New electronic devices could interest schools

The Skiff eReader is among new technologies with implications for education.
The Skiff eReader is among new technologies with implications for education.

New netbooks, tablet computers, and eBook reader devices, as well as fresh developments in television and even a wireless tether to keep cell phones from getting lost, are among the technologies being unveiled this week at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas–technologies that might hold interest for schools and colleges as well.

Small and inexpensive netbooks have been among the most popular computers during the recession, wooing schools and consumers alike with their portability and prices that were often below $400. Now, with the economy improving, computer buyers will be asked to open their wallets to new styles of computers, including some costing a bit more.

Among the new offerings introduced at CES: lightweight, medium-sized laptops meant as a step above netbooks in price and performance, as well as a new category of device called the “smartbook,” a tiny computer that combines elements of netbooks and so-called smart phones.

That isn’t to say the netbook has reached the end of its line. PC makers such as Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, and Toshiba are demonstrating new netbook offerings with such features as touch screens and the latest Intel Atom processors, which offer improved performance over the earlier Atoms that fueled the initial run of netbooks.

But the netbook’s popularity has come at a price for the industry: slim profit margins for chipmaker Intel Corp. and the PC manufacturers.

For many PC makers, the rise of netbooks has meant falling revenue and profit from PC divisions. HP, the world’s largest computer maker, gets a third of its revenue from its PC business but just 15 percent of the company’s operating profit, numbers that are shrinking thanks to netbook sales and price cuts on other machines.

Ever since Taiwan-based AsusTek Computer Inc. got the netbook craze going with its 7-inch Eee PC in late 2007, schools and consumers have been gravitating to the devices. According to data from research company Gartner Inc., netbooks made up an estimated 10 percent of all PC shipments in 2009, up from 4 percent a year earlier.

These devices had small screens–generally 7 to 11 inches, compared with about 14 to 17 inches on a full-sized laptop–and often smaller-than-normal keyboards. PC makers kept prices down by avoiding extras such as DVD drives and Bluetooth wireless connectivity.

Netbooks were meant to be companion devices that could slip into a purse or backpack for on-the-go web surfing, though for many schools and consumers, netbooks were the only computer they bought in 2009.

Now, computer buyers can expect to see a number of devices that fit above and below the small laptops in price, size, and performance, as PC companies try to widen the market.

Lenovo Group Ltd. is banking on so-called “smartbooks,” which are meant to combine the constant internet connectivity and long battery life of a smart phone with a laptop’s classic shape.

The company announced its first smartbook, the Skylight, on Jan. 5. The skinny Skylight has a 10-inch screen, full-size keyboard, and 10 hours of battery life and weighs less than 2 pounds. It includes Wi-Fi connectivity, and users can use it over AT&T Inc.’s high-speed data network if they sign up for a data plan. If they do, the Skylight will be able to switch automatically between the two network types.

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