Exploring the options – touch enabled hybrid laptops

For the past few months I have been trialing a hybrid laptop/tablet PC from Hewlett Packard the EliteBook x360. As a school we have used Apple Laptops and iPads exclusively for the last seven years with much success, but over the last 12 months there has been a surge in touch enabled devices with styluses that begin to offer some extra functionality over the MacBook range. Earlier I had been part of a bigger group of teachers who trialled the latest Microsoft Surface and were underwhelmed by the form factor and perceived durability.

Simultaneously, Apple continues to tweak its range of laptops and is slowly increasing the price of devices. Rumours swirl about the end of the 13 inch MacBook Air after they ‘killed’ the smaller 11 inch brother last summer. The MacBook Air is at a price point which is high, but I feel still offers value for money for schools if you can stretch the device to a 4th year of life. A significant group of our staff took up this option earlier this year and they seem to last ok, despite being out of warranty.

Moving forward we are considering options to give our High School students a choice of device when they reach the end of the three year cycle. Either a MacBook or a touch enabled Windows device with stylus.

What are the most noticeable differences?

IMG_8534The MacBook devices together with the latest operating system is a very smooth experience and if you are used to the workflows on the Mac the biggest change you notice in switching to a windows device is the clunkiness of the user interface in certain areas. Some features on a Mac which seem like just a tap away such as taking a screenshot of part of the screen are harder to do on windows, and the trackpad on the MacBook is far more nuanced and responsive than comparable track-pads on either HP or Microsoft Surface devices. There also seems to be more popups and software updates on a Windows device that on a Mac can be automated or at least dismissed and ignored for a while.

Is the stylus a novelty or game changer?

The touch interface is a nice feature which allows you to slide a screen up and down or to open links with the touch of a finger. In itself this is not a game changer but the form factor of the device means that in meetings you can turn the screen over and have the device facing flat and thus less obtrusive in conversations and yet still convenient to read your notes.

The stylus is a productivity tool that I thought I would use more frequently. I kept the device in a laptop mode for 90% of the time and my primary input was typing. This is just the nature of my work where I respond to emails, develop slides or prepare for lessons. One the occasions when I do annotate I might have been in a workshop learning something or reading longer PDFs when I would use the stylus to highlight. There are a couple of nice features which allow you to make tutorials quickly on a touch enabled device. Explain Everything has a free windows version which was easy to use or nice extensions to apps like Office Mix are worth exploring and faster workflows that trying to switch from a MacBook to an iPad.

Is this a bigger game changer for students?

Potentially yes. OneNote is default app for note-taking and students who have used similar devices speak highly about being able to take notes on the fly and doodle diagrams and graphs that would be impossible on a MacBook. For students at our school who take combinations such as Chemistry, Economics and Geography will nearly always take handwritten notes so they can quickly draw diagrams or show calculations. Students in other subjects like History or English seem happy to type notes in apps like Evernote or Google Apps. Looking ahead the tablet and stylus would therefore allow some students to have the best of both worlds, to scribe and type as they need. If we were to move forward with a trial we would need to do some coaching with students on how to take notes digitally and how they can augment them with audio or screenshots. These tricks don’t come naturally.

Whats next?

I am open to doing a more significant trial with students at some point this year to clearly see how they might use the stylus to support their learning. My hunch is that it will be hard to tease the students away from the MacBook and the perceived allure of the stronger brand. For some kids getting a Windows device might feel like getting a laptop just like your mum or dad, but I think we can promote some of the educational benefits and see if a small number of students are willing to make the change. From first impressions we need to research the software options in more depth so students have comparable go to programs for video editing but with such a huge majority of applications that students now use being web based, the shift doesn’t seem that traumatic or profound. For teachers and students, I think the change of device allows your to continue to do 95% of things nearly the same but with the added functionality of a stylus, so it is therefore hard to see a significant downside. For our younger Middle School students there is a stronger argument to keep everyone on a similar device so they can learn the same basic digital organisation skills and teachers can support them on one device rather than through two different options.

Disclaimer – HP Singapore provide this device for a free 3 month trial. This is my personal view and not that of the wider UWCSEA community.