Chromebook’s Freedom of Choice
What does $300 buy for a classroom notebook? A lot if it’s a Chromebook, with a slew of new models on the market or on the way that undercut traditional notebooks by several hundred dollars each. In addition to the Dell Chromebook 11, I got my hands on an Acer C720P and a Toshiba CB35 to try out on typical classroom tasks.
All three exemplify the Chromebook philosophy of computing. With minimalist hardware and lean software, it is an attractive alternative to the bloated software and price tags of PCs and Macs. They also offer wider computing horizons compared to Android or iPad tablets as well as the comfort of a physical keyboard.
There’s a lot in common among the three: they each have the same processor, amount of system memory and the same software. Yet, the three couldn’t be more different and offer a wide range of abilities. While the Toshiba CB35 has a 13.3-inch screen, the other two – the Chromebook 11 and the C720 – get by with 11.6-inch displays.
But, the big difference among the three is that the C720P adds a touch-sensitive display that can make teaching and learning as easy as swiping your finger and tapping on the screen. The surprise is that it costs only $20 more than the non-touch systems.
On the downside, Chromebooks still can’t come close to the variety and depth of school-related software offered by Windows, Macs, iPads or Android slates. The number of Chromebook programs offered for schools is slowly catching up and many now can be used without an online connection, a big step forward for Chrome apps.
To make sure they would easily fit into the classroom setting, I measured them, used them for typical classroom tasks and tried them out with two performance benchmarks and an array of accessories, including a LAN adapter, a keyboard, a memory key, a hard drive, a projector and wireless speaker. All passed the tests with flying colors and had similar – though not identical – performance profiles, although their battery lives differed widely.
Here’s a look at three very competitive Chromebooks, each of which can find a home in your classroom.
It is truly amazing, but Acer’s $299 C720P with its 11.6-inch touchscreen, costs only slightly more than comparable non-touch Chromebooks. District purchasing managers take notice: it’s like getting the touch-display for next to nothing.
At 2.9-pounds, the C720P weighs exactly what the Dell Chromebook 11 does, but its 0.8- by 11.3- by 7.9-inch case is slightly thinner and narrower. The white plastic case is a step up from the standard notebook fare, but the surface picks up dirt, fingerprints and smudges easier than other systems. Happily, it’s also available in gray.
The system comes with a matching AC adapter that brings its travel weight up to 3.2-pounds, the lightest of the three. It, however, has a three-prong plug and lacks Dell’s thoughtful lighted power plug.
Its 11.6-inch screen is the center of attention. Like the Chromebook 11, the C720P’s screen shows 1,366 by 768 resolution, but it reacts to 10 individual finger inputs. You can swipe, press and tap the screen for different tasks as well as do things like highlight a sentence in an ebook, drag images and even bring up an app. The C720P’s touch-screen gives the system an ease of use that other Chromebooks can only dream of.
The display feels solid, doesn’t wobble too much and opens to 145-degrees. That’s slightly farther than the others, but not all the way over so that kids could finger-draw on it flat on a tabletop. It worked well with finger use as well as an off-the-shelf stylus.
Like the others, the C720P has a dual-core Intel Celeron 2995U processor that runs at 1.4GHz along with 2GB of RAM, but its 32GB of storage space is twice the on-board storage that the others provide. Acer has a 4GB version for $330 and non-touch versions of this system for as little as $200. Plus, Acer adds 100GB of online storage with GoogleDrive for two years with the system; after that it costs $5 a month.
Like the other two Chromebooks I looked at, the C720P has an HDMI port, audio jack and a pair of USB connections. On the downside, these include an older USB 2.0 and a newer USB 3.0, while the CB35 and Chromebook 11 each have a pair of up-to-date USB 3.0 ports. On the right side, there’s an SD card slot that can add more storage space, but the card sticks out when in place.
As was the case with the Dell and Toshiba Chromebooks, the C720P lacks a wired LAN connection, but you can use an inexpensive USB-to-Ethernet converter. The system includes 802.11n WiFi and Bluetooth. It worked with all six of the accessories I threw at it.
It all adds up to a Chromebook that is competitive with the others. It took 7 seconds to get the machine started, making it the fastest to get to a lesson. With a 2,915 score on FutureMark’s PeaceKeeper and 354.3 millisecond result on SunSpider, it was between the slightly faster Chromebook 11 and the slightly slower CB35.
The system’s battery ran for a class-leading 5 hours and 11 minutes on a charge while continuously playing videos. That should translate into a full day of typical classroom use with enough left over for grading tests or doing homework at night.
With a 1-year warranty, the C720P sells for an enviable $299, just $20 more than the Chromebook 11 or CB35, both of which use non-touch screens. All told, the C720P raises the bar for Chromebooks by including everything you need and including the luxury of a touch-screen. It is nothing short of today’s bargain notebook for schools.
+ Touch screen
+ Fast start-up
+ Excellent battery life
+ Screen folds down more than others
+ 32GB of local storage
+ Includes 100GB online storage for 2 years
- SD card sticks out
- 1 USB 2.0 and 1 USB 3.0
The first Chromebook from Dell puts value and durability above all other considerations with an enviable $279 price tag. One of the least expensive systems around, the Chromebook 11 excels at ruggedness and toughness.
At 0.9- by 11.6- by 7.9, the Chromebook 11 is slightly larger than the C720P, although the two weigh-in at the same 2.9-pounds. With its matching AC adapter, the travel weight for the system rises to 3.4-pounds, several ounces more than the C720P, but a little less than the larger CB35 Chromebook. To power it up, the system requires a three-prong plug, but its power input plug has a thoughtful LED that lights up when juice is flowing.
Like the others, the Chromebook 11 has a 1,366 by 768 display, but unlike the C720P it doesn’t respond to touch and at 11.6-inches it is smaller than the CB35’s 13.3-inch screen. It can be tilted down to only 140-degrees.
The display does have a big advantage among clumsy students and teachers: the plastic case has soft rubbery bumpers around the screen lid to protect it against damage if it’s dropped or thrown into a backpack. The rest of the Chromebook has a soft rubberized coating that is more appealing than the CB35’s textured surface or the C720P’s smooth case. The surface makes it easier to grab and harder to drop. The system’s black keys on a black wrist rest, however, run the risk of being hard to see in a darkened classroom.
As is the case with the other two Chromebooks, Dell’s offering is powered by an Intel Celeron 2955U processor that runs at 1.4GHz. While the $279 version I looked at includes 2GB of RAM, Dell also sells a 4GB model that goes for $299. Both come with 16GB of storage space – half as much as is included with the C720P – and lacks the 100GB of online storage space for two years that comes with the CB35 and C720P.
It can connect with a monitor or projector (with an HDMI port), speakers or headphones (with an audio jack) or a slew of accessories with either of its pair of USB 3.0 ports. The system has an SD card slot on the right, but, unlike the C720P, the flash card doesn’t stick out. While it lacks an Ethernet port, the Chromebook worked with a USB-to-Ethernet adapter and comes with 802.11n WiFi and Bluetooth. It successfully connected to all six peripherals I tried with it.
The Chromebook 11 may have been the slowest by a small margin to start up at 8.7 seconds, but it was the fastest at general purpose work with a 2,922 on FutureMark’s PeaceKeeper, slightly ahead of both the C720P and the CB35. It was also the fastest to complete the SunSpire online tests at 350 milliseconds. In other words, it was the best overall performer, but not by much.
Its battery was able to run for 4 hours and 56 minutes of continuous use on a charge. That’s 15 minutes short of the C720P’s battery life, but still, quite good and probably enough for more than a full day of school use.
The Chromebook 11 comes with a 1-year warranty and along with the CB35 is the price leader here at $279. If price and durability count for more than a touch screen, the Chromebook 11 should fit right into your school.
+ Protective screen bumpers
+ Soft touch surface
+ Power plug is lighted
+ Slightly faster
- No touchscreen
- Doesn’t include online storage
Toshiba shows that when it comes to school notebooks, bigger can be better. Its $279 CB35 Chromebook comes with a vibrant 13.3-inch screen, rather than the 11.6-inch display on the other two systems. The screen looks better and provides more space for learning, but is heavier and takes up more precious desk space than other Chromebooks.
Unlike the others, the CB35 weighs in at 3.3 pounds, about 6-ounces more than the C720P or Chromebook 11. The pay-off is that the system is built around a 13.3-inch screen that offers 35 percent more viewing and work area compared to an 11.6-inch screen.
Its display can be folded down to 140-degrees and has a resolution of 1,366 by 768. It, however, lacks the C720P’s ability to respond to touch and the protective plastic bumpers of the Chromebook 11.
It’s a thin machine at 0.8-inches, but the system takes up a lot of desk space with a 12.9- by 8.9-inch footprint. It’s more than an inch wider and longer than the others. It’ll still fit easily into a child’s (or teacher’s) backpack, though.
With its small black AC adapter, the system has a 3.5-pound travel weight, just an ounce more than the Chromebook 11’s. It may lack the Chromebook 11’s lighted power connector but the CB35 is the only one of the three to have a more convenient two-prong plug. This will be especially appreciated in an older school with an older electrical infrastructure.
The system’s silver plastic case is textured on the top and bottom as well as having rounded corners. It has a smooth wrist rest area and more than enough room to accommodate it’s 4.1- by 2.9-inch touchpad – the largest of the three systems.
As is the case with the others, the CB35 is powered by a 1.4GHz Celeron processor and comes with 2GB of RAM. There’s no upgrade to 4GB of RAM, however. Its 16GB of storage space is half the space provided by the C720P, but – like the C720P – Toshiba includes 100GB of space on GoogleDrive for two years; after that it will cost $5 a month.
Around its edge is a good selection of connections with a pair of USB 3.0, HDMI and audio ports. The system has a SD card reader that allows the card to sit flush with the surface. Like the others, it does without an Ethernet connection, but the CB35 comes with 802.11n WiFi and Bluetooth built-in. It worked well with an off-the-shelf USB-to-Ethernet adapter as well as all the other five peripherals I tried out.
With scores of 2,884 on FutureMark’s PeaceKeeper and 355.9ms on the Sun Spider online benchmark, it was the slowest of the three Chromebooks, but only by a small margin. On the downside, its fan was the loudest of the three when the system was stressed. It took 8 seconds to start the system up and it ran for 4 hours and 27 minutes on a charge of playing videos continuously. It should be just enough juice for a full day of schoolwork.
The $279 CB35-3120 model that I looked at is the only version that Toshiba sells. It may not be the cheapest system around, but with a 1-year warranty, the CB35 breaks the $300 price barrier for a 13-inch school-centric notebook. In other words, it can open a new world of computing for classrooms.
+ Big screen
+ Thin case
+ Textured surfaces
+ Two-prong plug
+ 100GB of online storage for 2 years
- No touchscreen
- Loud fan