in Education

Dell Latitude 2110: a review.

Context: I’m looking at this netbook from a user outcomes point of view. Although currently working at JISC infoNet in the Further/Higher education sector, I was previously Director of E-Learning of a 3-19 Academy, and taught History and ICT for 6 years in secondary schools in England.

(if you’re on an iPad or non-Flash device click here for images)

Introduction

I’m sure schools exist in some kind of parallel dimension to the rest of the world. To be successful in them, whether you’re a member of staff or a student, you need to work much harder than the rest of the world to jump through hoops that others care about only in passing. Having been on both sides of the fence I’m aware of two things: that most teachers don’t understand the world of business and that, more importantly, business doesn’t really understand the world of education.

Let me explain. Practices (i.e. the everyday life of the classroom) are predicated upon the affordances of an objects, devices and other 3rd-party props:

An affordance is a quality of an object, or an environment, that allows an individual to perform an action.

In my experience, affordances are usually the result of the confluence of two or more features. For example, stored maps + GPS + touchscreen + voice synthesiser = satnav. The affordance is the ability to get to your destination. Affordances, in turn, are predicated upon specifications.

Unfortunately, and I’ve expressed my frustration about this before, a focus on ‘functional specifications‘ therefore misses the point. It’s what the user does with an object, device or prop (towards a larger learning goal) rather than its specifications that is important. Most educators get this; most business people don’t. There’s been a lot of talk about the iPad this year, and for good reason. Apple have focused on the affordances of the device to such an extreme level that the average user has no idea about its specifications. As Jonathan Ive explains, this makes it feel, in a way, magical.

Review

I’m not particularly interested in the specifications of the Dell Latitude 2110; I’m interested in what it allows users to do and how it fits in with the classroom environment. I’ve had some success with the Asus Eee 1000H because of two main affordances: reliability (long battery life and well-built) and portability (lightweight and relatively small). I’m going to take the Asus Eee 1000H as my reference point for the rest of this review.

Is the Dell Latitude 2110 better than the Asus Eee 1000H? Yes. In fact, it would be my recommendation for any educational institution looking at rolling out portable devices with keyboards. Let me explain why from an affordances point of view; if you want a full technical run-down head over to Expert Reviews or (better still) Notebook Check.

First of all, the screen that came with my review sample was high resolution (1366×768) and glossy. Perhaps not great for outdoors work (because of the reflectiveness) but great for making things look fantastic indoors. That’s why Apple put glossy screens on their MacBooks, after all.

Secondly, the processor (1.83Ghz Intel Atom), coupled with 1Ghz RAM allows for quick browsing, especially when you swap out Internet Explorer for Google Chrome. Whilst I found that students are willing to be more forgiving of the relative performance drop when working with netbooks (a trade-off of convenience) there isn’t really likely to be a problem here. It’s nippy. Windows 7 is a much better operating system for netbooks than Windows XP (which, after all, is almost 10 years old). My review sample came with Windows 7 Professional but this comes at an additional cost. If you just need cloud-based wifi access I’d forgo this and use something like Ubuntu Netbook Edition.

Full HD video is 1080p. Attempting to play a 1080p preview of the film Kick-Ass downloaded from Filmous almost worked. That is to say that the audio was fine but the video stuttered with graphically-intensive scenes. Playing YouTube videos and embedded media, however, is no problem. Perhaps the ultimate test, though, for a netbook is Google Earth. It’s a tool used widely in schools – and not just in Geography lessons. It requires a decent machine for a smooth experience. How did the Dell Latitude 2110 fare? A similar story to the video clip, really: whilst you can certainly navigate your way around, it’s a little jerky and 3D buildings are a no-no.

Not all classrooms have speakers to couple with the obligatory interactive whiteboard. A daft omission, to be sure, but a fact of life. Many is the time I’ve been shunted into a classroom at the last moment only for the video clip I’ve prepared as part of the lesson be inaudible. Even without amplification the Dell Latitude 2110 is surprisingly loud. In fact, I was shocked how distortion-free and powerful the built-in speakers were. A definite plus point.

The inclusion of a 3G WWAN port is a curious decision. If this is an education-focused product, then a 3G connection presents somewhat of a security problem. Schools have internet filtering in place and, in some cases, this is rather restrictive – leading to students finding creative ways of bypassing it. I have no doubt that students would find a way to put a SIM card in the slot behind the battery, ‘necessity’ being the mother of invention. Whilst I think that mobile broadband, especially for field trips and the like, is of great value, network managers and IT technicians might beg to differ. It does, however, make it attractive to another market – business travellers.

One of the great things about early netbooks is that they almost all came with Solid State Devices (SSDs) instead of Hard Disk Drives (HDDs). The difference is that whilst the latter have moving parts, the former do not and, in fact, are a lot quicker. You get less storage space for your money but they’re much more robust. Bizarrely, perhaps because some people are opting to use netbooks as their primary devices (think teenagers with burgeoning music/video collections) SSDs are being slowly replaced by HDDs. The review sample I received came with a 160GB HDD which is a shame, really. The HDD of my father’s Asus Eee 1000H, bought last year on my recommendation, has just died. In a device like the Dell Latitude 2110, ostensibly built to be robust, not including an SSD by default is a mistake.

Whilst an upgrade to a SSD instead of a HDD is one I’d recommend, I’d advise against a touchscreen. Whilst my review sample did not come with one, I’ve used them on laptops and netbooks before. Touchscreens on devices with one-way hinges don’t really work: pressing with anything more with a glancing touch moves the whole screen (frustrating!).

My only misgiving, really, about the review sample I was sent is a degree of uncertainty about the battery life. The standard battery pack (an extended battery pack is available) is quoted at 4.5 hours which isn’t the 7 hours of the Asus Eee 1000H. I’d want to be able to rely on it lasting all the school day. Although I should imagine with strategic use it would be fine, it’s a niggling doubt.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, how does it feel? It is something you find yourself just picking up and using? Well… yes, it is. The keyboard is as close to full-size as you’ll get with a netbook and, in fact, I touch-typed this whole review on it. It’s comfortable and rests on the knees or upon any nearby surface. Although I think the corners could be a little better protected, the ruggedized coating means, for example, I’ve had no problem in giving it to my 3 year-old to carry around an play CBeebies games on it.

Do I recommend the Dell Latitude 2110? Yes. In fact, as I alluded to earlier, if I was back in my role as Director of E-Learning I’d be using this as my new benchmark for portable devices with keyboards. I’d probably look at getting Ubuntu Netbook Edition on there and, with the money saved, plumping for the extended battery pack. I reckon 9.5 hours is enough for anybody!

Disclaimer: I was sent this unsolicited sample on behalf of Dell on the understanding that I was able to do a ‘full, frank’ review of it. No money has changed hands and I expect to have to return it eventually.

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