Toshiba Encore 2 Windows 8 Tablet

I recently looked at the Acer Switch 10 convertible laptop and was, for the most part, pleasantly surprised by the sub-$400 laptop/tablet running Windows 8. Despite a couple of issues and concerns, the Switch 10 is a tempting alternative to iPads or Chromebooks for the classroom. The Toshiba Encore 2 WT8-B is a smaller, cheaper, Windows 8 tablet that has similar specifications to the Switch, but cuts a lot of corners along the way.

Encore 2 WT8-B

The most obvious change is the size. The Encore 2 has an 8-inch screen but keeps the same resolution as the Switch. While this does mean the Encore 2 has a higher PPI (pixel per inch), it was significantly more difficult to accurately interact with Windows Desktop applications. I often found I was not touching in the correct spot to minimize a window or click a checkbox.

The Encore 2 is also a tablet-only device. You could connect an external keyboard, but it would simply be another accessory that you have to carry with you. Toshiba sells a Bluetooth keyboard case for the Encore 2, but it is designed around the 10" model. It is also expensive making the combined price higher than the Switch 10.

Internally, the Encore appears to be nearly identical to the Switch. It uses the same chipset (CPU and graphics), has the same resolution screen, and the same amount of storage. The biggest difference is that the Encore 2 only has 1GB of RAM, half that of the Switch 10. This is not enough for any Windows device, and in fact the pre-installed Symantec utility warned of potential performance issues due to high memory usage. This message appeared immediately after powering the device on for the first time, and it was complaining about a core Windows service.

Speaking of pre-installed software, it always amazes me that Windows OEM's continue to find value loading up devices with applications that not only provide no value to the customer, but are actually detrimental to the experience the customer has with the device. The Switch 10 did have some pre-loaded software, but it was minimal and I was never prompted or interrupted by it. It is a different story with the Encore 2. The Symantec software has repeatedly popped up warning me about performance, asking me to register, or asking if I want my "toolbar back" in Chrome. The other drawback to pre-installed software, especially on these entry-level Windows devices, is the impact on storage. The Encore 2 has 32GB of storage, of which only 18.3GB is free out of the box.

The button layout of the Encore 2 was odd as well. The power and volume buttons were in fairly standard locations (on the left edge of the tablet when held in portrait mode), but the Windows button is on the top of the device. The Switch 10 used a capacitive button on the front of device just below the screen which is far more convenient. Reaching for the top of the Encore 2 for the Windows button just felt awkward every time.

At roughly $250 the Encore 2 is definitely in iPad Mini and Chromebook territory. The touch precision issue and lack of keyboard means that you would realistically be limited to apps specifically designed for Windows 8. Windows Desktop applications are virtually unusable. Considering the small amount of RAM and the device constantly complaining about memory-hogging processes, using the Encore 2 regularly would be quite frustrating. The Switch 10 was a compelling alternative to iPads or Chromebooks, but the Encore 2 8-inch tablet just cuts too many corners.

Note that there is a 10.1 inch Encore 2 that has specs nearly identical to the Switch 10, but it does not include the keyboard. If you add the keyboard, the Encore 2 10.1 inch model is significantly more expensive than the Switch 10.

Acer Switch 10 - A Windows laptop... or tablet

The Acer Switch 10 is a Windows 8 convertible laptop that can be used as either a laptop or tablet. The laptop mode is a typical clamshell design, but the screen can be easily detached by simply pulling it apart from the keyboard base allowing you to use it as a tablet. The screen is held to the keyboard using magnets. The connection is quite strong, and you can pick up and hold the laptop by the screen without the keyboard coming loose. Acer advertises two other modes as well, but I am hard pressed to think of examples where I would use them. The first is in a "tent" position with the screen facing out. The second is similar to the standard clamshell configuration, but having the screen facing away from the keyboard.

Obviously to function as a tablet, the Switch has a touch screen. The screen is bright, and uses a light sensor to adjust the brightness setting automatically. It was easy to read the screen in a variety of indoor lighting conditions, including a classroom. Although not the highest resolution screen (1280 x 800), there is enough detail to be productive. Touch accuracy was quite good, even when in Windows Desktop mode. I had little difficulty interacting with window controls (minimize, resize, move), or clicking on buttons, links, or other user interface elements.

As mentioned, the keyboard connects to the screen magnetically and holds quite well. This is partly due to the use of strong magnets, and partly because the keyboard is very light. The disadvantage to the weight of the screen versus keyboard is that if the screen is open too far, the laptop will tip over. If using the touch screen, the laptop doesn't need to be open very far to have a touch tip it over.

The keys on the keyboard are necessarily small with little key travel. Touch typists will find the keyboard uncomfortable, but students accustomed to using on-screen keyboards will have little trouble adapting.

The overall size of the Switch 10 is similar to an iPad though thicker (even without the keyboard). I was able to use the Switch with an iPad document camera stand, and it fits easily in our storage units for the iPads. It is heavier than an iPad, especially an iPad Air, but similar to many of the entry level Chromebooks.

The included storage is extremely small (32GB) for a Windows device. You will quickly run out of space once you start installing Windows applications, but there are options for file and media storage via a micro SD slot and USB port.

The Switch has 2GB of RAM and a quad-core Intel Atom processor. It is unfortunate that Intel continued with the Atom name for these newer CPU's. Many people recall the name from the netbook days and associate it with terrible performance. These newer Atom processors are far more competent (although still far from being fast). I installed SMART Notebook 14 and was able to open and use a fairly large Notebook file. I also installed the newest version of AirServer with Miracast support and successfully mirrored an Android device along with two iOS devices to the Switch. In general I was impressed with the performance but still would never recommend this class of device for any serious media editing.

I did have some issues with the Switch. Screen rotation was inconsistent and did not always automatically rotate when holding the tablet in portrait. Oddly auto rotation was most consistent when the keyboard was attached (and you are least likely to want to rotate it).

There is a full-size USB port on the keyboard base and I believe that is what caused Windows to complain (did not safely remove device) every time I disconnected the keyboard. The system froze on me a few times, and it seemed most likely when detaching the keyboard.

One other area of concern is durability. I always recommend a case for tablets but finding a case for the Switch will be a lot more difficult than finding one for an iPad or Samsung tablet. The Switch didn't feel fragile, but it didn't feel like it would survive a drop to the classroom floor either. The screen does make use of Gorilla Glass 3, so it is at least scratch resistant.

The Switch 10 costs less than $400, putting it in the same territory as the iPad and some Chromebooks. I think it is a compelling alternative. You are still able to run Chrome apps without losing the ability to run Windows programs. I was hoping to get it to boot Android-x86 but was unsuccessful in the limited time I had. Overall, I think Acer (and Microsoft) have a tough sell in the classroom. The Windows Store has little compelling to offer compared to the App Store or Google Play, and falls well short in terms of the number of available apps. However, if your school or district still uses a lot of Windows applications, the Switch 10 could be a good, low-cost choice.

Airserver Universal - iOS, Android, and Windows Wireless Mirroring

I have been searching for a software-based Miracast solution for quite some time. iOS and AirPlay have had Reflector, AirServer, and more, but mirroring from Android or Windows has required a hardware Miracast receiver.

This past summer Microsoft released updates to Windows 8.1 with some promising comments about using Windows as a Miracast receiver. The updates enabled the capability, but didn't add the actual receiver; that was up to developers and needed updated hardware drivers.

Then at the end of October AirServer announced AirServer Universal, a new version adding Miracast to their existing AirPlay receiver software. There are some specific requirements to get it working. Unfortunately for Mac users, this only works with Windows 8.1. Your computer must also have a network device with a new NDIS 6.40 device driver. If you don't have a supported network chip, you can simply add the Asus USB-AC56 adapter. The combined price of the adapter and AirServer is under $100. I also installed AirServer on a sub-$400 Acer Switch 10 convertible laptop and was satisfied with the performance, even with two iPads (2nd generation) connected along with a Nexus 5. The Switch 10 did not require the Asus adapter.

AirServer has worked well as a Miracast receiver with every device I have tried, including a Nexus 5, Nexus 7 (2013), Nvidia Tegra Note 7, and Acer Switch 10 Windows 8 convertible laptop. Miracast connections from the Nexus devices did take longer to establish than other devices, and initially appeared to have significant input lag, but it improves fairly quickly. I created a video showing the Nexus 5 used alongside an iPad 3, connecting with a Nexus 7, and a game. The audio in the game is choppy, but that has been true with every Miracast receiver I have used. One interesting discovery is that I had to use the Asus USB-AC56 to get the Miracast capability of AirServer installed, but then was able to just use my laptop's existing wireless chip. I removed the Asus adapter completely and was still able to connect from the Nexus 5, Tegra Note, and Acer Switch. The Nexus 7 still saw AirServer as a receiver but it wouldn't connect unless I used the Asus adapter.

In addition to the system requirements, there are other limitations. AirServer only supports one Miracast device at a time. You can still have multiple iOS devices along with that single Miracast device. AirServer says support for multiple Miracast devices is coming. The other limitation is actually a Miracast issue more than a problem with AirServer. A device sending a Miracast signal will always send a landscape image. If your screen is in portrait mode, the device will rotate it and convert it to landscape before sending it to AirServer. If that is the only device being mirrored, it's not a problem. It is a problem when sharing the screen with an iOS device. In those situations the Miracast screen appears smaller than the iOS screen (as seen in the video linked above). AirServer may implement a workaround in a future update but isn't making any promises.

While not perfect, Airserver Universal is a step in the right direction for enabling a true BYOD environment.

Newer is not always better - Livescribe 3

Last week was the final full-day session with our Ed Tech Leadership teacher candidates. One of the educational technologies we looked at was the Livescribe Echo Smartpen. We have had these pens for a few years now, and it's pretty amazing how they have held up, technology-wise.

I also demonstrated (or tried to demonstrate) a Livescribe 3 Smartpen, the newest model of Livescribe's smartpens. The updates from the pen/paper to the iPad screen were anything but fluid. Some short, simple writing took a few minutes to show up on the iPad's screen (ok, maybe it only felt that way when standing in front of a class, but the delay was ridiculous). The Livescribe 3 also lacks the built-in microphone and speaker found in the older Echo models, requiring the iPad to handle those functions. In fact, without the iPad, the Livescribe 3 really isn't anything but a pen.

It's hard to believe that the Livescribe 3 isn't just a newer model, but also a more expensive model. The Echo smartpens were pretty incredible devices, out of the box, even without connecting them to a computer. It could record and play back audio, act as a calculator using the printed calculator in the front cover of the notebook, and even included a "piano" app to play with. Connect it to the computer, install some more apps, and you have an even more amazing device. The Livescribe 3 can't do any of those things.

Perhaps there's something more to the Livescribe 3 that I'm missing, but I don't think so. It is worse than its predecessor in almost every way, adding only one tiny feature (bluetooth), and yet it costs roughly $20 more, not to mention the required added expense of an iPad. Oh, and if you think you can use your iPad 2 (which is extremely common in schools), you're out of luck. The iPad 3rd generation or newer is required.

Creating a Private Cloud with Pydio

In my previous post I talked about FreeNAS, the open-source Network Attached Storage solution. We used it to create a large storage pool for our faculty, staff, and students. Creating a storage pool is just one part of the challenge. The other, more important part, is how do you make all of that storage easily available?

A couple of years ago a member of another IT group at the university talked about Pydio (known then as Ajaxplorer). I started investigating and found that it could do many of the things we wanted, but there were some issues with how it handled authentication in one of its features. Our university uses Active Directory for authentication, and although Pydio supported AD, one particular feature of Pydio that we wanted to use did not. This meant users would have to create a separate, non-AD password to use that feature.

Fortunately Pydio is also open-source, so I set out to modify it to work the way we needed it to. The changes I submitted have now been integrated into Pydio, so it works very well in our AD environment.

Pydio (Put Your Data In Orbit) is a private cloud storage solution that uses PHP and MySQL. From an admin perspective, it is very easy to get up and running. On the user side, it features a web-based drag-and-drop interface with multiple file and folder sharing options. Users can share with other internal users, setting per-user access permissions. They can also share with external users by URL (web link), optionally with a password.

There are free Pydio apps for iOS and Android, and it even supports the WebDAV protocol (used by various apps and allows for desktop network share folders).

Once we had Pydio up and running, we started rolling it out to small test groups to make sure it would work as expected. One of the first "signs of success" we had was that the users in the test groups were encouraging other users to start using Pydio. We were very happy that our users wanted to use Pydio.

Pydio is in active development, and continues to get better. The combination of Pydio and FreeNAS is a great, inexpensive way to create a private cloud storage solution.

FreeNAS with the Supermicro SuperServer 6027R-72RF

It seems there's never enough storage. To address growing storage needs within our faculty, we looked at various storage solutions. FreeNAS, an open-source solution, stood out because our unit works with a razor thin budget. We ordered our first FreeNAS system last year.

This year we looked at building another FreeNAS system for our satellite campus to use as an off site backup of the primary system. FreeNAS uses the ZFS file system and can easily replicate one system to another. The off site system provides a good level of protection and redundancy. Should the main server fail, the secondary server can take over.

The first step was to spec and build the hardware. We looked at brand name systems, but the prices all quickly scaled beyond our budget once we added the RAM and storage space we desired. FreeNAS recommends 1GB of RAM for each terabyte of storage, and we wanted lots of storage. The configurations we looked at all ended up being over $8,000, with some of the high-storage options going over $10,000.
We decided to look at building our own system.

After a little shopping, I came across the Supermicro 6027R-72RF 2U barebones server. It has 8 SAS/SATA III hot-swap drive bays, SCSI SAS controller with SAS expander backplane, a dual socket Xeon motherboard, redundant power supply, CPU heatsinks, fans, and integrated video. Pretty much everything you need other than CPU, RAM, and hard drives. This nearly complete system was just under $1,600!

We added in a 6-core/12-thread Xeon processor, 32GB of ECC RAM, and 8 4TB Western Digital RE (RAID Edition) hard drives, and the grand total was just under $5,800 CDN (before tax). It would have almost been possible to order two of these systems for the same price as a similarly spec'ed brand name server.

Putting all of the parts together was a breeze. The whole system was assembled and booting up FreeNAS in just a few hours.

Of course, things weren't going to be perfect. :)

The support from FreeNAS of the integrated SCSI chip was pretty much non-existent. The recommendation from the FreeNAS forums was to purchase another SCSI card. Despite the information in the forums, I had no trouble running the drives in the proper JBOD mode. The biggest challenge seemed to be FreeNAS' lack of integrated support for monitoring the health of the hard drives. From what I could tell, this support is in the mfip.ko module in FreeBSD (the OS FreeNAS is based on), but that module isn't in FreeNAS.

FreeNAS does include the MegaCli utility which can be used to read a lot of information from the drives, including the SMART values. FreeNAS also has an alert system based on Python scripts. It was relatively easy to write a custom script to monitor the health of the hard drives and use FreeNAS' integrated alert system.

The system has been up and running solidly for a few months now. The next topic will describe how we're letting our users take advantage of the extra space.

Ergotron Tablet Management Cart

When we first acquired a set of iPads for use in our program, we re-purposed a laptop cart to hold and charge the iPads. The cart was quite large and heavy. There were two built-in power bars, and a total of 28 outlets. Unfortunately, we had 30 iPads. To make matters worse, the iPads had to be individually unplugged and connected to a computer for syncing, then plugged back into a power bar for charging. I also had to make sure I unplugged or plugged in both power bar cords whenever I moved the cart. Charging and managing the iPads was very time consuming and needed to be done regularly.

I discovered Ergotron at a conference where they were demonstrating their tablet management cart. They described that the cart integrated a USB hub and could be used for charging and syncing.

We decided to order a 2-cabinet "ISI" model of the cart. There are a few different models of the cart. There are carts with either 2 or 3 cabinets, and each cabinet holds up to 16 tablets. The ISI models have individual status indicators; LEDs that show the status of each tablet. There is one LED per slot. The LED will be off if no tablet is plugged in, orange if the tablet is connected and charging, and green if the device is charged. This simple feature is very useful for making sure all tablets are charged and ready for the school day.

The cart is very compact considering the number of tablets it can hold. There is a shelf on the bottom (only on the 2-cabinet model), and the top is well suited for placing a laptop on. We secured a Macbook to the top that is both for syncing the iPads and for general classroom use. We use a rubber tub on the bottom for holding cables and other accessories like the hand straps for our iPad cases.

The slots that hold the iPads are large enough to accommodate the iPads in their cases, but not with the hand straps attached (we use the Sleeve360 iPad cases). The design is clearly meant for tablets, and will not hold larger devices like Chromebooks.

Prior to use, the cart needs to be "cabled up" with the syncing cables. This process was a bit of a hassle, but not difficult. Two screws secure each USB hub (one hub per cabinet) to the cabinet. You then pull the hub forward until you can disconnect the data and power plug from the back. The back of the hub has standard USB ports for the sync cables, and brackets for wrapping extra cord length around. There is a model that is pre-cabled with Lightning connectors that costs $400 extra. If you can use the cables that came with your iPads, save yourself the $400 and do the cabling yourself. If you need spare cables, $400 is actually a pretty good deal.

The USB hubs integrated in the cart provide enough power to charge all connected tablets. What is more impressive is that when the USB plug from the cart is connected to a computer, the hubs switch to sync mode allowing all connected iPads to sync with iTunes or Apple Configurator. The hubs work in tandem, so there is just a single USB plug from the cart to the the computer. This feature is what makes this a "management cart" rather than just a storage cart. It has made it significantly easier to manage the iPads, and has saved me a considerable amount of time.

There is no question that you will need something to store and transport your tablets in. If you have 10 or fewer tablets, it is worth looking at something like the Copernicus Tech Tub. If you are using a full class set of tablets, the Ergotron cart is a much better solution. The purchase price might initially seem high, but the cost per device is as low as $75 for the 32 tablet cart with ISI. When considering the value of the time the cart will save in deploying and managing iPads, the decision should be fairly easy to make. We purchased another Ergotron 32 tablet management cart to have one at both of our campuses.

Copernicus Dewey Document Camera Stand

Many people have learned how to use their tablet as a document camera in the classroom. In fact, there are many advantages to using a tablet rather than a dedicated document camera.

If you already have a laptop connected to a projector in your classroom, check out Reflector or Airserver. They will let you mirror your iPad screen to your computer wirelessly using AirPlay. To make it a document camera, just fire up the camera app. Better yet, use an app that lets you take a picture with the iPad's camera then mark it up with drawings and shapes. Document cameras often have SD card slots for transferring pictures to a computer, but if you use an iPad you can store pictures on it and share them in any number of ways. The only issue with using your iPad as a document camera is having to hold it.

The Copernicus Dewey document camera stand is designed to let you use your iPad as a document camera, hands-free. It is a metal stand with a fairly wide base, so it is very sturdy but light enough to move around a classroom easily. It has three adjustable height settings. I wish the height adjustment was more flexible and didn't require both hands, but that is a very minor complaint. The mount holding the iPad will hold an iPad with or without a case. The mount rotates and pivots, so it makes a great iPad stand to use for viewing notes or to use with Skype, Hangouts, or FaceTime. I took a quick video of it.

Perhaps the biggest drawback to the Dewey is that it is designed for the larger iPads. It will not hold smaller tablets like the iPad Mini.

The Dewey is less than $100, so if you already have an iPad 2 or newer, a stand like this makes more sense than a dedicated document camera.

Copernicus Tech Tub

Copernicus was kind enough to send me a Tech Tub to evaluate. I have liked the idea of the Tech Tub from the moment I first saw it. It is a basically an improved version of what some teachers have already done to manage small sets of devices. I have seen milk crates and dish drainers used in various combinations, and I'm sure there have been more unusual solutions too.

The Tech Tub keeps the spirit of these implementations, but improves on them in a few ways.

The Tech Tub is very light and easy to carry. I was actually a little surprised at how light it was when I first unpacked it and picked it up. Despite its light weight, it still feels durable. Obviously any tub or carrier is going to be heavier once loaded with devices, so there are cart options for the Tech Tub. The Tub has a lid that can be locked closed with a padlock, but it is well ventilated for devices that might get a little warm when charging. There is even a lockable metal bar that slides through the bottom of the tub. This is used either to secure the Tub to an optional cart, or to secure it to brackets on a table to prevent theft or accidents.

Overall, the Tech Tub is well designed, but I think there's still room for improvement.

I tested out the Tub with a set of iPads. There is plenty of room for the iPads, but it is almost too much room. They would "flop around" a little inside the Tub. Obviously the benefit to all that space is that the Tub is suitable for devices larger than iPads (such as Chromebooks). Not all sides that the devices come in contact with are padded, so there is a concern about impact damage if the Tub is dropped or roughly transported.

The Premium version of the tub comes with a power bar, but if you want to sync multiple devices via USB, you have to unplug them from the adapters and plug them into a USB hub (not included).

There are carts designed for 1, 2, or 4 Tubs. The Tubs open from the top, so the carts for multiple Tubs are all "double-wide". It is unfortunate that there isn't a single-wide, double-tall cart because storage space is often limited in schools with respect to square footage. I do understand the challenge in design here. The Tub opens from the top so you wouldn't be able to open the bottom Tub if stacked.

When it comes to price, I believe the Tech Tub is a pretty good deal for classrooms with 10 or fewer devices. When looking at the size and price of the 4 Tub cart ($1600), I think there are better options if all the devices are regularly used together as a class set. If sharing 20 devices among multiple classrooms, having four Tech Tubs on a cart is a good solution. The only downside is the inconvenience mentioned earlier about having to unplug the devices from power and into a USB hub to sync.

Tegra Note - Evernote

I am still searching for a good Android app that is comparable to the iOS-exclusive Notability. I would love to have such an app to use with the Tegra Note, a low cost Android tablet with a well implemented stylus.

Evernote is an extremely popular note-taking platform, with clients available for Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android. In a recent update for the Android client, Evernote added handwriting support, including the ability to search handwritten text in documents. The following is taken from the Evernote blog entry.

"Our realization was that a fluid handwriting experience would be one that lets you easily move from writing to typing to taking photos and back all within a single note."

This description sounded like Evernote would be able to work much like Notability. I eagerly updated Evernote on the Tegra Note, but it wasn't quite what I was hoping for.

In Notability, pages are very much like actual blank pages. I can add images, text, and written notes anywhere on a page. Once added, I can select and move any of those objects anywhere within the note. In Evernote, I can indeed add handwriting, but it is placed in vertical order with other "objects". So, I can type some text, then write notes beneath that text (not next to it, or over top of it). Once I had completed the handwriting, I could not find a way to move the writing "object" to another location in the note.

As for the handwriting itself, the Tegra Note worked well, but Evernote did not support the variable widths of the stylus. The pen thickness had to be manually selected from a menu. I was impressed with the text searching. It seemed to find my printed text easily, but did not find results in my cursive writing. That isn't much of a surprise. My cursive writing is quite bad, even on real paper.

Evernote is a platform and service. You can use some of the service for free, and your notes are synchronized to the Evernote cloud service. To get additional storage and features, Evernote is $5 per month or $45 per year. While not terribly expensive, it is not a cheap service, especially in light of Google's recent price changes for Drive ($2 per month for 100GB of storage). Notability is a one-time $3 purchase, and will sync with Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, and even WebDAV.

My search for a good alternative to Notability continues...

Tegra Note - iAnnotate PDF

A general note on stylus accuracy

While using various apps on the Tegra Note 7, I would try simple drawings (like a 3D box). I found it easy enough to place the pen tip at intended points while drawing. I am not an artist, but I at least know that a proper drawing app that lets you zoom in and out for fine detail is still going to be essential. When writing text, I had no trouble "dotting my 'i's and crossing my 't's". In both drawing and writing, I had far more success than I ever do when using a stylus with Notability on the iPad. I just wish Notability was available for Android.

iAnnotate PDF

If you work with PDF files regularly, iAnnotate PDF is a great app for marking up, highlighting, commenting, and bookmarking. The controls are very simple. Two pull-tab interfaces can be hidden and revealed from the left and right as needed. The left pull-tab exposes page controls, including PDF chapters/headings, user annotations, and searching.

The right pull-tab exposes the various annotation tools.

There is a pencil for free-hand marking up of the document. Unfortunately this tool does not support the stylus-width control of the Tegra Note. To be fair to the Note, iAnnotate doesn't seem to support pencil widths at all, so I doubt a tablet with an active stylus would have an advantage.

Next is the annotation button. Touch the button, then touch a point on the PDF document and you can type in an annotation. These are the annotations that can be navigated through using the tool in the left pull-tab.

There is a highlighter for highlighting text. Note that this will only highlight text and cannot be used freehand like the pencil tool. The advantage to this is it is very easy to accurately highlight text. The disadvantage is that some PDF files are scanned without the use of OCR, so the PDF is actually just a "picture" of text.

There are a couple of buttons for scroll-lock and fit-width, and the last button on the toolbar is a toolbox button. The toolbox button exposes even more tools. In the toolbox you will find strikeout and underline tools that operate much like the highlighter. There are tools for adding, and navigating through, bookmarks. It also has buttons for emailing the PDF, the PDF with annotations, or just the annotations.

If you regularly work with non-PDF documents, iAnnotate PDF won't be of much use. Also, you cannot use iAnnotate to add or remove pages within a PDF. The interface does require some accurate touches, so in this regard the Tegra Note was tremendously useful. The fine tip of the stylus made highlighting, drawing, and placing bookmarks and annotations much easier than depending on finger touches or constantly zooming in and out.

iAnnotate will stay installed on the Tegra Note for now, but I will keep looking for a good Notability alternative.

Tegra Note 7 - Android with a stylus

"It's like we said on the iPad, if you see a stylus, they blew it."
- Steve Jobs

While I can agree that a designer "blew it" if a touch screen interface requires the use of a stylus, there are some activities (writing and drawing) best suited for a stylus. One of my absolute favourite apps is Notability. In fact, it is the only app that keeps me going back to my otherwise neglected iPad. As much as I like Notability, I am frustrated that I have to use a stylus with a tip roughly the same size as my pinky finger.

Samsung capitalized on Apple's refusal to recognize stylus use-cases with their Note line of phones and tablets. The Note series have enjoyed great sales, but they are among the most expensive Android options available. In fact, most of the tablets that have good styli tend to be expensive, primarily because they use an active pen. Active pens allow for pressure sensitivity, detection of pen versus finger, and more.

Last year Nvidia released (through various manufacturers) the Tegra Note 7 (TN7), a 7-inch Android tablet utilizing a passive stylus. The use of a passive stylus, along with a mid-range screen and Nvidia's own Tegra 4 System-on-Chip (SoC), keeps the price of the TN7 to $200. Despite the use of a passive stylus, the TN7 distinguishes between stylus and finger touch, handles palm rejection, and while it doesn't support pressure sensitivity, it does recognize stroke size.

There are plenty of reviews of the TN7, so I won't go into detail about the specs and features. Nvidia is primarily known as a maker of video chips designed for PC gamers. I believe it is because of this heritage that the reviews of the TN7 are almost entirely from PC review web sites. Those reviews focus on specs, build quality, speed benchmarks, and games. In those areas, the reviews are quite positive.

I have stated that purchase price is only a small part of the story when it comes to tablets, so I think it's important to discuss some non-technical aspects of the TN7. For one, one of the manufacturers making the TN7 is EVGA. I have experience dealing with them from an RMA standpoint, and that experience was positive. As for the OS, Nvidia has included extras related to the stylus, but otherwise it appears to be stock Android. The TN7 shipped with Android 4.2, but received an update to 4.3 late last year. It isn't yet known if or when the TN7 will see an update to Android 4.4. By minimizing the changes to stock Android, it should be relatively easy for Nvidia to keep the tablet up to date. Unfortunately, only time will tell.

Note: So, I left that last bit intact, but Nvidia actually released Android 4.4.2 before I published this entry. This is the latest version of Android available. It is a good sign for future updates, but once again only time will tell for sure.

Right away, the TN7 is usable in the classroom. It can connect to a projector via HDMI, and it works very well with the Netgear PTV3000 for wireless video. This makes it a good option as a document camera. There is a very basic drawing app included with the TN7 that will take snapshots from the camera and let you draw on top of them. Having an accurate stylus, and one that can detect and draw in different pen widths, makes the experience better. The inclusion of a microSD slot makes sharing of photos easy, but you can also use Google Drive.

Android educational apps are continuing to improve, and I will be going back and re-testing some note-taking and drawing apps with the Tegra Note 7. Hopefully along the way I'll find a replacement for Notability and finally let my iPad go.

FETC 2014

Last week was FETC 2014 in Orlando, Florida. It was the second FETC for me. There are a few reasons I like FETC, other than the opportunity to escape the deep freeze of January in Ontario. It has a great mix of activities, workshops, receptions, and a great exhibit hall. All of that is rolled into an event that is far less overwhelming than ISTE.

While the exhibit hall can often be an area where you want to dodge aggressive company representatives, it's also a great place to get your hands on devices that you otherwise just see online.

I first saw Swivl at ECOO in the fall. There is a new Swivl coming out, and the new model was on display on the FETC exhibit floor. The Swivl has a rotating base and a microphone with an integrated tracker. The base will hold a tablet for you to record the video. The microphone connects to the tablet via bluetooth, and the base rotates to track the movement of the microphone. This is a great device for creating instructional videos. In our Teacher Education program, our students record micro-teaching lessons to review and learn how to improve their practice.

While I believe there are better choices in educational technology than interactive whiteboards, I was impressed with the simplicity and price of the IPEVO Interactive Whiteboard System. If you've always wanted an interactive board, and you already have a whiteboard and LCD projector, the IPEVO is $150.

The robotic devices zipping around the VGo booth made quite a few people turn their heads. I think it would be great for a district to acquire these robots to share among schools. These devices allow kids stuck at home (sick, broken leg, etc) to continue to participate in school. This goes beyond classroom participation. Kids can even hang out with their friends during breaks.

Although I saw much more at FETC, the last item I'll talk about is JAMF Casper Focus. This is a fantastic way to hand over some of the controls of Mobile Device Management (MDM) to the classroom teacher without having to grant complete administrative access. The teacher, using an iPad app, can lock iPads to an app, direct an iPad to connect to a specific AirPlay receiver (student must confirm), distribute content, and even remove a PIN from a locked iPad. It was great testing this out at the JAMF booth with a few iPads.

Accepting the blogging challenge (sort of)

This blog is my acceptance, in part, of the 5 challenges from Dr. Camille Rutherford.

#1 - Acknowledge the nominating blogger.

Dr. Camille Rutherford is an Associate Professor of Education at Brock University, and a fellow organizing member of the Teaching with Technology Showcase and CONNECT. She teaches the Educational Technology Leadership course at Brock, with a little help from me. She has a passion for technology that is admirable, but often drives the IT staff (including me) crazy.

#2 - 11 Random facts about me.
  1. I am married to a wonderful woman from Kentucky.
  2. There is a school in Burlington, Ontario named after my great grandfather.
  3. I dropped out of university in 1994, and finished my undergrad part-time after I started working at the university. I graduated (B.Sc. Computer Science) in 2005.
  4. I drove 16 hours to Hastings, Nebraska to go to the Kool-Aid Days Festival... when I was 36.
  5. My first job was at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
  6. My first IT-related job was a 75 to 90 minute drive away (depending on traffic). Now I make a 7 minute walk from my front door to my desk.
  7. I can wiggle my ears.
  8. I was 23 when I first flew on a plane.
  9. I was in the Enrichment Program for middle school. It later became the Gifted Program. I hated it.
  10. I am right-handed, but bat, play hockey, and golf left-handed.
  11. I had LASIK surgery in 2000.
#3 - Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  1. What is your favorite quote or saying?
    "That's unfortunate" is what I commonly say, but I think my favorite saying is by Edgar Bergen. "Ambition is a poor excuse for not having sense enough to be lazy."
  2. Name your ideal retirement location.
    Kentucky. Beautiful countryside with great hiking. It's a lot like northern Ontario, but with much longer summers and milder winters.
  3. If you could have only one educational technology resource, what would it be?
    Assuming there was WiFi access, I guess a tablet. A tablet with Internet access is an amazing all-around tool with long battery life, and can easily be shared among students.
  4. What is your favourite travel destination?
    Puerto Rico. I was surprised by Puerto Rico. It has beautiful beaches, a rain forest, historic site-seeing, and is a fairly inexpensive travel destination. We were even able to use regular US cell service making it easy to stay in touch.
  5. Recommend an educational game.
    I don't really play educational games, so there isn't one that comes readily to mind. I've enjoyed some of the Dr. Suess books, but they're not really games. Similarly I think Whiteboard: Collaborative Drawing is a great app for education. It's not exactly a game, but you can play games using it. It's also cross-platform (Android and iOS), so great for BYOD.
  6. What is your favourite app?
    I primarily use Android devices, but the one app that keeps me coming back to iOS is Notability.
  7. What is your favourite TV show?
    I would say Big Bang Theory, but it's a very small pool to choose from. I'm only watching four shows total.
  8. Have you ever paid it forward at a coffee shop?
    I'm not sure. I don't specifically remember paying it forward at a coffee shop. I almost always tip at the coffee shop though, and I'm always willing to pay a little if the person in front of me is short. That's mostly to get myself through the line faster, so it isn't exactly the same thing.
  9. If you had to pick a song to be your theme song, what would it be?
    I really don't know.
  10. What is the last movie you saw in a theatre?
    "A Madea Christmas". Seriously. Before that it was Dallas Buyers Club.
  11. What is the first thing you would do after winning a million dollars?
    Change my name.
I will pass on the challenge for #4 and #5. The truth is that I am still primarily an IT person. I have just recently started looking for Ed Tech podcasts. I will look for blogs to follow as well. Here is a challenge for anyone reading this. Help me out, and feel free to share your favourites in the comments.