Netbooks can be a cost-effective way to get more computers out to pupils. Simon Fisher helps you make the right choice
As schools look to improve their ratio of computers to pupils at a time of shrinking budgets, netbooks can be an attractive option. Despite competition from tablets and budget ultraportable laptops, netbooks arguably provide the best balance between cost, mobility and usability, combining a small form factor with a physical keyboard and a relatively low purchase price.
Netbooks can be seen as miniature laptops, typically sporting 10in screens and running a full operating system and applications. It needs to be clear that selecting a netbook over a laptop involves making a compromise, but this doesn’t have to be a problem as long as the school is aware of how these devices differ from their full-sized counterparts.
Size and weight are key differentiators. Typically, netbooks weigh between 1.1 and 1.5kg, dramatically less than the 2 to 2.5kg of the average laptop. This, along with reduced dimensions, makes them more flexible for classroom use. Schools adopting a “blended” learning approach – not solely relying on technology-based materials – may be far more comfortable with devices that don’t take up a whole desk, and that can be moved easily around the classroom. Similarly, schools that envisage allocating a device to each pupil on a semi-permanent basis may prefer a netbook that can be easily transported between lessons.
Keyboards can be a sticking point. While a smaller case clearly necessitates a smaller keyboard, manufacturers are finding ways around this. Using the whole chassis width, as commonly seen on modern 10in models, allows for a keyboard that’s typically 80 to 90% of the size of a regular laptop model – and while certain keys may be consolidated, moved or shrunk, these keyboards will be usable for a wide range of year groups, as well as staff.
The 16:9 displays found on most netbooks usually have a resolution of 1,024 x 600; an improvement on the 800 x 480 of very early models. This provides a good horizontal resolution, allowing the majority of websites to be rendered correctly, but the lack of vertical pixels can give you the feeling you’re looking through a letterbox. While this isn’t an issue for word processing, pupils may struggle when working on spreadsheets or PowerPoint presentations. Pupils with visual impairments using accessibility tools, such as the screen magnifier, could also struggle. Some manufacturers incorporate glossy displays, providing more intense colours and contrast ratios – but while attractive, these act as a magnet for fingerprints.
Netbooks always lack an optical drive, but this isn’t the issue it might seem. Few schools now install software manually onto each computer, preferring disk-imaging software to install a standard configuration. Also, as SaaS (software as a service) products, such as Microsoft’s Office 365, become more commonplace, the need for traditional software installation via physical media is likely to reduce even further.
Netbooks don’t usually offer the same level of connectivity as full-sized laptops, but the basics are usually well covered. All include at least two USB ports, a VGA output, an Ethernet port, a headphone output and built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi. A few models will have HDMI outputs, meaning you can easily connect them to HD projectors and displays. A multicard reader, included on some models, can make the process of downloading photographs or videos from capture devices much easier. At the same time, too many connections in a small chassis can be disastrous. For instance, if the USB ports are grouped too closely together it can make it impossible to insert a USB memory stick at the same time as anything else. If possible, check before you buy.