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Rescuing tablets from the abyss: Can education and field applications save them?

Video: Hands-on with Apple’s new 9.7-inch iPad for education

Tablets may have been introduced as minimalist laptop alternatives that specialized in a few broad tasks, but those days are long in their past.

Rather, there’s been a wide range of efforts to play up their value, as they’ve been assaulted from the low-end by ever-encroaching smartphones. As I noted in reviewing the portable computing announcements at CES, many of the Windows players emphasized convertible laptops instead of detachable tablets.

Read also: How Apple, Google, and Microsoft stack up in education

But that may say more about Windows than tablets. More recently, four major companies introduced new tablets not based on Windows. Of these, only the Huawei Android models — which will be tricky to come by in the US — were brought to market with little more than the traditional value proposition for a broad offering. Their main takeaway, borne out by other announcements, is that 8-inch and 10-inch tablets now represent the sweet spot of the tablet market. The former represents the upper practical limit of one-handed use, while the latter provides a balance of portability and screen real estate that somewhat shields tablets from laptop competition.

Review: Huawei MediaPad M5 Pro: A decent Android tablet, but it’s no iPad

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Acer says the Chromebook Tab 10 is designed specifically for education.

Indeed, the other three tablets that were announced last month have also adhered to those screen size ranges. Let’s start with Acer Chromebook Tab 10, the first Chrome-based slate, coming in at an iPad-sized 9.7-inch. With Chrome OS first gaining support for touchscreens and then support for Android, the operating system has now truly crossed over. Beyond mature management tools, the greatest advantage that the Acer Chrome tablet offers versus the iPad and pure Android tablets should be having access to a version of Chrome free of mobile limitations.

However, early looks at the device show that there’s been little to optimize Chrome OS’ desktop for a mobile-first device, not even the veneer of finger-friendliness Microsoft attempts with Live Tiles. Acer says the Chromebook Tab 10 is designed specifically for education. And while the enhanced mobility should enable some of the more mobile field learning applications, for which Apple promotes the iPad, it’s somewhat surprising that Acer didn’t debut it as a detachable 2-in-1 — given the only thing that comes close to that is Google’s convertible Pixelbook at nearly three times the price.

With neither Apple’s nor Samsung’s tablet announcements crossing any OS borders, the smartphone market leaders have taken divergent paths to differentiating their latest tablets. Sticking with the education theme, there is virtually nothing that is completely fresh about the education-focused, eighth-generation iPad hardware that Apple announced last month.

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The back of Samsung’s field-optimized, Android-based Galaxy Tab Active 2 is clad in thick polycarbonate.

So, why would the company herald its arrival at a Chicago event? Because while the device in consumer channels represents a customary upgrade that includes a faster processor and support for the Apple Pencil previously limited to “Pro” iPads, Apple surrounded the device with content and services designed specifically for the education market. Of course, Apple is fighting a larger war here in trying to push educators past the idea of portable computing as devices for cranking out reports lacking in visual engagement to a world of coding, creativity and clips of video that better aligned with a new generation of communicators. Educational pricing will represent a $30 discount off the product’s $329 price.

At the introduction, Apple showed off a more education-friendly keyboard case and stylus by Logitech, but producing dramatically customized hardware is still in the game, at least when designing for verticals. Samsung has gone down this road with the Galaxy Tab Active 2. As opposed to the sleek-but-fragile glass or metal that many modern tablets don, the back of Samsung’s field-optimized, Android-based workhorse is clad in thick polycarbonate.

Read also: Samsung announces Galaxy Tab Active2: A rugged tablet for business conducted outside the office

Samsung notes that integrating such protection as opposed to adding a protective case ensures more than just drop protection and a home for its S Pen; the company has put the 8-inch offering (optimized for one-handed use) through torture tests so that it holds up to exposure to extreme heat, cold, dust, and other unpleasant realities of field applications that fall just short of use within an actual war zone.

That said, the back of the device is removable, allowing for a variety of additions such as integrated hand straps and, in what would seem like a dramatic throwback for consumer devices, a removable battery. But an even more significant and useful departure for the device user is allowing navigation of the capacitive touchscreen with moderately thick gloves.

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The Raspad is a chunky wedge of a device based on Raspberry Pi.

Samsung is positioning its device and has partnered with a range of accessory makers for add-ons such as bulk chargers for the tablets or its batteries and truck mounts. Yes, you can have your Omitracs app while catching up on Orange is the New Black. Unlike Apple, which is asking educators to step up to consider educational impact over price, Samsung is pounding on the value message, noting the $399 tablet ($499 with LTE) is far more affordable than ruggedized Windows-based offerings from specialty vendors.

What do you get when you extend the modularity of the Samsung tablet with the education focus of Apple’s and Acer’s? One outcome may be the Raspad, a chunky wedge of a device based on Raspberry Pi. With its support for Beaglebone hardware, the Raspad can run Linux. However — like most such projects — it is, of course, intended more as a STEM educational tool than a practical general-purpose device. After having crushed its Kickstarter campaign, it is available for preorder for $209 for an assembled kit, less if you BYOB (Bring Your Own Beaglebone).

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In 2012, Apple tried to position iPads as replacing textbooks. Last year, Microsoft tried to position laptops as replacing Chromebooks. Now, Apple needs to hook educators on the power of future-looking tech such as coding and augmented reality.

Acer Chromebook Tab 10 beats Apple iPad to the punch

The 9.7-inch tablet is the world’s first for the education market to run Chrome OS. And likely won’t be the last.

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