Thursday, September 29, 2011

Netbook Update

Ben Grey has a post over on The Edge of Tomorrow that's worth your time if you're in the position of deciding what kinds of devices to purchase for your students. You really should go read the post (and the comments), but I just wanted to pull out my comment as some folks began investigating netbooks after a previous post of mine.

So, here was my comment (in the context of that post and comment thread, but still mostly makes sense on its own):
Let me just contribute a little info about our experience with netbooks running ubermix.

First, they clearly are inferior to the MacBooks when it comes to video editing and photo manipulation. Now, you can still do some basic video editing on low-res video, and also some basic image manipulation (cropping, brightness, etc.), but you certainly wouldn’t want to do a ton of that on the netbook unless you absolutely had to. I also agree that iLife is something that’s not matched elsewhere, which is why having some iMacs or MacBooks around for those purposes is probably ideal (which is what it looks like Ben’s district has done).

Second, a Mac is going to be a little faster than the netbook at lots of things, and that’s nice to have, and typically the screen is going to be larger (both physically and in terms of pixels), which is also nice.

Third, certainly the touch interface of an iPad (and perhaps a MacBook soon?) is a great addition in many instances (and a drawback in terms of text entry, fingerprints, and scratches).

But I don’t want to get into that part of the argument, I feel like Ben looked at many devices and tried to make the best decision possible for his students, so let me talk a bit about what our netbooks running Jim Klein’s ubermix can do, as that might be helpful to folks reading this thread. Our current district approved model is the Asus Eee #1001-PXD-MU17-BU at $259.40. I can’t tell you for sure how long the battery lasts because it lasts an entire school day, but my best guess is around 8-10 hours. Our two-year old ASUS netbooks last between 4 and 6 hours, meaning they do occasionally run out before the end of the school day. In comparison our (Dell, running Windows XP) laptop batteries last 2-3 hours and also seem to degrade and need to be replaced more quickly.

The machines boot in less than a minute (and shut down in about 20 seconds) and you have a fairly extensive list of standard software to choose from, as well as you can add just about anything open source you like. Since, like lots of folks, we are moving to more web-based software, it can quickly and easily access Google Docs (and the rest of the Google suite) using either Firefox or Chrome. It does run Flash, and Java, although occasionally we’ll run across a site that requires a specific OS (typically Windows, sometimes Windows or Mac). In general, accessing the web is quick, easy and functional.

If you don’t want to use Google Docs or something else online, it does come standard with the current version of LibreOffice, which is full-featured enough for almost any student. It also has Audacity, Skype, Gimp, Google Earth, GeoGebra, Scratch, Webcam software, and a variety of other software. The only software we’ve added to it is Logger Pro to run our science probes and some Dell printer drivers (although we have customized the look and feel quite a bit). You can, of course, download and install just about any open source Linux software.

It is easily customizable and has a very nice imaging process. Once you create the image you can copy that to a 4 GB or larger flash drive and then the imaging process takes about 6 minutes per machine using that flash drive. What I do is copy the image to 16 or so flash drives, then set out 16 netbooks on a table and start imaging. By the time I get to #16 the first one is usually done imaging. If your image is complete, then you’re done. What I do because we have netbooks in lots of different rooms is I create one image that has all of the possible printers that our netbooks print to setup on them, then after I image I simply delete all but the one that needs to be there (faster for me than copying a new image to all 16 flash drives). That probably adds about 2 minutes to each machine to do that. So, by the time I image all 16 and then work my way around and delete those printers, it’s probably about 15-20 minutes per set of 16.

These machines are not locked down (although they can be), so students can – if you or they choose – customize them. While that’s scary to some folks (again, you could lock them down), the beauty is that the built-in restore function works in about 30 seconds. On boot up you can restore to your image and it adds about 30 seconds to the boot process and keeps any user documents. Or, you can choose to completely restore – wiping out the user docs as well – and it’s about 3 minutes. You can even set them to auto-restore back to the image on each boot if you’d like. (And while I typically do it, the process is easy enough that any teacher could be given a 3-step list of instructions to restore on their own if necessary.) Other than a little bit of knowledge to first create the image (and, trust me, I only have a little bit of Linux knowledge), these don’t require much support. (In fact, that’s partially why our tech department approved them, because they don’t have to support them.)

While I don’t use this feature, you can push out updates to them from a server. A script is installed as part of your image that checks for updates, and then if you put a new update out on the server it will grab it (either at startup or shutdown I believe). I’ve chosen not to mess with that, at least partially because so far each year the updated version of ubermix has been enough better that I’ve simply chosen to reimage all of my netbooks (again, at about 15-20 minutes per set of 16, working by myself, that’s not bad, but your mileage may vary).

While our netbooks don’t go home with students, they are used pretty heavily and we’ve had very few hardware issues. In four years we’ve had 2 or 3 cracked screens, a couple of failed hard drive/ssd drives, and a fair number of keys that get picked off and then we’ve had to replace the keyboard. They connect easily to our open wireless network and seem to match our Dell laptops running Win XP in terms of download speed via wireless.

While we did do some training with our Language Arts teachers, it really wasn’t around Linux or the netbooks, it was around what to do with them. Teachers and students both just pick them up and use them – if they are comfortable using any computer, they are comfortable using these – not really much of a learning curve. We have them available for check out in our media center, and also in our Study Center, and students – even ones that don’t have a class that uses them – don’t seem to have any issues using them.

So, I’m not necessarily trying to support one side of the argument or the other, but I think many folks reading this discussion don’t have any experience with the specifics of what Ben is talking about with his netbooks running ubermix, so I’m hoping this helps a bit. For us, the cost factor (as well as the ease of setup/support) is huge. Yes, I would prefer to give our students MacBooks over netbooks, but at a greater than 3 to 1 price ratio that’s a tough call to make. I think we’ll continue to see devices evolve. In the meantime, I would encourage everyone to at least explore a netbook running ubermix if you think it might meet the needs of your students and teachers.


  1. Always balanced and clear! Thanks for this post.

  2. Hi Karl,

    Any ideas on alternative download sites for Ubermix - sounds well worth investigating. But the links on keep failing on me.



  3. Dan - Jim Klein tweeted out yesterday that the download site was having some issues, so I think he's working on a new host for the downloads. I'd suggest either contacting Jim or simply waiting a few days and trying again.

  4. Mr. Fisch I like your points a lot. I believe there is a lot of truth to them. I own an iPad and had the option to use a triple e netbook and I opted to use the iPad. I did have to use the netbook for some of the more advanced things that Google Earth has to offer. I would agree they are slower but there are how ever parts to them that make them better. As I already mentioned, there are some things that the iPad can't do. The other plus side of a netbook is that they cost much less. I will admit I have little to no experience with a Mac book, but I would imagine the cost issue would remain the same. Overall, however, iPad and Mac books are a much better value.

  5. Dan- Jim just tweeted he moved the downloads to GDocs - you might try again.