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PC trends in education: Thin is in

Personal computers are changing in ways that go beyond even the more recent innovations, such as the launch of Windows 7: Several of today’s laptops are missing a familiar component, computers can be controlled in various new ways, and portable PCs are slimming down.

Even with all the attention lavished on Apple’s iPhone and Inc.’s Kindle this year, a PC or laptop still is likely to be the center of a student’s digital universe. Here’s a look at what this year’s computer trends mean for the personal computing–and especially for education.

• Drives are becoming a thing of the past.

Computers have come with “optical drives,” slots for CDs or DVDs, for years. They’ve been useful for installing new software, watching movies, or transferring music libraries into digital form. But one of the biggest lessons from the craze for netbooks is that people were so excited about the small, easy-to-carry size that they didn’t miss having a CD or DVD drive. And students who use school-issued machines primarily for word processing and accessing the internet aren’t likely to miss such a drive, either. (Plus, it’s one less way unwanted software can invade the machines.)

Apple Inc. got rid of an optical drive two years ago when it introduced the first sliver-thin MacBook Air. That wasn’t seen as a trendsetting step at the time, because the computer–which cost $1,800 then–wasn’t meant for mainstream consumption. But netbooks, which start as low as $250, are made for everyone.

The tiny laptops’ popularity is proof that people are finding it easy enough to download software, movies, and music to portable computers, especially with the widespread availability of Wi-Fi and cellular internet service. And plenty of services let users store files over the internet, eliminating the need to burn backups to discs.

Taking out the optical drive doesn’t significantly lower prices. But doing so does let PC makers design much thinner laptops. Companies such as Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. have pulled DVD drives out of mid-range to more expensive computers, such as HP’s Pavilion dm3z, which starts at $550, all the way up to the $1,700-and-up HP Envy and Dell’s $1,500-and-up Adamo.

Downloading ability has improved dramatically, and often software is delivered across a network, “so there’s no need for an optical drive,” said technology analyst Rob Enderle. Students are more likely to eMail or use peer-to-peer setups to share files and other items, he said, further reducing the need for optical drives.

Users might want to think twice, however, if they are hooked on transferring CDs into MP3s–or if they spend a lot of time watching DVDs on their computer screen and don’t want to squint at an iPod screen or get a separate portable video player.

• Good enough is plenty.

It might sound impressive when a PC sales pitch mentions multicore processors, state-of-the-art graphics chips, six or eight gigabytes of memory, and hard drives with a terabyte–1,000 gigabytes–of storage. But another thing netbooks have shown is that with a few exceptions–such as professional-grade video editing, and maybe hardcore video-game playing–having lots of PC power is overkill.

There’s very little software that can take advantage of these powerful computers, Enderle said. That means there’s no “killer app,” the program that’s so cool or so useful it persuades everyday PC users to trade up.

While the microprocessors that act as the brains inside netbooks are less powerful than even those found in inexpensive full-sized laptops, they are sufficient for most web browsing, eMailing, and word processing. And these computers are getting bigger hard drives, which users need for storing digital photos, music, and video. Overall, they’re good enough that to people replacing three- and four-year-old PCs, netbooks feel downright fast.

Netbooks are gaining more popularity in education, too, where computers often are used primarily for creating documents, browsing the web, and collaborating online.

“The need for the higher-performance machines just isn’t there,” said Enderle, adding that netbooks’ lighter weight can help students who develop back problems as a result of backpacks overstuffed with heavy textbooks and other course materials.

School technology buyers, and consumers in general, should go for more power only if their machines will be used to edit high-definition video, play graphics-intensive games, or process large data sets. Those tasks would require beefier machines.

• Everything’s getting carried away.

People want internet access all the time, and PC makers are betting that “smart” phones–even the iPhone–aren’t big or ergonomic enough for anything more complex or time-consuming than a quick eMail reply.

But already the line between phones and PCs is blurring: PC makers are teaming with mobile carriers to sell netbooks that cost as little as $99 as long as the buyer subscribes to a wireless data service. A new buzzword, “smartbooks,” is emerging to describe a device that runs a smart-phone operating system such as Google Inc.’s Android, but on bigger hardware that is more like a PC than a phone.

And while cell phones and smart phones might become distractions in the classroom if students use them to Twitter or send text messages, Enderle said students will begin using smart phones like laptops in the not-too-distant future.

Most course materials don’t yet lend themselves to cell phones, he added, but the devices are on the rise and will probably replace laptops at some point.

To get students and others to carry their laptops to the corner coffee shop, PC companies are treating their wares as fashion accessories, not just tools. You’ll see more colors and patterns, more design-conscious shapes, and more use of upscale materials.

“Thin and light is sort of the new black,” said Forrester Research analyst Paul Jackson.

The next frontier: cutting the cord for longer stretches. New chips that require less energy are emerging, and advances in battery technology will extend the time people can use their laptops unplugged in the coming years.

• Hands-on has its place.

In 2007, the iPhone made “multitouch” mainstream. Unlike ATM screens, which recognize one finger pushing on one spot at a time, the iPhone’s screen responds to pinching and swiping gestures made with multiple fingers. Microsoft Corp.’s coffee-table-sized Surface computer, designed for hotel lobbies and shops and also released in 2007, responds to similar gestures and can be operated by several people at once–as can SMART Technologies’ SMART Table.

Now, the PC is in on the action. Windows 7 includes more support for multitouch applications, making some basic touch commands work even on programs that weren’t designed for it. Users will see more laptops and “all-in-one” desktops–computers that stash all the technology in the case behind the screen–with multitouch screens. HP, Dell, and others have designed software intended to make it easy to flip through photos and music or browse the web with a fingertip instead of a mouse.

Apple, for its part, has multitouch trackpads for laptops and a multitouch mouse but says it isn’t interested in making a touch-screen Mac. Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook calls that “a gimmick.”

Will multitouch functionality replace the mouse and keyboard? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean it won’t become a useful part of the way users work with computers. Watching someone who has used a touch-screen computer for several months is interesting–he’ll reach to the screen to scroll down a web page just as fluidly as he types and uses the mouse.

Many of these new computing advances deal with changes in a user’s ability to move information and materials, and education is all about moving information to students, Enderle said.







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