Sunday, November 25, 2012

Educational Tablet Decisions

With so many tablets on the market, it is important that educational institutions make decisions that are sound educationally and financially. What can they do? What do we want them for? The evidence is pretty clear that just choosing a cheaper tablet to save money is not a good plan. Instead we need to weigh functionality, apps, cost, support, and other decisions important to your organization. Through my own experiences and extensive online research, I have put together this guide. The final decision will be yours. While there are several tablets on the market, this post will focus on what are widely considered to be the best options as of today.

Manufacturer specs: SurfaceiPadNexus 10iPad MiniNexus 7 
* Battery life data as provided by manufacturers. More data based on testing is below.

App Support

There is no doubt that the selection of Apps for the iPad is greater than those for the Nexus, while the Surface is only just beginning to have apps developed for it. This has a significant impact in educational apps, where developers put more effort into developing apps for Apple iOS. While many apps exist in both iOS and Android versions, it is not universal and far fewer apps are optimized for the Nexus 10 as compared to the Nexus 7 (Mashable, Nov 2012). For example, apps I have featured previously in this blog exist only in iPad versions. If there are specific apps you know you need, then research the availability of these apps ahead of time, otherwise, the advantage is currently in the iPad corner.

Office Suites

Do you want word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations? There are several good presentation tools designed to take advantage of the touch design of tablets (see Explain Everything). Otherwise, you can go the suite route with one of these solutions. However, no single solution may meet all of your needs.
  • Google Docs: Accessible on all platforms via web browser or Drive app. This suite is critical to many schools due to Google Apps for Education integration. Unfortunately, there are no great tablet apps for the Google Docs suite. Instead you will be limited to very lite editing functionality, regardless of platform. 
  • Microsoft Office: MS Office is a standard app on Windows Surface. This is an almost complete version that will give heavy MS Office users most of the functionality they need. Microsoft is said to be working on Office for iPads and Android tablets for a Spring 2013 release. In the meantime, third party apps such as Kingsoft for Nexus (free) or access to Skydrive via a web browser and an account (free) gives access to a good, if lite, rendition of MS Office on any device.
  •  iWorks: iPad has the iWorks suite of applications. These work well with beautiful layout and design options, but are not as complete as their desktop counterparts. In a Mac-centric setting, this suite of apps will fulfill your needs and will cost $5 per title in volume pricing, or $10 per app on their own. 


Getting data into your tablet will occur in primarily four different ways: camera, microphone, touch and keyboard. Each device also supports some level of data transfer to and/or from USB.

  • Keyboards: Despite the hype in Surface advertisements, the fancy keyboard is not standard. If you are planning for any serious amounts of writing on the tablets, a strong consideration to keyboards should be given. Each tablet has its own options and will connect either via bluetooth or via connecting a cable. The prices vary widely ($40-$100) and proper research on quality should be done. 
  • Cameras: Every device has two cameras (except Nexus 7) with up to a 5 mp HD resolution. These will serve for everything from photo and video shoots, to video collaboration via Hangouts, Skype, Facetime and more. This is an indispensable tool, especially in educational settings.
  • Microphones: Every device has a microphone which can be used for adding audio to different productions, but is usually used invisibly during video camera usage.
  • Touch: Every app developed for a tablet should be easily able to accept input via touch. This includes everything from typing to stylus writing to drawing to drag-and-drop. Some apps will do all of the above.
  • Bonus: USB/MicroSD/Lightning ports: Using ports to transfer data into or out of the tablets will be relatively easy on everything except the iPad. The iPad is limited to using it's data port for transferring photos. Other devices will allow for much more data management through the ports including various documents. For the iPad (and other tablets) you can also rely on cloud storage from Box, DropBox, iCloud (iPad only) or other services.

Battery Life

As an educational tool in a 1:1 setting, battery life will be a major consideration. Fortunately, most tablets claim to have a battery life that will get you through a full school day of use. Since trusting the manufacturer's numbers is not good enough, we can also look into the results of tests run by unbiased researchers. In one such test, the iPad well outperforms its counterparts with up to 13 hours of battery life while the Nexus 10 only reaches 8.1 hours in the test. This could prove highly important with students or teachers who forget to charge every day. Read more from Eric Franklin at CNET.


For Google Apps for Education schools, I am reluctant to push any one device, even the Nexus. I have found through experience, that several apps exist to access different aspects of the Google App universe, yet no single tablet does it perfectly. In all other scenarios the decision making will not get any easier.

The iPad is still the leader in many performance categories. The ease of use, battery life, and plethora of apps makes it the strongest candidate, especially in the full-size tablet market. If you are looking to cut costs and still get a quality device, the Nexus 7 is getting good reviews, often better than its 10" counterpart. The iPad mini seems to be overpriced and underpowered by comparison, with the only major benefit being that it is in the iPad universe. Another nice feature of the Nexus devices is multiple logins which could be really beneficial in less than 1:1 situations.

A perk for the Surface tablet is the default 32gb of storage. This could be highly beneficial in a 1:1 setting long term. In general I would lean toward the larger screen devices. Doing a lot of reading, producing, and watching on a smaller screen could become more and more straining on the eyes. Additionally, the larger screened devices also come with better internal parts on everything from screen resolution, to video graphics, processors, and more.

Whatever you decide, it should be done with the awareness that nothing technical in this blog will last for long, but sound educational decisions will make a lifetime of difference.


Awaiting Microsoft Office Apps for iOS and Android;; Nov 2012;

Battery Life Battle Royale Nexus vs. iPad; CNET; Nov 6, 2012;

Microsoft Office for Windows RT; ZDNet; Oct 17, 2012;

Microsoft Web Apps for iPad a Game Changer; Byte; Aug 23, 2012;

Nexus 7 Review (video); The Verge; June 29, 2012;

Nexus 10: Can Google Compete with the iPad; Mashable Tech; Nov 4, 2012;

Chad McGowan is a high school technology teacher and professional development specialist in technology. Over the past 16 years, Chad has taught a variety of math and computer course from 7-12. Since 2000, Chad has been guiding other professionals in technology by staying current and learning from those around him. Follow Chad on Twitter @ahstechteacher and through this blog.

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