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An A in Chromebook Design

Chromebook plus compositeSamsung’s Chromebook Plus sets the pace for Chromebooks at school with an unequaled combination of size, weight and versatility. It may cost more than plain utilitarian systems, but it’s a powerful and versatile Chromebook that punches above its weight. And, a more powerful model is on the way.

At 8.7 by 11.0-inches and 0.6-inches thick, the 2.4-pound (2.7-pounds with its small AC adapter) Chromebook Plus is significantly smaller and lighter than either the Acer C731T or Asus C202, in spite of the fact that the Chromebook Plus has a slightly bigger screen. In fact, the Chromebook Plus’s dull silver case is only marginally thicker and heavier than the Asus Flip C100A, a convertible Chromebook with a similar design that has a smaller 10.1-inch screen versus 12.3-inchs for the Chromebook Plus.

Despite its slim profile, the system is a convertible notebook with a 360-degree hinge that allows it to assume several computing profiles. It can be a traditional keyboard-centric system, but if you want a tablet, flip the screen over. You can even set it up on a tabletop in tent orientation or with the keyboard facing down and speakers facing up for presentations or small-group video watching.  

Chromebook plus bIts hinge action is smooth, the display doesn’t wobble too much when you tap it and the display locks in place when it’s set to tablet mode. Overall, the system feels good in the hand as a slate and its 18.5-mm keys are easy on the fingers.

Just like Flip, the Chromebook Plus has a tough metallic skin over a strong internal frame to protect it from damage. Unlike the C202 and the C731T, the Chromebook Plus is not Mil-Std 810G certified for rugged use.

It lacks the Celeron processor that many other Chromebooks use and instead has the RockChip OP1 ARM-based six-core chip that runs at 2GHz. An evolutionary update of the RockChip used in the Asus Flip C100A, it’s faster and has more computing cores to work with, yet doesn’t overwhelm the battery.

In addition to the $450 Plus model I looked at, Samsung plans an all-black $550 Pro model that’s aimed at businesses, but just might be the ultimate teacher or administrator’s system. It uses an Intel Core m3 processor that runs at between 1- and 2.2GHz, but otherwise mirrors the Plus system.

Either way, the systems come with 4GB of RAM and 32GB of storage space. Need more room for lessons, assignments and grades? You can add extra storage space with a micro-SD card.

As is the case with many newer systems, its ports are a mixed bag. The Chromebook Plus has a pair of USB-C ports, one of which is used for charging the system. In other words, like others, you’ll need to get an adapter to connect with a projector, display and accessories. It worked fine with a Minix Neo C Mini adapter, which also provided a pair of USB 3.0 ports and HDMI connections, but you’ll probably be using its 802.11ac networking and Bluetooth 4 wireless connections more often.

Chromebook plus iLike many new Chrome-based designs, the Chromebook Plus lacks a cooling fan, which can make it a more reliable system with longer battery life. While it generally keeps its cool, there’s a hot spot near the USB-C port while it’s plugged in.

The 12.3-inch display is a gem that is not only able to interpret 10 independent touch inputs but has a highly detailed 2,400 by 1,600 resolution versus 1,366 by 768 screens for the competition. In fact, it handles UHD videos extremely well with sharp detail and smoothness, but could be a weak link it its longevity by not having reinforced glass, like Gorilla Glass.

At an aspect ratio of 3:2, the screen is taller than most of the competition and might end up being a way for kids to hide from the teacher during class. It lets you work comfortably with three taller documents or Web pages at once, though.

Above the screen is a 720p Web cam, but there’s no camera in the screen lid. It does have a pair of microphones that can filter out background noise, something that’s usually reserved for more expensive models.

A big step forward for this class of Chromebook is the inclusion of the Chromebook Plus’s pop-out stylus for sketching and annotating what’s on the screen. It does a good job of mimicking the feel of a pen on paper, but there’s no way to tether it to the system. 

The stylus software on the Chromebook Plus lets you define an area and save it as a screen shot and write notes, but there’s also a magnifying glass tool. My favorite is the cool laser pointer mode that leaves a bright blue trail that’s perfect for highlighting something on-screen. There’re also downloadable programs that can use the pen, from math graphic and drawing to note-taking and signature apps.

It’s more secure than most with a second-generation Trusted Platform Module. The Chromebook Plus, however, lacks a fingerprint scanner or Web cam capable of facial recognition for log-ins.

With version 56 of the Chrome OS software, the Chromebook Plus has one more trick up its long sleeve. In addition to including ArtCanvas and AirDroid Premium, it can run manyAndroid apps. Unfortunately, this doesn’t yet include the free versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, but Samsung is working with Google and Microsoft on an update to open these apps to the Chromebook Plus.

Chromebook plus gThis is a Chromebook that won’t set any performance records, but it was more than powerful enough to work with those apps as well as things like MathWays online graphing calculator and the University of Colorado’s PHET science simulations. It scored 521.1 milliseconds and 9,675 on SunSpider and Octane benchmarks, slightly ahead of the Celeron-based Acer C731T. 

Its battery ran for 8 hours and 45 minutes of non-stop video playing. This should translate into more than enough for a full day of lessons, assignments and Web searches with a little left over at the end of the day. Still, it was more than an hour short of the Asus Flip C100’s 9:20. The system was able to start up and be ready for class in 7.8 seconds.

At $450, penny-pinching districts will see the Chromebook Plus as more expensive than the typical Chromebook, but it pays dividends with an excellent design and a slew of unexpected goodies, like an ultra-HD screen, TPM security and included stylus. Look for the $550 Intel Core M3-powered black Chromebook Pro in the coming months that will have more processing power and could be the ultimate teacher’s computer.

When the Android compatibility software is ready later this year, the Chromebook Plus/Pro pair will set a new standard for school computers. Which you get depends on whether your outfitting students or teachers with what will likely be the best all-around school system ever made

A

Cb plus a

Samsung Chromebook Plus

$450

 

+ Versatile convertible design

+ UHD screen

+ Thin and light

+ Includes stylus

+ Two USB-C ports

+ TPM module

- Doesn’t work with Android-based Word, PowerPoint and Excel apps

Stand by Me

C36_4We all know that juggling papers, books and a tablet can lead to disaster, but Armor-X’s 3-in-1 stand lets your slate stand on its own. The $35 device not only securely holds an iPad Pro 9.7, Air 2 or mini 4, but just about any tablet that has between a 7- and 10.5-inch screen, including most Android devices. Unfortunately, this leaves out the larger Pro model. The stand can sit on a desk with the screen at a comfortable angle or attached to a wall, although at any time you can take the tablet out. A big bonus is the ability to set up the screen in horizontal or vertical orientation or at any angle you choose.

Newcomer to Convertible Trade

SlideYou may not have heard about Slide, but chances are you will. That’s because the company’s Lap116 convertible notebook squeezes a lot of computer into a small price tag. To start, the Lap116’s 11.6-inch full HD screen can rotate 360-degrees so that it’s just as good as a traditional keyboard-centric notebook as a tablet or with the base holding the screen upright for presentations. Powered by a quad-core processor, it comes with 2GB of RAM and 32GB of storage space and uses Windows 10. It’s available in white, black or red for $399.

Freebee Friday: Chromebook Test Drive

C731tLooking to try out Acer’s latest rugged Chromebook? The company is offering trial loaner machines to schools at no cost, all you have to do is apply and then listen to a call with their marketing people. A few weeks later, a Celeron-powered C731T touch-screen Chromebook will arrive to try out. There’re neither shipping fees nor any obligation to buy any systems, making this one of the best freebees we’ve seen.

More iPad for Less Money

Ipad-201703-gallery1The latest iPad is like a breath of fresh air by replacing the Air 2 line at a steep discount. The updated 9.7-inch iPad is powered by the latest A9 processor, has enough battery to last for 10 hours of use and comes in silver, gray and gold. It combines iOS software with access to more than a million apps, many of which are free educational programs. It comes with 32GB of storage, WiFi and Apple’s Retina 2,048 by 1,536 resolution screen. Starting on Friday, it’ll be available for $329, $309 for students and teachers and $299 for schools -- at least $70 less than the retiring Air 2.

Super Secure Systems

CyberWith hackers seemingly hiding behind every server or WiFi access point, digital security is as important as door locks and video surveillance at schools. It might start with strong passwords and having an air-tight network, but the digital safety of every schools often comes down to the systems a district buys. These two notebooks are among the most secure available today, but neither skimps on the ability to teach or learn.

Which you choose depends on whether you value keeping malicious software out of your school or you want to make it easier to log in. Personally, I think all new system should have both of these advances built in.

X360 g2HP’s EliteBook X360 1030 G2 just might be the most secure convertible notebook ever created. It not only has a fingerprint scanner, Trusted Platform Module (TPM) and HP’s SureStart method of not allowing the system to start up with suspect software, but adds the company’s new Sure Click security feature. Sure Click supplements malware protection by running any newly opened Web browser window in an isolated virtual machine within the processor, essentially cordoning it off from the rest of the computer. That way, if it contains malicious software, it can be shut down without any detrimental effect to the computer. The Windows 10 system weighs just 2.8-pounds, yet has two USB 3.0 and one Type C ports along with an HDMI connection and audio jack. There’s a 13.3-inch HD screen, your choice of a Core i5 or i7 processor, 8- or 16GB of RAM and 128-, 256- or 512GB of solid state storage. It comes with a Wacom pressure-sensitive stylus and starts at $1,700.

Galaxy Book 12in Silver_3Meanwhile, Samsung’s 2-in-1 Galaxy Book should give it competition for most secure status. The Windows tablet not only lets you log onto your system via a wireless link with your phone, but has a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) for remote log-ins. The Galaxy Book lets you link your phone to it via an NFC (Near Field Communications) to Bluetooth connection that is encrypted in Samsung’s Flow software. Just swipe your finger or enter your password on your Android phone and the Galaxy Book system picks up from where you left off. An evolutionary step up from the Tab Pro S, the Galaxy Book continues as a tablet with a snap-on keyboard cover. On the other hand, it’s not a one-size fits all system, with 10.6- (1,920 by 1,080 resolution) or 12-inch (2,160 by 1,440 resolution) Super-AMOLED screens. They’ll all run Windows 10 software, but the 12-incher will use a Core i5 processor while the 10.6-incher will have a Core M3 chip; both have at least 4GB of RAM and either a 128- or 256GB solid-state storage module; the smaller Galaxy Book also will have a 64GB option. The larger Galaxy Book has a pair of USB C ports, a micro-SD card slot and Samsung’s S-Pen for writing or drawing directly on the display, while the smaller Galaxy Book makes do with a single Type C USB port. The good news is that rather than an expensive option, each Galaxy Book comes with its backlit keyboard cover. It’s coming in the spring.

Thems (Not) the Breaks

Acer Chromebook 11 N7 (C731) right facing Google menuIf notebooks always seem to be breaking before their time, Acer’s Chromebook C731 Chromebooks have been designed to last and last. The system can not only stand up to drops of up to 48-inches and being shaken but its keyboard can shrug off 11-ounces of water spilled on it. Water miraculously drains through a pair of holes underneath. It meets the most important of the Army’s Mil-Std 810G requirements for rugged computers.

Acer Chromebook 11 N7 smallPowered by Google’s Chrome operating system, the C731 can’t run Windows software, so it is limited compared to PC systems. With an expected software update later this year, it will be able to work with most Android apps, including the free versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Inside, the system has a Celeron dual-core N3060 processor, 4GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, which should be adequate for most school work. The $230 C731 has a standard 11.6-inch wide-XGA screen while the $280 C731T adds the ability to interact with it via a 10-point touch interface. Either way the C731 weighs less than 3 pounds and has a full day’s worth of battery power.

Any Which Way You Can Dock

HorizontalDockMacBookPro201615TB_LP_R9The dearth of docking stations designed for Apple’s MacBook Pro notebooks is at an end with the latest pair of devices from Henge Docks. They not only have the same dark gray industrial design of the current systems, but work with everything from the 13-inch MacBook Pro (with or without the Touchbar) to the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. They should be out in a few months.

Starting at $499 the  Horizontal Docking Station lets you connect to a variety of accessories by placing the notebook into the dock, while still being able to use its screen and keyboard. The dock has more than a dozen ports and can Horizontal hengedrive four separate screens while connecting to a wired network, HDMI, audio and SD cards. The dock not only charges the system’s battery, but give access to your choice of a pair of USB-C or Thunderbolt ports.

The company does a flip with the Vertical Docking Station that is simpler and starting at $149, it's much less expensive. Slide your system into the dock and it can connect with a display, keyboard and mouse. You get pass-through access to two USB-C connections.

Chuck the Keyboard

A12Is Lenovo’s Android-based Yoga A12 a mini-notebook or a tablet? The answer is a definitive yes. One of the first systems to replace the mechanical keyboard with Lenovo’s touch-sensitive Halo surface that has the outline of the keys, the A12’s 360-degree hinge allows it to be a traditional notebook, tablet or upright presentation machine. You tap it just like a regular old keyboard, but since the keys have no height, the whole A12 can be slimmer and lighter. First used on a Yoga system, Halo includes haptic buzzing feedback as you type and learns your style of typing to improve its response. The A12 system weighs under 2.2-pounds, despite having a 12.2-inch HD screen. The $300 system is powered by an Intel Atom x5 processor and comes with 2GB of RAM and 32GB of storage.

Big Books

Samsung 9With the choice of 13.3- and 15-inch screens, the latest generation of Samsung Notebook 9 systems provide a huge amount of freedom of choice for schools looking to outfit an entire campus. Both have the same slimline design, the latest Core processors from Intel and the luxury of HD screens. They top out at 1.8- and 2.2-pounds for the 13.3- and 15-inch systems and have batteries that can be topped off with an extra two hours of charge in just 20 minutes of being plugged in. They fully up to date with the combination of a pair of USB 3.0 as well as a USB-C port, HDMI and audio; the larger 15-inch model also has an older USB 2.0 port.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Tech Tools are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.