TechLAB Shootout: 4 Chromebooks
From the dawn of classroom computing, there have been two choices for outfitting students and teachers: PC or Apple hardware. Enter Google’s Chromebook format, which can not only help teach a classroom of kids but also teach the big boys of computing a thing or two about making inexpensive notebooks.
Born of Google’s Web browser, the Chrome OS relies more on cloud resources than local components and that means that it can get by with less hardware than the typical computer for schools. This not only reduces upfront costs but can lower long-term maintenance as well.
This is where Chromebooks excel, with models costing as little as $200, half what schools typically spend on computers, although some can cost as much as $1,300. There are stationary desktop Chromeboxes as well that cost $350. Just plug the small box into a monitor, keyboard, mouse and LAN and you have a general purpose computer.
Chromebooks are also cheap to keep. IDC recently examined how computers were used and maintained at 12 schools and estimated that due to the simplicity and online nature of Chromebooks, their deployment and support costs were 69- and 92-percent lower than with PCs. As far as total costs over three years are concerned, it was the difference between spending $1,472 (for a traditional PC) and $388 (for a Chromebook).
While there are dozens of potential school notebooks available, at the moment there are only a handful of Chromebooks on the market from Acer, Google, HP, Lenovo and Samsung. To examine the state of the art for school notebooks, I gathered four of the newest together, including the Acer C710, Lenovo’s ThinkPad X131e, Google’s Pixel and Samsung’s XE303C12.
They all are smaller and lighter than the typical school computer, but, as is the case with any new computing format, the weak point for Chromebooks is software. Chrome OS lacks such school mainstays as Word, Excel and Geometer’s SketchPad, and the University of Colorado’s PHET science and math simulations that require Java don’t work on the Chromebook platform.
To compensate, the Chrome OS includes goodies like the eponymous Web browser, Gmail and access to Google Docs. There’re also specialty teaching programs for astronomy, anatomy and many foreign languages as well as education packs for elementary, middle- and high schools.
Plus, there’s a variety of free or low-cost general purpose tools, for image editing, video creation, teaching typing and even mind mapping. For districts struggling with the cost of software, this will seem like a gift from the digital gods.
The Chromebook software circle is widening with Compass Learning recently completing a project that allows its entire library of PreK-through-12 curriculum material to be used by Chromebooks. We used their software to teach several lessons with these Chromebooks during the lab evaluations.
Finally, Chromebook takes a step ahead of traditional computers with its Management Console. The Web-based software and allows teachers and administrators to track who has which system, block certain apps from running and even create a common user interface for the institution. The software costs $30 per system and is money well spent.
Because many Chromebooks fall short of the mark in terms of local storage, the emphasis is on cloud storage of term papers, presentations and all the accoutrement of teaching. They all come with between 100GB and 1TB of online storage. This is more than enough for a year’s worth of schoolwork, but the cost can add up quickly after the introductory period ends.
Chromebooks have a big benefit compared to Macs and PCs: a hidden way to instantly wipe a machine clean and make it ready for a new student or teacher. Rather than hours spent wiping a drive clean and installing a new operating system and applications, it takes a click and a couple of minutes to make it good as new.
It all adds up to systems that will easily fit into a school’s computing landscape without breaking the bank. But, instead of a single Chromebook that’s best for schools, there are actually two that together have the power to revolutionize education.
For students, Samsung’s xe303C12 is not only inexpensive, light and thin, but can run for a full day of learning on a charge. It has only 2GB of RAM and may not be the fastest around, but is more than powerful enough to be a constant learning companion. The best part is that at $250 each, it is something most schools can afford.
Paradoxically, I recommend splurging with Google’s Pixel, but only for teachers. It is not only thin, light and powerful but its ultra-high resolution touch-screen makes it much more intuitive to put a lesson together and then project it for the class. In fact, the only major drawback is its $1,300 price tag, but the typical school gets 20 or 25 notebooks for kids for every one for a teacher, so it won’t bust the budget.
In other words, the Samsung XE303 and Google Pixel are a one-two punch for maximum educational impact.
Beneath its demure gray case, Acer’s C710-2055 Chromebook provides not only the group’s largest storage capacity, but a seductive $279 price tag. On the downside, the system lags in almost all performance categories and its enormous battery makes it the thickest of the group.
Based on Acer’s TravelMate B113 model, the C710 has the advantage of a well-designed and -made system that has been adapted for Chromebook use. Its 11.1- by 7.9-inch case nearly matches that of the Samsung XE303 and is only 0.9-inches thick in the front. It, however, has a huge 6-cell battery that gives the keyboard a comfortable 8-degree tilt, but boosts its thickness to 1.6-inches at the back.
It weighs 3.2-pounds, and happily, the battery pack is replaceable. The same system is slimmer and weighs 4-ounces with Acer’s smaller battery pack, but it gives up nearly two hours of battery life.
With the unit’s 7-ounce power adapter, the C710 has a travel weight of 3.6-pounds, making it one of the lightest Chromebooks available. The adapter is perfect for schools because its two-prong plug can be rotated 90-degrees to accommodate different outlet or power strip arrangements.
The system has the slowest processor of the bunch, a Celeron 847 chip that runs at 1.1GHz and comes with 4GB of RAM. Like the ThinkPad X131e, it can hold up to 8GB of RAM.
Because it uses a rotating hard drive rather than smaller, lighter and less power-hungry solid state flash storage chips, the C710 leads the pack with 320GB of storage capacity, 10-times the storage capacity of the Pixel. The system includes 100GB of GoogleDrive online space for two years – one tenth the cloud storage space provided by the Pixel; after that it costs $5 a month.
It’s one of the easiest Chromebooks to get inside to do maintenance, but there’s a catch. If you need to clean out dust bunnies or change components, just open one screw underneath and slide the plate off, but there’s a sticker that warns that the warranty is voided if it’s opened.
Unfortunately, opening the screen lid requires two hands. As is the case with the X131e and the XE303, the C710 has an 11.6-inch display, can show 1,366 by 768 resolution and uses Intel’s HD graphics. Like the others, there’s a Web cam above the screen. Unfortunately, the C710’s display is neither touch-sensitive nor as sharply detailed as the one on the Pixel.
Around its edge, there’s a good assortment of ports, with connections for three USB 2.0, HDMI and VGA ports as well as audio jacks; there’s also an SD card slot. Like the ThinkPad X131e, the C710 has WiFi and wired LAN, but does without the luxury of Bluetooth. As a result, it couldn’t work with our Bluetooth keyboard, but passed the other three compatibility tests.
Last summer, San Jose’s Ace Charter Middle and High Schools purchased 70 older C710 models for online educational programs in its Math Lab and English support classrooms. According to Shawn Gerth, director of schools at Ace Charter School, “price and utility were the priorities for the purchase. We couldn’t have afforded traditional notebooks.”
So far, the C710s are doing very well, adds Gerth, and she couldn’t be more pleased. The school is considering getting between 30 and 90 of the newer C710 systems this summer.
A mediocre performer, the C710 was able to start up in 20.3 seconds, the slowest of the bunch. Its 1,505 on PeaceKeeper and 563.4ms on the SunSpider tests were near the bottom of the pack, but the system did fine on typical school tasks, like Web research and writing an essay.
Despite its huge battery pack, the C710 had a battery life of 4 hours and 58 minutes, less than 20 minutes off the pace of the class-leading X131e. It should easily last for a whole school day of on-and-off use. It did come up short on WiFi range with the ability to stay connected only 85-feet from the lab’s router
Using Compass Learning’s Odyssey content, the system’s video was generally smooth with good audio synchronization although the touchpad sometimes lagged behind the finger movements. It took several minutes to load the lesson on the Post-Modern era, but it ran without a problem. The system responded smoothly when using the University of Colorado’s PHET Calculus Grapher.
With a 1-year warranty, the system costs $279 and an extension to three years adds a realistic $89. The C710 is a bargain compared to all the others except for the XE303 and is a solid machine for schools looking to use Chromebooks.
+ Good price
+ Includes TPM
+ Big battery
+ Lots of storage space
- No Bluetooth
- Low performance
- Slow start up
- Thick with big battery
- Short WiFi range
Google Chromebook Pixel
Macbook Air and Asus Zenbook, move over. Google’s Pixel has arrived, and it is what other Chromebooks want to be when they grow up. By combining high-performance, a sleek design and the first touchscreen in a Chromebook, Pixel is a winner, although its price tag belies the platform’s modest roots.
Following on the heels of Google’s smartphones and tablets, Pixel is a feat of engineering and design. At 0.7- by 11.7- by 8.9-inches, it is about half the size of the ThinkPad X131e, yet has a larger screen and its minimalist gray aluminum case makes it look like a sophisticated teaching tool.
Pixel weighs 3.4-pounds, three-quarters of a pound heavier than the XE303, but half a pound lighter than the X131e. With its AC adapter, it has a travel weight of 4-pounds and it can slide into and out of a backpack with ease.
While its case carries no prominent logos, there’s a small laser cut logo on the hinge. The system has three design tricks up its sleeve. When the system is plugged in, the power plug glows yellow; when it’s fully charged the light turns to green. Plus, in addition to an indent that makes opening the system easier, Pixel has a magnetic latch that keeps it closed. When the lid is opened or closed, a strip on the lid briefly glows like a rainbow.
Pixel compensates for its extra bulk with the highest resolution screen on a Chromebook. Its 12.9-inch display has a 3:2 aspect ratio, which is taller than the others. It uses Intel’s newer HD Graphics 4000 and can show 2,560 by 1,700 resolution, rivaling nearly every notebook on the market. There’s a Web cam above the screen.
The screen itself is made of super-tough Gorilla Glass and comes into its own when you touch it. Unlike the other Chromebooks and most notebooks, it can respond to 10 independent touch inputs, can interpret gestures and works with off-the-shelf stylus pens. This makes it perfect for circling part of a photo or sketching a map of the Peloponnesian War’s battles. In other words, it has the power to make teaching more visual.
Pixel doesn’t skimp on its keyboard, either. It has a prominent search key and the whole thing is backlit – perfect for projector lessons with the lights off. Its touchpad is the largest of the four and is made of smooth etched glass.
Without a doubt, Pixel has the most powerful processor of the four with an Intel Core i5 chip that runs at 1.8GHz, but when needed, it can speed up to as fast as 2.8GHz. Called TurboBoost, none of the others have this ability. The system comes with 4GB of RAM and 32GB of solid state flash storage.
Rather than providing 100GB of online storage, Pixel comes with 1TB of online storage space with GoogleDrive for three years. It costs $50 a month – a hefty $600 a year – after that. There’s also another Pixel model that doubles its internal storage space to 64GB and adds a 4G data card for getting online anywhere there’s an LTE-based phone network available. It costs an extra $150 and is subject to data charges.
Most of the time, however, we expect it’ll be using a WiFi connection at school, but Pixel lacks the wired LAN port on the ThinkPad X131e and C710. It has Bluetooth and worked with all four hardware devices we used.
There are also connections for a pair of USB 2.0, audio, an SD card slot and mini Displayport. It leaves out HDMI and VGA ports, but I used an inexpensive adapter to project lessons with it. Unfortunately, as is the case with the XE303, there’s no way to get inside the Pixel and you can’t swap its batteries.
Pixel is also too new to have gained any traction in schools, but it is the top performing Chromebook available. It was able to start up in less than 7 seconds and has PeaceKeeper and SunSpider scores of 3,772 and 237.7ms – the best of the bunch and more than twice the performance potential of the C710 or XE303.
It stayed online up to 100-feet from the lab’s router. On the downside, Pixel’s battery lasted for only 4 hours and 5 minutes on a charge. It should be just enough for a full school day of stop-and-go use, but it is more than an hour behind the XE303 and ThinkPad X131e.
It does curriculum better than the rest because rather than fussing with the touchpad to move the lines on the University of Colorado’s PHET Calculus Grapher, just touch the line on the screen and pull it up or down. The same goes for starting and pausing videos, adjusting the volume and Pixel’s touch-screen has the advantage of letting the teacher markup a math diagram or sentence for the whole class to see. Its video in Compass Learning’s Odyssey material was spot on and well synchronized.
Pixel comes with a 1-year warranty, but, unfortunately, Google doesn’t offer a warranty extension; upping the coverage to three years with Square Trade costs $300 – more than either the C710’s or XE303’s price tag. This pushes Pixel out of reach of all but the best endowed schools for equipping students with notebooks.
On other hand, Google’s Pixel makes a very compelling argument as being the best computer for teachers on the market.
+ Bright and rich touchscreen
+ Thin design
+ Backlit keyboard
+ 1TB of online storage
+ Top Performance
+ Quick start-up
- No access to components
Lenovo ThinkPad X131e Chromebook
Look quickly at Lenovo’s ThinkPad X131e and you’d think it was an off-the-shelf business notebook. In fact, there’s no Chromebook logo visible anywhere on its black skin, making it the stealth Chromebook of the group.
At 1.3- by 11.6- by 8.4-inches, the X131e is small but thick, particularly compared to the ultrathin Pixel model. It is by far the largest of the four and the only Chromebook that’s been designed to be rugged enough for school use.
It weighs in at 3.9-pounds on its own, making it the heaviest of the four. It is a pound and a half heavier than the XE303. With its AC adapter, the system means that kids and teachers will need to carry around 4.3-pounds of gear.
The system does have some startling design touches that are not usually seen in school systems. In addition to the light-up dot for the “i” in ThinkPad, the machine’s lid’s green LED shows it’s wirelessly connected.
Inside is a mediocre Intel Celeron 1007U processor that runs at 1.5GHz, slightly faster than the similar chip in the C710. It comes with 4GB of RAM, can hold up to 8GB, and includes 16GB of solid state flash storage. This ties it with the XE303 for the smallest amount of space for files. It does include 100GB of GoogleDrive online space, one-tenth that of the Pixel, for two-years; after that it costs $5 a month.
As is the case with the C710 and XE303, the X131e has an 11.6-inch display and Intel HD Graphics that combine to show 1,366 by 768 resolution, which pales in comparison to the Pixel’s ultra-high resolution screen and lacks its touch control. Above it is a Web cam.
On the downside, there’s no way to get a finger in to easily pull the lid open, making it a two-handed operation. Getting inside the X131e to do maintenance or make repairs is a snap, however. You need to open three screws and remove the bottom panel. Happily, unlike the C710 there’s no label about voiding the warranty.
Its ability to connect with the outside world is a mixed bag. The system has a pair of up-to-date USB 3.0, a single USB 2.0, VGA, HDMI and audio. It has TPM, an SD card slot, WiFi and a wired LAN connection. As is the case with the C710, the X131e does without Bluetooth and failed our Bluetooth keyboard test. It sailed through the other three compatibility tests.
It stands out with a comfortable keyboard that has a Search key and includes the luxury of a touchpad and pointer. Unlike Pixel’s keyboard, it isn’t backlit for lessons in the dark. The touchpad is small compared to the others and awkwardly curved at the top.
At Raleigh, NC’s Ravenscroft School, ruggedness was the primary concern for school computers for a very good reason: the school had deployed early Samsung Chromebooks that were too easy to break. The second time around, Jason Ramsden, the school’s chief technology officer, wanted something more rugged and he choose Lenovo’s ThinkPad X131e.
In addition to thoughtful soft protective bumpers around the display lid and a heavy duty hinge, the ThinkPad X131e has been designed to pass the Army’s Mil-Spec standards for mechanical shock, altitude, sand, vibration, humidity and temperature extremes. “They might not be ready for Afghanistan,” observes Ramsden, “but these systems should be more than enough for our clumsiest students and teachers.” The district is negotiating to buy groups of 150 ThinkPad X131e units to outfit a class at a time.
To no surprise, the X131e was in the middle of the pack on all our performance tests, neither excelling nor embarrassing itself on any. It took 9 seconds to start up, had a PeaceKeeper score of 2,420 and completed the SunSpider tests in 369.3ms. All were behind Pixel’s scores, but ahead of the others.
Its 5,600 milli-amp hour battery pack did excel at one thing: running for the longest of the four. Its 5 hour 19 minute runtime was four minutes longer than the XE303 but an hour longer than the Pixel. It was able to stay online 90-feet from the lab’s router.
The system’s ability to use the University of Colorado’s PHET Calculus Grapher and Compass Learning’s Odyssey library of teaching material were excellent. Its video was crisp and the audio well synchronized.
With its 1-year warranty, the X131e costs $429 and upping coverage costs a very reasonable $69. For schools concerned that Chromebooks might be too flimsy to stand up to typical classroom punishment, its extra cost is more than worth it.
+ Rugged construction
+ USB 3.0
+ Quick start up
+ Battery life
+ Inexpensive warranty extension
- Thick and heavy
- Annoying curved touchpad
- No Bluetooth
It may not be the fastest or best equipped Chromebook available, but Samsung’s XE303C12 has the undeniable virtue of being the least expensive of the four and more than enough for most schools. In other words, it really makes the Chrome format sing.
Easily the lightest of the four, the XE303 is a basic system that is extremely well packaged and designed. It weighs just 2.4-pounds, a pound and a half less than the X131e. With its small 6-ounce AC adapter, the XE303 has a travel weight of 2.8-pounds, half that of the typical school notebook, but its thin power plug looks too delicate.
Overall, the XE303 is slightly larger than the Pixel, but its silver case is admirably thin with a 0.8-inch profile, half that of the C710 at the back. It takes up 11.3- by 8.0-inch of desk space, making it ideal for sharing precious tabletop space.
The system lacks fancy LED lights, but it has a Chrome logo on the screen lid. On the downside, the design doesn’t allow any access to internal components or the ability to change the battery.
While the other three rely on Intel hardware and two are mildly altered PC models, Samsung goes its own way with the XE303 with an ARM-based dual-core Exynos 5 processor that runs at 1.7GHz and has 1MB of processor cache; only the Pixel’s Core i5 processor is faster. The chip has been designed for phones and tablets and uses as little power as possible while still being able to work with graphics intensive software. The system has the advantage of including TPM hardware to help make a school’s infrastructure more secure and hacker-free.
It’s backed up with 2GB of RAM, which unfortunately is not upgradable, and 16GB of sold state flash storage. As is the case with all but the Pixel, the XE303 includes 100GB of online storage space with GoogleDrive for two years and $5 a month after.
The XE303’s 11.6-inch display can show 1,366 by 768 resolution, matching that of the X131e and C710, but, again, rather than Intel graphics hardware, the system has a Samsung graphics accelerator. It can’t match the resolution of the Pixel’s display or its touch control.
As is the case with the Pixel, there’s an indent in the front of the screen lid that makes it easier than the others to open the system with one hand. Above the screen is a capable Web cam.
Despite its thinness, the XE303 has room for a good assortment of connectors, including a USB 3.0 and a USB 2.0 port as well as HDMI, audio jack and an SD card slot. There’s no VGA outlet, but you can use an adapter.
While it lacks the wired LAN of the C710 and X131e, the XE303 has WiFi and Bluetooth and passed all of our compatibility tests with flying colors. Its keyboard and touchpad are good but the system lacks the Pixel’s luxurious LED backlighting.
Passaic City Public Schools is building its digital classroom around Samsung’s ChromeBook 550, which is an earlier and slightly larger Chromebook model. The idea is to outfit each and every student and teacher at the suburban New Jersey district with a Chromebook for everything from lessons to homework.
Paramount in deciding on Chromebooks was the system’s reduced cost of ownership, which allowed the district to save $935 per machine over three years. At 5,000 units, it is currently one of the largest school deployment of Chromebooks.
To nobody’s surprise, the XE303 lagged on each benchmark test, partially the result of it having 2GB of RAM rather than the 4GB that’s included on all of the others. It was able to start in a swift 10-seconds, half that of the C710, but slower than the others.
Its PeaceKeeper and SunSpider scores of 1,210 and 721.3ms were in the back of the class, but the system responded quickly and never lagged during out month of use. The best part is its battery life of 5 hours and 15 minutes, which is four minutes off the pace set by the 131e and an hour longer than the Pixel’s. The system stayed online 100-feet from the lab’s router.
With the system online, it handled the Compass Learning Odyssey material as well as the others with smooth, detailed video and excellent audio synchronization. It also handled the University of Colorado’s PHET Calculus Grapher with smooth operation.
With a 1-year warranty, the XE303 costs an amazing $250 – half what the typical school notebook goes for – putting it in a class by itself. Samsung doesn’t offer a three-year warranty, but expect that getting a two-year extension will cost an economical $70.
It may cut some corners here and there but the XE303 is more than enough computer for the classroom at the right price.
+ Small and light
+ Battery life
+ Small power adapter
+ TPM included
- 2GB of RAM
- No internal access
- Low performacne
Google on the Desk
Chrome and Android aren’t just for notebooks and tablets.
Paradoxically, the latest computers that use Google software are neither tablets nor notebooks. Instead, Chrome and Android are taking on the desktop.
Samsung’s ChromeBox uses the same software as any of the Chromebooks in the main story, but is packaged in a small white box, yet has the power to turn a keyboard, mouse and monitor into a Web-ready computer. Just plug it in, connect it to the school’s network and the device comes to life with an Intel Celeron processor, 4GB and an online cache of 100GB.
The Box lacks USB 3.0 ports, although it has a generous six USB 2.0 connections and has a Displayport as well as a DVI connector to drive a pair of monitors The Box sells for $329, about as cheap as a PC gets these days.
By contrast, Viewsonic’s VSD220 takes Google software a step further with an all-in-one system. Rather than Chrome, though, the VSD220 uses the latest Android 4.0 software and can be thought of as the world’s largest tablet, although, at 11-pounds, it’ll probably stay put on the desk.
Behind its 22-inch HD monitor, the VSD220 has a dual-core ARM processor, 1GB of RAM and 8GB of storage space. Its HD display is touch-sensitive, but unlike most slates and the Pixel, it can only handle two finger inputs at a time. It works well with simple gestures. At $425, it’s an inexpensive way to add Web-centric screens to schools.
To test these Chromebooks, we used Scholastic Administr@tor TechLab test facility to mirror how notebooks are used in the classroom, library and school hallways. After unpacking each unit, we went through them thoroughly measuring, weighing and trying out all their major features.
To start, we measured the system’s width and depth with a ruler, then used a digital caliper to measure its thickness at the notebook’s feet, front and back. After that, we weighed the system on its own with a digital scale and then with its AC adapter and power cord, which is its travel weight. We then checked whether it fit into a backpack.
After examining each port and connector, setting up its WiFi networking and checking for the presence of Bluetooth, WiDi and a Total Protection Module (TPM). We then used a digital caliper to measure the size of the system’s keys as well as checking whether they are back lit.
We then got down to school business by opening the back – if it was possible - to see how easy it is to get to its internal parts. The emphasis is on replacing the hard drive and RAM as well as cleaning each unit with compressed air.
The Chrome OS software offers quick start-up, and we timed how long it takes each of these systems to go from a dead stop to having its desktop screen loaded and being able to move the cursor on the screen. Continuing, we connected each to the Labs’ WiFi and wired networks, if it had an Ethernet port.
This was followed by benchmark performance testing, starting with the system’s WiFi range. After establishing a connection with the lab’s Linksys E4200 router, we started a YouTube playlist of videos and started walking away from the router. When the unit lost contact with the router, we walked back 10 feet to re-establish the connection and repeated this process until the system consistently lost contact at the same place. To simulate the school experience, this test uses a room off of a long hallway.
Next, we looked at overall performance with a pair of benchmarks. We started with FutureMark’s PeaceKeeper, which works through the system’s Chrome browser and exercises all aspects of the system, from rendering animation and physics to playing an assortment of videos. Next, we ran SunSpider 0.9, which times how long each system takes to run a series of Java-based tasks. The benchmark includes working with a 3-D raytracer, cryptography tests and code decompression. The former is reported as a raw numerical score where higher numbers indicated better performance while the latter is expressed in milliseconds needed to complete all the individual tests, where lower numbers are better.
No computer is an island, and we tried to connect an array of typical classroom items to each system, including an Iomega eGo external hard drive, a Keytronic USB keyboard and a Matias Bluetooth keyboard (for those notebooks that had a Bluetooth radio). This was followed by connecting the system to an NEC UM330W projector with its HDMI port. With it, we ran several digital lesson plans, looking for video lag, jitters, jumpiness and out of synch audio.
To see how long their batteries last on a charge, we fully charged each system and unplugged the system with a series of YouTube videos playing continuously. We waited for it to run out of power.
Finally, we used several online educational resources to gauge their interactivity. After working with the Flash-based University of Colorado’s PHET Calculus Grapher, we logged onto Compass Learning’s Odyssey Web site and worked with an array of lessons videos and tests. We used the company’s second-grade lesson symmetry as well as its sixth grade class on prefixes and the high school lesson the Post Modern World.
Every school is different and your results may vary from ours. One thing is certain, however, all of these tests are available for you to use to compare what notebooks you have or are considering.