weighs a little less, making it one of the smallest and lightest netbooks with a 10″ screen available.) Secondly, since the X101 has a solid state drive, it turns on quickly, loads programs quickly, and for many functions performs more quickly then the 1011PX. The solid state drive also makes the X101 more durable, since it lacks moving parts.
All that being said, the 1011PX has some advantages too. It’s 160GB spinning hard drive has much more capacity than the 8GB hard drive of the X101 (though with Google Apps for Education and other free cloud services, most schools will not find that an issue). Its dual core processor processer handles certain demanding applications, such as high-definition video, better than the single core processor of the 101X. Unlike the X101, the 1011PX has a video out port, allowing it to be directly connected to an external monitor or projector. And, perhaps most importantly, the 1011PX comes with the option of a 6-cell battery that will last throughout the school day. The 101X battery–described as being 3-cell on the Asus Website and as 4-cell in Jim Klein’s YouTube–reportedly lasts about 4 hours. Depending on how much the laptop is used, and especially after the battery has degraded a bit, it might require plugging in for recharging sometime during the school day (e.g., on a laptop cart).
I have not used either one of these netbooks and certainly can’t offer a definitive perspective. However, if I were a school or district, I would certainly want to try out the 101X to see if it passes muster. And if I represented a large district or a state, I would lobby ASUS to develop a model that combines the advantages of both of these, especially the solid state drive of the X101 and the 6-cell battery of the 1011PX. Throw in a dual core processor, and you’ve probably got the just-right $250 educational laptop–at least until something better comes along!
Oh, one more thing: the X101 and the 1011PX ship with different operating systems, the Linux-based Meego for the former and Windows 7 starter edition for the latter. I would recommend replacing both with the “Ubermix” build of Linux/Ubuntu that Klein has developed and which he generously makes available for download.