Having started & managed a 1:1 student computing program at a boarding high school, I have experienced the promise & perils of ubiquitous student computing. While the benefits of having a computing device in the hands of every student should be obvious in the 21st century, the form factor limitations (size, weight, battery life, durability) and cost of adapting corporate or (shudder) consumer-level laptops to the needs of primary education gives 1:1 programs serious dowsides.

Prompted by seeing a Samsung Q1 Ultra on display at CDW’s Business Solutions Center a few weeks ago, I have been looking more closely at “ultra-mobile personal computers” (UMPCs) as potential student computing devices to replace our aging laptops in carts & as more cost-effective & student-sized solutions for a potential upper elementary 1:1 computing program in my current school.

Fujitsu LifeBook U810
Given our school’s relationship with Fujitsu, we today received a demonstration unit of the Fujitsu LifeBook U810 convertible UMPC tablet, also priced at $1000. While very small, the screen is incredibly sharp. Like the other UMPCs, it runs a full version of Windows XP Tablet PC edition.

Samsung Q1
The Q1 runs XP Tablet edition just like our full-size Fujitsu & Acer Tablet PCs & has a touch sensitive screen that requires no special radio stylus. While I found the split thumb keyboard on the Q1 difficult to use, the size may be appealing for a highly portable student tablet. At a $1000, 25% less than the cost of a full-size Tablet PC, the device is much more cost-effective than our current equipment model.

OQO Model 02
Another competitive device is the OQO Model 02, a UMPC which has a slide-out keyboard, much more practical than the split-keyboard Q1, but also more expensive at $1300, making the small form factor usability compromises not worth the cost savings when compared to traditional Tablet PCs.

The ASUS Eee PC 4G (review) is larger than the Samsung Q1 or OQO Model 02 and lacks the Tablet PC functionality, but still much smaller & lighter than traditional laptops, and at $400 each, incredibly affordable. While a departure from our model of full-featured Windows-based computers (it can run Windows, but has limited internal storage, so local application & document storage is less than what we’re used to), this type of device, if coupled with a Windows Terminal Server to deliver a complete application & data storage environment over the network instead of stored locally on the laptop, could provide a low-cost ubiquitous computing platform in our wireless network environment.

At $400, the Eee PC is still more than twice the cost of the much-anticipated $180 (formerly $100) XO tablet from Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child Foundation, which is now shipping. This design is even more of a departure from our current Windows platform standard than any of the preceding units, but bears close watching, as it’s designed for education from the ground-up & Negroponte’s group has ambitious plans to ship millions of these units to developing countries around the world.

Intel ClassMate PC & Via pc-1
Also worthy of watching are Intel’s ClassMate PC & Via’s pc-1 projects, which are laptop reference designs conceived with children & low cost in mind. Also like the XO, these are being piloted internationally first, but I would think we should within a year or two see US availability of these or similar designs.

The emergence of these & other similar devices make me believe that we are on the cusp of seeing low-cost portable devices of the size, functionality, & price to be nearly ideal 1:1 student computers.