Pick the Perfect Tablet

The tablet that perfectly fits your classroom may be a disaster for use at home. Here's how to decide what's best for you.

Tablets. You see them everywhere. They range from about 11” tall to the phablets--the large cell phones that are practically the size of a small tablet. How do you decide what type of tablet is best for classroom use? How do decide what is best for your personal use? What are the pluses and pitfalls of each? This article will provide you with the information you need to make an informed decision.

For the purposes of this article, a tablet will be defined as a touch-screen, portable device, with no “real” keyboard, running something other than a desktop operating system, and not designated as a cell phone. Although many of these tablets have the option to include Internet access from a cell phone provider over their data networks (often called 3G, 4G, or LTE), they are not considered cell phones.

Here’s what you need to know before picking your perfect tablet.

1. There are three main operating systems, with the current versions being Google’s Android 4.2 (also known as Jelly Bean), Apple’s iOS 6, and Microsoft’s Windows RT.  A few manufacturers of Android-based tablets, most notably Amazon and Barnes and Noble, run a specialized version of Android with some limitations on access to applications.

2. For apps, both Android and iOS (Apple) tablets are good choices for personal use. Applications (commonly called apps) are the real strength of mobile devices. There seems to be an app for everything! I feel your best choice for your personal use, is an iOS or Android device to take advantage of the number of apps offered.

Many of the most useful apps are available for all operating systems. These include Twitter clients, Evernote, newsreaders, mapping and GPS apps, social networking apps, instant messaging apps, online file storage apps, and many more. The Apple and the Google Play store offer hundreds of thousands of apps in their respective stores. The Windows RT platform is fairly new, however, so their app store is still growing.


3. But stick with the Apple Store for the classroom. I have strong feelings about the platform of choice for the classroom. Apple seems to have higher quality standards for the apps that make it into their store. For educators who are searching the thousands of apps looking for one that will work well on their devices, Apple wins the contest in my book. Does this mean the content of the apps in the Apple app store are more pedagogically sound than those for the other platforms? Absolutely not. You still need to evaluate the apps for their ease of use and good content before having students use them.  These evaluation sheets can help you evaluate both content and creation apps to use with students and work for any tablet operating system.

4. Most tablets should last you through the school day. The majority of tablets claim an 8-10 hour battery life. This makes them perfect for classroom use (either just for you, or for your class) since they can be used for the entire school day without being recharged!

5. There are two main sizes for tablets. There are the full-size tablets that range from about 10” tall x 7” wide and weigh approximately 1.5 pounds, to the smaller tablets at about 8” tall by 5” wide, and which weigh a bit less than a pound. The resolution (the number of pixels on the screen) varies with the devices, and though the larger resolution is absolutely stunning, the screen on the smaller device is perfectly fine for reading and viewing.

6. Larger is better for younger students. For the classroom setting, I recommend a larger tablet for the younger students (grades PreK-5) and a smaller tablet for the middle and high school students.

The larger screen for younger students is helpful when using the device for writing and drawing projects and the larger, onscreen keyboard is easier for them to use, too. In these grades, the devices are often used on a flat surface or in the student’s lap, and the larger form factor supports this.

7. Older students benefit from a smaller tablet. For the older students--who might be shooting video in the field, working on projects on lab tables, using their thumbs to type on the tablet’s onscreen keyboard, or reading a lengthy novel-- I feel the smaller tablets are a better choice. And, in a one-to-one initiative, the middle school and high school backpacks benefit from the lighter weight of the smaller tablets.

8. Consider lifestyle when choosing your own personal tablet. The most important question: How you are going to use your tablet? Is it something that you are going to use when you are at home, in your comfortable chair or at your desk? If so, a full-size table is for you.

Do you want to carry the tablet around in a jacket pocket or pocketbook? Will you be reading with one hand as you ride public transport? Do you want to use your tablet as a GPS in the car? I recommend a smaller one. I now carry my iPad Mini with me all of the time. It has service on a cell phone provider’s data network in addition to its built-in 802.11x WiFi, so I have access to the Internet wherever I am. It is more functional for me to get work done, reply to emails, read a book and look up information than on my cell phone.

9. Sharing tablets takes a little extra effort. A tablet is intended to be a single user device. This makes it difficult to share these devices, whether among family members or students in a classroom. Out of the box, the tablets get set up for a single user. The customization of email settings, browser bookmarks, music lists, and such, are intended for that one user. Of course, other users can use the Web browser or sign out of apps that permit that and sign in as themselves, and have the ability to use the device, too.

For classroom deployments of tablets and purchasing of apps, Apple offers this deployment guide. However, the management of iOS devices, whether they are shared or 1-to-1, often requires the addition of a third-party management program.

The newest version of the Android operating system, Jelly Bean, as well as the Windows RT operating system, do allow the easy creation of multiple profiles on the tablet, providing each user with access to their own information. So, for your personal use, if the tablet is to be shared among family members, this provides a way to separate each user’s information.

For schools that are just starting out, I do suggest that devices are deployed to one or two classrooms rather than put them on one or two shared carts. The great successes that come from the use of tablets depend on them being available all of the time and at point of need, not just on a scheduled basis. Once the successes in those classrooms have been documented over the school year, it makes it so much easier to expand the program to additional classrooms!


10. Use “the cloud” to access your files anywhere. Each of the tablet operating systems provides access to an online file storage location. By saving your files “in the cloud”, you are able to access them from desktops, phones and other devices. Apple has iCloud, which provides the users with the ability to sync their photos across devices and get access to Pages, Numbers, and Keynote documents. On the Android side, Google has Google Drive, which provides the user with the ability to store any type of file in that space. (There is also a Google Drive app for the iOS users, too!) Microsoft has its own online file storage area called Skydrive. It is built-in to the Windows RT operating systems, but there are also Skydrive apps for the iOS and Android platforms. Many users take advantage of the easy-to-use Dropbox app online file storage system. There is a Dropbox app for both iOS and Android, and one for Windows RT should be available soon.

By saving items in the cloud, it’s easy to get to your files no matter what device you are using!

The Bottom Line

These are just some of the items to consider when contemplating the purchase of tablets for both personal and classroom use. I did not include the processors and the size of the internal storage on the devices in the article. Suffice it to say that the tablets are all speedy and many of the tablets come in different “flavors” with additional internal storage available. Also, some versions of the tablets include a special option for using the cell phone provider’s network for Internet access in addition to the internal WiFi ability all tablets have. If you are interested in that feature, be sure to ask your cell phone provider about it, since the devices that do allow this access are often different from the base model.

Want even more information? View this chart (.pdf, specifications gathered 12/24/12) to review specs for current tablets on the market. There are other companies that license the Android and Window RT operating systems for their own branded tablets, but this chart should give you a good start.

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