What about ChromeBooks?

A colleague of mine asked about Google ChromeBooks and their potential use in education.  ChromeBooks are laptop computers whose entire operating system is based on Google Chrome, a web browser.  There is no “specific” operating system installed on the device (Although Chrome OS is based on Linux).  The selling points of ChromeBooks are:

  • Instant On
  • Instant Web
  • Longer Battery Life (6-6.5 Hours)
  • Wi-Fi/3G “Just Works.”
  • Cloud Syncing
  • Web Apps
  • Easy Updating and Management by IT
  • Security Built-In
  • Multiple User Accounts

Compare these elements to the iPad, and you’ll find that many items are similar between the devices, with the exception that iPads do have an on-board iOS, they run native apps, and of course, are a tablet.  The ChromeBook is a notebook, runs web apps, and can be significantly less expensive ($299 for the lower end models).  I’d also say that the ChromeBook fits better into the “traditional” IT mold in terms of device management  (See this link).  And of course, iPads are best used as personal devices, not as a device to be shared between users.

In terms of music education (the focus of this blog), a notebook of any kind in the classroom setting–unless it can convert to a tablet–eliminates most of its usefulness.  The fact that the iPad can be comfortably held, placed on a music stand, or on a piano ledge, is critical.  I think back to my visit to the IMEA Professional Development Conference, and asking the Iowa teachers with a 1-to-1 notebook initiative how often they used those devices in their rooms.  Ultimately, none of those teachers said they used those computers daily; some even admitted they didn’t use them at all in their classes.  As shocking as that may seem, it’s fair.  Does your music classroom have desks that facilitiate a laptop?  Is there a version of Finale, Sibelius, MuseScore, or Audacity from ChromeBook?  Not that I know of.
The form factor debate applies to other classroom settings, too.  Yes, a keyboard on a ChromeBook is nice, but there are MANY excellent iPad keyboard cases available (I’m really liking this Zaggfolio that I’m working on at this moment).  In a classroom, a notebook screen separates the student from the teacher–it adds a barrier.  This was one of the main observations by both students and staff at GFW High School, which I had the priviledge to visit about a year ago.  Ben Brooks wrote about the same issue in business meetings, where an iPad nicely lies on a desk or on a lap, where a notebook sends a very different message.
Another issue is the web connectivity.  Yes, iPads are certainly Wi-Fi devices.  But an iPad can still be functional without a web connection.  If a ChromeBook is a web-based device, particularly for its apps, what is its potential load on a network beyond the load that would be created by iPads, and furthermore, do ChromeBooks work if the Internet crashes?
On a similar note, what about Flash?  Apple products either don’t operate with Flash (including all iOS devices) or don’t operate well with Flash (all other Apple products).  ChromeBooks are supposed to run Flash, but a number of reviews from 2011 indicated that the Cr-48 (Google’s distributed version before production) didn’t run Flash very well.  Flash is still necessary for our schools because our state-mandated, computer-based tests use Flash.  Could a school get away with swapping a media center computer lab with ChromeBooks, especially for testing purposes?  I don’t know the answer to that question.
Even in a 1-to-1 iPad setting, a number of “traditional” computers are still needed, especially for classes needing specialized software (I think of our business and technology classes).  A 1-to-1 ChromeBook setting would still require those additional computers, as the specialized software wouldn’t be available on the ChromeBook, either.  However, those ChromeBooks can utlize USB accessories, something the iPad can’t.  But what apps are available such as video editing?
My biggest fear is that schools might be tempted to go with the ChromeBook because some models might be available for $299 rather than iPads, which start at $499.  I think of netbooks, which I once thought were the wave of the future.  I thought that computer specs and even size of the device itself wouldn’t matter; but I forgot that we were dealing in the traditional PC world with a gigantic operating system and IT policies that would cause those netbooks to take ten to thirty minutes to boot-up once their “start-up” routines were added to the devices (on my behalf, when we pre-tested those devices, that extra software was not added).  We bought several COW units (computers on wheels) of netbooks for our school that opened in the fall of 2009; right now we wish we would have bought notebooks instead (or that the iPad had been released before March of 2010).
Our district also adopted the Citrix model, utilizing terminals in place of computers, particuarly in our business labs, which ran advanced software.  This was a classic failure, and all of those labs were removed in favor of traditional computers.  At least one of the ChromeBook information guides discusses that you can use ChromeBooks like a Citrix set-up for proprietary desktop software.  {shudder}
The iPad is proving to run on a new paradigm, where specific hardware specifications do not matter, other than to simply mention that the iPad 2 has cameras, a graphic processor, and is faster than the iPad 1.  The amount of RAM is only discernable by reading reports from other companies, such as ifixit, that tear apart the devices to discover those specs.
Should a school choose ChromeBooks over iPads?  Only if they want to save money and lose flexibility.  Yes, the iPad is $200 more per unit, plus another $100 if you are going to invest in a keyboard case (Bluetooth keyboards can be purchased for much less).  You’ll also have to buy apps (generally 50% off in education, but typically at least another $50 should be attributed per iPad for apps), whereas most of the key Google ChromeBook web apps are going to be free (e.g. All the Google Docs).
Let me put it this way: would you buy a netbook today?  Would you buy a Citirx terminal today?  If not, maybe you shouldn’t buy a ChromeBook, either–particularly in education.
Here are some other reviews about ChromeBooks worth reading:
ViolaJack’s Post About ChromeBooks
Walt Mossberg on the ChromeBook


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