The biggest selling point of the new iPads, which Apple hopes will re-endear it to secondary schools around the world, is that it can do everything kids would otherwise use a budget laptop to accomplish, and much more.
While it’s true the iPad is a cutting-edge educational tool, it’s not a replacement for many of the boring but practical features that educators and parents have come to appreciate about cheap laptops.
At first glance, Cupertino’s claims about the iPad appear to have merit. The refreshed 9.7-inch tablet has a four-core CPU, a 64-bit operating system, two cameras, a maximum 128GB of storage, and a very high-resolution (2,048 by 1,536) touch display. Those specs would indeed make a Chromebook or cheap Windows laptop blush—or turn beet red when it learns of the iPad’s new $299 starting price for students and teachers.
A version of the Asus Chromebook Flip, one of the best Chromebooks you can buy, includes similar storage options but an inferior display and costs $499. Meanwhile, a cheap Windows laptop like the Asus VivoBook W202 ($279) beats the iPad on price but comes with a bottom-rung Intel Celeron processor and a painfully stodgy design.
“With the A10 [processor], this iPad is now more powerful than most PC laptops and virtually every Chromebook,” Greg Joswiak, Apple’s VP of Product Marketing, boasted at the iPad’s unveiling at a public high school in Chicago.
Apple isn’t just boldly claiming more power, though. The company also argues that the iPad can simply do more, mostly thanks to the fact that unlike its predecessor, it now includes support for an optional stylus like the Apple Pencil. With it or a similar third-party digital pen, students can annotate, sketch, take notes, or mark up a screenshot, in addition to tapping through iOS 11 with their fingers like they normally would on an iPhone.
Combine the Apple Pencil, the upgraded A10 processor, and the burgeoning support for augmented reality (AR) that Apple is continuously injecting into iOS, and you get some really cool applications. One example that Apple showed off in Chicago is Froggipedia, which lets kids use the Pencil to peel back the layers of a virtual frog. It’s not exactly a substitute for a real dissection, but it’s a powerful complement, especially since dead frogs don’t come with labels identifying their cranial nerves and other key bits or let you start over if you accidentally cut something you shouldn’t.
Once the dissection is over and it’s time to write up the report, the iPad can connect to a Bluetooth keyboard for easier typing. Detachable Windows tablets can do this too, but a decent one will cost around $1,000. Detachable Chromebooks designed for schools don’t even exist, although promising new models like the Acer Chromebook Tab 10 are forthcoming.
Where Is the Waterproofing? The Ports?
So it’s clear that getting the iPad into the hands of students and teachers is an admirable goal, and it’s one Apple is hoping to accomplish with its customary education discounts. The public starting price of the new iPad is $329 for 32GB of storage, but that drops to $299 after the education discount is applied. The Apple Pencil also gets a $10 price cut, down to $89.
The problem is that Apple is sending a single product to compete for school districts’ limited dollars against legions of $300 Chromebooks and Windows devices already in many classrooms today. They might not have support for digital pens or AR, but many, including the VivoBook W202, offer compelling kid-friendly features the iPad lacks, including rugged rubber bumpers and waterproofing.
Even worse, the iPad has no USB ports, HDMI outputs, or any other ports except for the Lightning connector. Simple tasks that are easily accomplished in Windows and macOS, such as connecting to a networked printer or classroom projector, are therefore more complicated and will sometimes require expensive adapters.
Perhaps the iPad’s most glaring omission is that it only supports iOS, a hobbled operating system with no cursor control and a requirement that third-party apps comply with Apple’s strict rules. Both Chrome OS and Microsoft’s new education-focused Windows 10 S suffer from the latter problem, but at least they allow students to plug in a mouse or use a touchpad when they need to. Dissecting frogs might be easier if you can touch the screen, but typing and editing an English paper certainly isn’t.
Searching for an ePad
Apple once took a practical approach in the classroom, of which the relatively boring but functional eMac is a prime example. This CRT all-in-one computer, introduced in 2002, was a version of the revolutionary new iMac designed expressly for the education market and initially not sold to the general public, which meant greater discounts and a more tailored set of features.
Apple has since drifted away from this approach, and Chromebooks and Windows PCs have taken the eMac’s place. The iPad is revolutionary and the newest member of its family is certaintly capable of widening a student’s world, but it compromises on the practical features that schools like about cheap laptops. Until Apple sees fit to offer an ePad to fill the eMac’s hole, competing systems running software from archrivals Google and Microsoft will be a better choice for schools.