Chromebook Evaluation

Samsung-Chromebook-Series-3-overview1_original

About a month ago my mother-in-law, who also works in tech ed, handed me a Samsung 303 Chromebook (the $249 kind) to help her evaluate before her school buys a bunch for the next school year.  I was very eager to get my hands on one.  I was wondering if the very lightweight, cloud-based device could beat out the full-blown laptop I normally use. It did. Easily.

In four weeks the Chromebook became my go-to device mainly because it’s so small, so light, and it starts up so quickly. Since I spend so much of my time using the Google Chrome browser anyway, it wasn’t much of a transition to a Chromebook. As an educator I see huge potential with Chromebooks mainly because they do about 90% of what you need them to do for a fraction of the price of an iPad or full-sized laptop computer.

I’m really sad I have to turn this thing over tomorrow. I’m going to miss it.

Here’s my two cents:

The Highs

Boot-up Speed

I still can’t get over how fast this things loads.  With my PC I can run errands between pressing the power button and the time it’s ready to work. The Samsung is ready and waiting by the time I get the lid open.  Teachers will really appreciate their students having the ability to quickly switch to computer work without a lot of wasted transition time.  The only problem is that it still takes awhile for the Wi-Fi to connect. Since so much depends on an Internet connection, that time lag can be a little annoying.

Management / Maintenance

The brilliance of the Chromebook model is that there are almost no settings left on the computer for you to break. And since you can’t download any software, there’s almost no chance of viruses. All software and security updates are taken care of by Google and happen unobtrusively in the background. And since almost all of your data is stored in the cloud, if there is a problem you can simply reset the device (or switch to another one) without missing a beat. And the $30 optional management tool allows one person with very little training to manage settings, apps, and permissions on dozens if not hundreds of machines with a minimum of effort.

Simplicity

This could also be a negative, but elementary teachers should love the simplified desktop and keyboard layout (no Caps Lock, no Windows button, no Apple button, no function keys).  There’s very little to distract, confuse, or click on by accident.

The Lows

Video Recording

The webcam on the Samsung is OK for taking pictures, but it’s not up to the task for shooting video.  Not that there’s a lot you can do with a video camera on a Chromebook anyway.  There is no built-in video recording capability. I installed and used the WeVideo app but was very disappointed with the results. My short video was very choppy and nearly unusable.  Since WeVideo runs over the Internet, creating a video was a very tedious and time consuming process.  Recording directly to YouTube yielded a much better result, but that’s not going to be an option for most teachers. Skype is not available as a Chromebook app which means that Google hangouts are your only video conferencing option.

No Java

One big gripe about iPads is that they won’t run Flash. While Chromebooks will run Flash, they won’t run Java. I understand that this helps with security, but there are a handful of very useful educational websites that won’t work on a Chromebook (my favorite being http://www.screencast-o-matic.com/). That combined with the poor video recording options and the inability to install software means the Chromebook should not be considered a full-blown creativity tool; realistically it’s still limited to combining images and text.

Internet Connection Required

It should come as no surprise in this day and age, but in order to use a Chromebook effectively, you will need a robust, reliable Internet connection. Even with Google providing more and more offline options, there’s very little you can do on a Chromebook if the Wi-Fi goes down.

Google Apps Required

It should also come as no surprise that a Chromebook is worthless without a gmail account.  Schools who aren’t going to implement Google Apps need not bother evaluating Chromebooks.

Foreign Characters

As a Spanish teacher I’m used to being disappointed by how difficult it is to type international characters.  Microsoft/Windows has never provided an easy, consistent way to type accented letters, but I had higher hopes for the folks at Google.  Somehow they managed to make it even more difficult than Microsoft.  The only real options are 1) to find the character you need on the web and copy/past or 2) change your keyboards settings, neither of which is very practical.  I even plugged in a full-size USB keyboard hoping to at least use the numeric character codes, but the Chromebook won’t recognize the numeric keypad. (For the record Apple has by far the easiest, most intuitive way to type Spanish characters.  I wish others would copy them.)

What I Didn’t Test

Battery Life

I never put the Chromebook through a full day of continuous use so I don’t know how long it would last in a school setting. Teaching a last-hour class with students constantly running out of juice would get old quick.

Printing

Of course it you’re really using Google Apps the way it was intended, the question “How do I print?” shouldn’t come up much, but being 100% paperless isn’t always practical either.  I have high hopes for Google Cloud Print, but I don’t know how well it works.

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