Chris Drage gets his hands on the RM Slate PC, a digital pad designed for schools
RM Slate at Kingsmead PrimaryRM Slate: an instant hit at Kingsmead Primary, HackneyWith the hype surrounding Apple’s iPad, many schools are tempted to deploy them. But the iPad has triggered a plethora of slate-style machines, like Samsung’s popular Galaxy Tab (£429) with its Android operating system.

Before making a final decision, schools should check out the first Windows 7 tablets, particularly the newly launched RM Slate PC (£399 plus VAT). It offers a slimmer, lighter, more manageable alternative to a traditional PC laptop, enabling children to use it for tasks which tablet PCs were always intended – browsing, note taking, drawing and sketching. And it's the first Windows 7 tablet designed specifically for education.

The package is comprised of RM Slate PC, power supply unit and lead and a recovery DVD. (A Quick Start Guide is available here.) The Slate measures 295mm x 195mm x 14mm, weighs only 995g, is ruggedly built and offers an impressive technical specification – far better than RM’s original tablet PC.

Essentially a hybrid between the standard laptop and a tablet PC, it has a very slick design but with all the options of the earlier devices and total compatibility with the software already in most schools. All this is packaged inside a strong magnesium alloy case with rubberised grip finish with a single power/standby switch at the rear.

Good connectivity is crucial for schools

The RM Slate PC uses an Intel Atom 1.6 GHz processor, has 2Gb of memory and a 32Gb solid state hard disc. It has a bright and very clear 11.6-inch, multi-touch screen with a front-facing 1.3 megapixel webcam and two small speakers.  Many modern slate devices like the iPad get heat issues in bright sunshine, so to overcome this problem RM has fitted a small fan which is very quiet. Although the chassis gets warm in use, it never gets hot.

Good connectivity is crucial for schools and the RM Slate PC has it in abundance, sporting Bluetooth, WIFI, two USB2 ports, mini-HDMI, SD and SIM card slots, headphone socket and a docking station connector around its edge. The only significant connector not present is an Ethernet port, but you are not likely to find one on any other pad either as wifi is clearly the preferred internet option.

Optional extras include stylus, docking station and any USB keyboard. Running Windows 7 Home Premium Edition, the device supports gestures and screen rotation as you change its orientation. The on-screen keyboard is small but can be resized, docked, undocked and swiped out of the way when not required.

The RM Slate PC has a wide enough hand grip round the screen to permit quite young children to hold it comfortably.  Indeed, even two-to-five year olds are reported to be able use the RM Slate100 successfully - as long as they are sitting down!

RM SlateRM Slate: 'display is very bright and clear'In use the RM Slate PC is simply another Windows 7 computer that will run the programs a school will have on any of their other computers, particularly those that aren't reliant on internet connection. While the display is very bright and clear, you may find yourself having to tweak the advance power settings to balance the power usage and screen brightness.

The touch points are rather small by default, which meant that my chunky fingers were not ideal for interacting with Windows 7. But I very much doubt doubt whether that will be the experience of younger, more slender fingers. In my case the optional stylus proved invaluable. However, I have since discovered that you can adjust this ‘target’ size via the Windows’ Control Panel.

Sadly, battery life is a minimum of three hours – something RM hopes to improve in future models. As it stands I expect a lunch-time charge will be required to get them through a school day. (RM will also be launching wireless battery charging for digital devices under the ‘Wild Charge’ brand.)

Windows 7 is still not a slick as Apple’s gesture-driven interface or the Android offering, and if you are used to an iPad or iPod Touch it will seem a little ‘clunky’. However, anyone used to working with PCs will make the transition smoothly.

I was disappointed to find that the SIM card slot does not appear to connect with any on-board 3G modem. Maybe I am missing something here but such a connection would be advantageous, especially for adults, outdoor use and on school field trips. Another omission is the lack of a full user guide. Perhaps I’m a bit old-fashioned but I do use them!

'It is cheaper and it’s designed for schools so should be more robust'

Like all good things the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The RM Slate PC was launched at Kingsmead Primary School in Hackney in December as it was the very first primary school to order one. When I asked headteacher Louise Nichols how the school intended using these devices, she replied: “We chose the RM Slate PC over the Apple iPad because it is cheaper and it’s designed for schools so should be more robust. Also, being a PC school we thought it would be a more seamless integration with our Windows-based network.

"For the children we envisage they will perform many of the same tasks that they would normally use laptops for but with more portability. It should be easier to read texts as the Slate is more like a book to hold than a laptop and we hope it will motivate reluctant readers. For older pupils it should prove easier to use it for research using the internet as it’s smaller and easier to have on a table with exercise books. We see a role for it in science with data-loggers and sensors and especially for SEN children using software like Inclusive Technology’s My Zone."

For teachers, Louise Nichols feels the Slate can play a role in assessment as they walk around the classroom observing and looking at work; for registration of children and for using with a visualiser to record a process such as how to make a clay pot. Ms Nichols does not expect her pupils to require the optional keyboards, as in her experience children from about seven years old are often better than adults with the virtual onscreen keyboard once they are used to it.

How did the children feel about it? Having managed to tear the Slates away from the adults, comments from members of the School Council included:
“I love the touch screen”
“I like that you can use your finger and you can use the stylus as well”
“I like that you can do pictures so easily”
“I like the way you can make things bigger or smaller”
“I like that you can go on to the network and print out your work without being connected”  
“When you type using the small keyboard and you can’t spell, the computer tells you how to spell it”
“I like the headphones so you can do your research on the internet and listen to it as well”.

The RM Slate PC is already helping young immigrant children get to grips with ICT earlier than was otherwise possible and succeed. The children use RM Colour Magic graphics software to draw, sketch, save and load their work with no mouse or keyboard skills required.

However, using the RM Slate PC does take children a little time to get used to, as some of the children at Kingsmead discovered. Iif you hold the slate with one hand and a finger happens to overlap the screen slightly, when you start to select or drag with the other hand, the Slate appears not to work because the other finger has been recognised as a pointer. However, there is a generous border at the edge of the screen and children soon learn to hold it properly.

A quick straw poll ascertained that all the children felt that the optional stylus was important. As Windows 7 offers very good handwriting recognition, children using the RM Slate PC with a stylus can practise their handwriting skills and have their writing converted to text – a useful means of encouraging good, handwritten letter formation. Teachers too will like the fact that they will be able to connect wirelessly to their interactive whiteboard and thus release themselves and their charges from having to interact at the front of the room all the time. It should seem like having an IWB in your hand.

The RM Slate100 is a most convincing alternative for schools

The RM Slate PC is a most convincing alternative for schools, effectively challenging Apple's iPad and the Android tablets and neatly sidestepping Apple's locked-down ecosystem and Android’s current lack of support for proxy servers. It provides access to all the media content and ebooks expected of a device like the iPad, with all the websites and features which depend on Adobe's Flash.

Overall, the RM Slate PC represents very good value for money for a PC/Windows-oriented school looking for slate-style computers. The fundamental attraction of the RM Slate PC is its connectivity, compatibility, its ability to engage both teachers and pupils and the huge potential it has for special needs/inclusion.

Kingsmead Primary was so excited about the new purchase (RM donated an additional one) that they held a special assembly complete with accomplished steel band. And visitors were knocked out by 250 happy Hackney kids belting out James Brown's "I Feel Good" (see video below). Finally, a question from one child: “Will it come in different colours?” Now there’s something for RM to pick up on.

RM Slate PC
Windows 7 tablet computer with 11.6-inch, multi-touch screen and front-facing 1.3 megapixel webcam and two small speakers. Uses an Intel Atom 1.6 GHz processor, with 2Gb of memory and a 32Gb solid state hard disc. Measures 295mm x 195mm x 14mm and weighs only 995g.  Comes with power supply unit and a recovery DVD. (A Quick Start Guide is available here.) 
Price: £399 plus VAT
RM SlatePC


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BETT 2011, January 12-15
Olympia, London
RM: stands C60/D60/Olympia 2

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