Hello blog, it’s been a while! Since I launched myself headlong into teacher training (PGCE) in September 2012, I’ve barely graced the interweb, except to grab teaching resources and carry out research for essays. I’ve now got a bit more free time to catch up on my pastimes, so here goes.
Looking back on the PGCE, I realised that the technogadgets I purchased bit-by-bit over the course of the year might have been even more useful if I’d owned them all right from the start. Who knows, this advice might even help the next bunch of PGCEers? Some of the items are pretty obvious (a laptop, for example), some of the items I already owned, and some of them I only acquired near the end.
I won’t spend too long describing the laptop itself, but the principle. Whenever I buy new technology, I like it to be ‘significantly different’ to what I already have, at least in some aspect (my first snapshot digital camera had 6 megapixels, my next was 9 megapixels, for example). My mind wandered onto all sorts of exotic, feature-packed laptops – Core i7s and HD screens and backlit keyboards and reversible touchscreens – with the cost spiralling towards unrealistic heights. Was it really sensible to spend over £1,000 on something that was going to be carted back-and-forth to university and school in a rucksack on the bus? Not really. I had to forget what I wanted, and boil things down to what I needed: a small, portable laptop to type stuff on. It didn’t need to play games, it didn’t need to be fast, and as I’d be spending lots of time illuminated by massive fluorescent lights, I didn’t really need a backlit keyboard, tempting as it was! I’d spotted the Samsung NP-N102S in Sainsbury’s for just under £200, boasting a long battery life and a spacious 320 GB hard disk, but it only had 1GB of RAM, which on Windows 7 felt a little small. It turns out there’s a solution which doesn’t break the bank…
Cheap RAM (memory)
It suddenly occurred to me to have a look at the Crucial website. I’ve seen adverts for their site so many times I’ve lost count, but I’m a relative latecomer when it comes to ordering things online, and I’ve previously only ever bought RAM from a shop.
The website makes it incredibly easy to find what you need, something which I treated with scepticism at first, as it seemed ‘too quick’, and I didn’t want to accidentally order the wrong thing in haste. Everything seemed to check out, though; you can either find the model number of your laptop directly, or download the system scanner. Either way, it found me a 2GB DDR3 chip for £6.99 (the least I’ve ever paid for a stick of RAM). I chose the free postage option (3 – 5 business days) and it actually arrived a day earlier than I was expecting, in a strongly-sealed plastic envelope with protective packaging inside, in the form of a plastic holder which did the job of holding the memory away from the edges of the envelope without being wasteful. Within minutes I’d opened up the access port on the laptop with a small screwdriver, and swapped the ‘old’ RAM for the new, doubling the capacity for a fraction of the price that it would have cost to buy the next-highest laptop model. There were no problems on boot-up and a noticeable speed increase (even though RAM doesn’t strictly affect the speed of the computer, RAM is faster to access than the hard disk, and computers use both to store temporary pieces of information as it’s running – that’s why your hard disk sometimes whirs and clicks furiously when you try and do anything – so overall you get an improvement). It’s been working perfectly to date, as far as I can tell. I’m a very satisfied first-time customer, and I won’t hesitate to use them again (well, I didn’t; I soon bought some RAM for another project – a computer with a relatively-old motherboard – and it was just as easy to find the RAM I needed quickly).
It’s entirely possible to buy a rucksack with a special lined pocket designed specifically for a laptop, but they’re really designed for standard-sized laptops (around 13-inch or above), not tiny netbooks. Small laptop, big bag … you can hopefully see the problem! Either you’d have to pad out your rucksack, or find something to put the laptop in to keep it safe from bouncing or slipping around in there.
I’d seen a few of my fellow students using neat little carry cases, which were solid and offered their own protection (i.e. outside of the rucksack). I found a similar case in Maplin for £9.99, which fitted my netbook perfectly, and I managed to put a few more things in with it, as we’ll read later on (it was like Mary Poppins’s suitcase by the time I’d finished!) It provided a reassuringly snug fit, but the added elastic strap secured the laptop. The carry handles are secure, but I accidentally tugged one whilst pulling the case out of my rucksack and tore one of them, so they’re not that robust (mum did a brilliant repair, though, which hasn’t failed yet).
[UPDATE: 27th October 2013] I forgot to write about the most value-for-money and probably the most useful item I’d ever bought: my USB Flash Drive Case! (Maplin, £2.99) Previous USB drives I’d owned either got mislaid within a couple of weeks, or I had to make sure to use portable USB hard disks which (in theory) were too big to lose. Of course, the case can’t do anything to stop me walking off and leaving the USB drive plugged into the computer, but at least I realise it’s missing within seconds or minutes, when I casually check that I have my keys and/or go to unlock a door. This could be, quite literally, the best three quid I’ve ever spent.
The laptop carry case is described as a ‘Netbook and Tablet case’, but I don’t think they necessarily meant at the same time. However, I quickly realised that (protected by its own sleeve case) my Kobo Touch e-reader fitted happily in the net pocket within the case. I bought the Kobo originally to read research papers in preparation for my PhD viva exam (read my original review of the Kobo Touch here), but it came into its own on the PGCE, where a lot of the course material (course notes, presentations, research) was provided electronically for review. It probably would have cost me the value of the e-reader to print it all out, and my eyes wouldn’t have coped well with reading it all off a computer screen. Also, it meant that I could read this material before lectures, refer quickly to them during seminars, or peruse them on the bus or in the car (I wasn’t driving, before you say!)
Mini USB hub
This handy device came from the demise of poor Comet. Still pricey at £12.99, I thought carefully before I bought the Belkin Flexible 4-port USB2 hub (can’t find it on Belkin’s own site, but it’s still available here), but I could immediately see how it would fit nicely into my case. Any solid parts are small, and the ‘extension’ USB ports are on cables which branch out from the central block, which itself contains a USB port designed so that you can slot something in vertically, e.g. a Wi-Fi stick. One of the branches has a micro-USB connection, obviating the need for me to pack a separate micro-USB lead for the e-reader, and an attached mini-USB converter for other devices. The disadvantage of this, of course, is that (without additional leads) you can’t use micro- and mini-USB at the same time, but the inclusion of micro-USB as part of the hub is the selling point – micro-USB leads are expensive and difficult to come by, whereas you can pick up a cheap mini-USB to USB lead from pretty much anywhere (the supermarket, a ‘pound shop’, or even some corner shops and petrol stations), and you can just connect this to one of the other full-size USB ports. There are other (cheaper) small hubs, but I haven’t seen one like this before: other small hubs I’ve seen tend to slot directly into the USB port – it only takes one accidental knock and you could break the hub or the port, or both – you’re also relying on the USB port to support the weight of the hub and anything that’s plugged into it. As the name suggests, the flexible parts of the Belkin hub are a distinct advantage for storage and whilst it’s in use. It’s been a fantastic little gizmo and worth every penny.
If only I could have squeezed a printer in there as well, I could have been entirely self-sufficient, like a technology-filled version of BBC’s The Good Life (ignoring the fact that Tom Good’s character would have been horribly offended by the comparison, since that was all about avoiding the rat race and the trappings of modernity). Still, the ability to scan the odd document without having to trapse to a special room was a huge advantage, not to mention that it saved carting back-and-forth the material you wanted to scan.
The EasyScan Portable Handheld Scanner from Maplin (currently £49.99) runs on 2 AA batteries, and stores complete scans as JPGs onto a microSD card (not included). It’s really lightweight, comes with a custom-made soft carry bag which fits snugly around it, and the whole thing (by chance) slots neatly into the laptop case. The scanner is easy to operate and the instructions straightforward, directing you to scan slowly and carefully. A green light will appear if the scan is successful, and a red one if you’ve moved too fast. It’s not painfully slow, but you do have to be careful not to slip, since the scanner tracks its position on the page using rollers, not optically (i.e. the green ‘success’ light will still appear, even if you’ve slipped a few times, causing distortion in the final captured scan). On a completely flat surface, with a completely flat sheet of paper, results are very good. However, it’s very difficult to keep the scanner moving in a smooth straight line on booklets, since the edge of the scanner overhangs the page margin by around an inch, meaning it catches on the staples. You can’t run over them (if you try, the freedom of the other end of the scanner causes the whole thing to go off at an angle), and the overhang is just that little bit too long for you to dodge the staples (you’d have to move the entire apparatus an inch to the right, meaning you’d lose some of the left-hand edge of the page in the scan). Also, if the batteries run out, it won’t run off USB power, unfortunately (which also means, if you don’t have a microSD card reader to hand, you can’t transfer the scans you’ve already done, either). So, some minor disadvantages, but I’d argue they’re overshadowed by the quality of successful scans, and the mere (and very cool) fact that you have a high-quality portable lightweight scanner that you can carry around in your laptop case! It’s not something you’ll want to use for high volumes of scanning (you can use your flatbed scanner at home for that), but there were a few times during the teaching placements where I thought to myself how nice it would be, if I could just lift a diagram from a textbook and display it on my computer slide presentation. For that, and that alone, this scanner is worth having (you could do this with a mobile phone camera, I suppose, but it could be out of focus and a lot more shaky, and therefore take you a lot longer to get a good ‘scan’ with your phone than if you just ran the portable scanner over it).
Last but not least, I spotted the Trust Flex Design Tablet (Maplin, £29.99). A flexible graphics tablet sounds about as useful as a chocolate teapot, but looking past first impressions makes you realise there are distinct advantages, particularly in terms of portability. It’s light, thin, small, and whilst you can’t roll it up into a tube (not sure why you’d want to), the fact it flexes makes it fit nicely behind my e-Reader in the inside net pocket of the computer case, without me worrying that either will crack when the case is zipped closed. For processes requiring design accuracy, you’ll obviously want to use it on a flat surface, but as a mouse you can position the tablet and the laptop such that you can use both on your lap … sort-of comfortably. I found this incredibly useful when doing exam marking on the computer, avoiding repetitive multiple swipes of the trackpad in order to click on buttons and text-boxes; selecting these with a pen felt much more intuitive; this was also true when designing graphics for worksheets and slide presentations, which could be done much more quickly than with a trackpad or mouse. The tablet is very much like a mousemat in appearance, and this provides a pleasant surface to write or draw on, more so than a standard graphics tablet in my experience, because the interaction of the plastic nib of the (fairly standard) electronic pen with the softer flexible tablet didn’t feel as unnatural as with a rigid tablet, nor was it as hard on the hands.