VirginiaTech Engineering freshmen reguired to have Tablet PCs


Rob Bushway links to this opinion piece in the Virginia Tech Collegiate Times that argues against a new policy that requires Tablet PCs for all incoming engineering freshmen.

Here’s what is being required:

Platform: Tablet PC Convertible
OS: Windows XP Pro Tablet Edition w/ SP2
PC Processor speed: Pentium M single core 2 GHz or higher or Pentium Duo dual core 1.83 GHz or higher**
Memory (RAM): 1 GB or higher
Hard Disk Drive: 80 GB or bigger
Video RAM: 64 Discrete memory or 128 MB shared (in preparation for Windows Vista)
CD/DVD drive or DVD/CD-RW
Input/Output Ports: USB 2.0
Wireless: 802.11 b/g
NIC/Ethernet Card: 10/100/1000 Ethernet Card
Modem: 56k internal
Warranty: 3 Year onsite with accident coverage (recommend 4 years)***

The author’s main concern is that the Tablet PC requirement forces students to purchase notebooks that aren’t the best investment. There are faster and better systems, the author argues, that students should be allowed to get. Further, why require Tablet PCs in the first place? Will they be leveraged in the classroom experience? The campus Linux Users Group is expressing similar concerns.

Actually, their concerns seem reasonable to me. Who wants to waste money? Not me.

I don’t know the inside story on Virginia Tech, but from these couple of online reports here (Note Taking and the Tablet PC) and here (Using a Tablet PC to Provide Peer-Review Comments) it appears that the school has been doing its homework on Tablets in the classroom. The conclusions in the papers are measured and quite reasonable. Do they make the case for Tablets? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

Here’s how I see it though: In terms of performance, I think the author will find the current generation of Tablet PCs quite reasonable. The university recommends a Pentium M 2GHz single core or at least a 1.83GHz dual core processor. The performance of these system will be quite competitive and have reasonable battery life.

So what about the value in terms of the cost of a Tablet? Mileage will vary here, but I expect that the Tablet owners will discover many ways to leverage the mobility and digitial notetaking experiences that the Tablet provides. I also hope that the University has a good wireless infrastructure and collaboration tools that enable students and faculty to work in ad hoc or classroom settings so that they can really leverage what the Tablet has to offer. Just take OneNote and its real-time, page-sharing feature–school or not, it’s quite powerful. It’s an excellent way to work through ideas with others, whether they are sitting next to you or across town. This should be quite valuable to students.

I do notice that some of the hardware specs are on the non-frugal-minded side: 1GB RAM and an 80GB drive. Maybe the software being used needs this, I’m not sure, but the students are going to be paying a premium for these notebook enhancements. I guess if you want the system to work equally well in three years, you need to buy like this. It does get expensive though because if you purchase these “upgrades” with the original system, this is often where OEMs add their profit. Hopefully, something can be worked out here for student systems.

Personally, I’d be baulking at the 3-year required onsite service plan (no mention of price) or the required $500 software bundle. These start to add up. I can appreciate why a service plan is a good idea, but personally I don’t get them. In three years will the hardware be my primary system? Anyway, that’s my take on this part. In general, I’m sure its a good idea though. Call me cheap.

Now in terms of the software (Office, Visual Studio, OneNote, Visio, Project, AutoCad Inventor and Mechanical Desktop, and MatLab), I’m guessing a student can purchase them piecemeal to spread the cost out, but you can quickly see how costs are not just in the hardware. Someday maybe there will be online versions of these tools that mitigate the costs.

To me, what it’s going to come down to is whether the software being used is going to justify the expense of the Tablet and mobility features. OneNote falls into this category. I expect there will be others too.

Personally, I’d pick a Tablet if I was going back to school, but that’s just me. As an engineer that often thinks things out visually they fit the way I think and work. That’s just me though.