There are many computer carts that advertise smart or intelligent features, but what does it actually mean?
What is it that makes a computer cart smart? The answer might actually be a little confusing, because the reality is that different manufacturers use the same terms to describe different features. It is easy to see how, when shopping for carts, one may think they are comparing apples to apples when they are really comparing apples to oranges.
When it comes to carts for charging and securing mobile devices (or computers on wheels), the adjectives “smart” or “intelligent” are usually describing the method of charging equipment that is used. In reality, not all smart or intelligent carts have the same type of charging, though.
Technology carts are essential in securing, storing, charging, and integrating technology into a school. They cut down on the time that would have been spent traveling to a computer lab and enable sets of devices to be easily shared, among other benefits, but issues with a cart can hijack class time too. Next to mobility, the charging aspect of these carts can make or break their effectiveness, so knowing what you are getting ahead of time is key.
The Basic Timer Charging Method
If you have used classroom computer carts in the past, you may very well have encountered a charging cart with a timer. Charging a cart full of devices with only power strips can be dangerous. A cart timer is a basic method used in most cases for laptop, notebook, tablet, or iPad carts (and many other types of portable devices) for preventing too much power from being drawn from the wall at once and causing a circuit breaker to trip.
Cart timers charge one section or zone of a cart at a time for a set amount of time and then switch to the next. For example, if all of the devices in the cart are wired to four power strips the timer might charge one strip for 15 minutes, then the next for 15 minutes, and so on. Sometimes the amount of time even needs to be set by hand, leaving more room for error.
There are a few downsides to this method:
One is that it takes a long time. A timer does not know how drained a battery is, so it just charges them for a pre-defined amount of time whether it is needed or not.
It is also inconvenient if devices are needed mid-charging cycle because if the devices are charged one section at a time then some of the devices may have a lower charge or not have received any charge at all. This means that some devices won't even make it to a student's desk when it comes time to be used.
Having to set the amount of time by hand can be somewhat of a guessing game.
Timers often need to be replaced within a few years. With the average electrical component warranty being about 2-3 years the replacement then becomes an additional expense.
This method works, but it can be cumbersome. That is why some cart manufacturers have devised ways to improve on it.
Smart Cart or Intelligent Cart Charging Methods
There are several examples of different charging methods that are sometimes described as smart or intelligent.
The first upgrade on a basic timer that is sometimes referred to as a smart or intelligent cart is an automatic switching system or a cart with round-robin charging. It is essentially a basic timer except it automatically switches in smaller intervals to help supply the devices with power more equally and the time doesn’t have to be manually set.
There is also a version of the automatic switching system that will power the section that needs charge the most first, while still charging one section at a time.
There are a select few carts with a system that is capable of both monitoring the power draw needed in each section and charging multiple sections or zones of the cart at once. These systems have software designed to charge as many devices as possible at once without tripping a circuit breaker, making it the fastest option.
Availability for Instruction- The amount of time that each of these methods takes to charge the devices can be significantly different. Only a select few mobile device charging systems are able to power multiple or all charging zones at once according to power draw.
Suitability for Specific Environments- Some of these systems will offer different modes that may be more convenient in specific situations. Like in a library, for instance, if devices are being checked out on an as-needed basis. In this case you will ideally want individual devices to start charging as soon as they are returned to the cart.
Reliability/Maintenance- The life span and warranties of these systems will vary, affecting your e-waste and ROI, so do your research. Timer-based chargers typically last less than three years.
Efficiency- Some of these systems will be better in the way of energy efficiency.
Capability- Even carts designed for devices with a lower power draw, such as some tablets or Chromebooks, benefit from having some form of power distribution system— especially when they have to charge higher quantities of these devices. A charging system that monitors the power draw in each zone and is able to power multiple zones at once can charge up to all of these devices simultaneously, while still providing circuit breaker protection.
Keep this in mind the next time you are comparing mobile classroom carts. In the end, think about what features are most important for your end users. A charging cart is not something that they want to have to fuss with. It just needs to work seamlessly in their particular use scenario. After all, it's not really about the hardware itself, it is all about enhancing the lesson plan. The less time spent just managing and charging mobile devices, the better.
Some of these charging methods are better suited for different situations, so that is why it is important to know the difference and what you are actually getting beforehand. It is certainly better than finding out later that it is not working out.
Learn more about true intelligent charging systems and the efficiencies they can bring to your technology program.