Okay. I did it. I went and bought an open box Asus Chromebook Flip today–as well as a Chromecast.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to present a rather broad presentation about music education and technology as it can be applied to Orchestra with MNSOTA (Minnesota String and Orchestra Teachers Assoication). As I often do with “broad” presentations, I spent a bit of time talking about SAMR and form factor in my presentation. I find myself often having to describe why Chromebooks are not a great fit for music education. On the other hand, I remain open to new technology, and I talked about how the Chromebook Flip might be a better fit.
Throughout the past day and a half, I spent my free time pondering Chromebooks. As I have written on a regular basis, the Chromebook is winning in education, and as time goes on, there are more solutions for music. For example:
1) Did you know that there are now two HTML Music Notation programs? One is the long-established Noteflight (now owned by Hal Leonard). The other is a French start-up, Flat.io. Both will work on a Chromebook.
2) Did you know that in addition to SmartMusic’s scheduled arrival to the Chromebook in the Fall of 2016, there is already a Chromebook-friendly music assessment program called PracticeFirst (from http://www.musicfirst.com)?
3) Did you know that there is a dedicated HTML 5 sheet music viewer, NeoScores, which will receive some major updates in the next 3 months?
4) Did you know that there is a Web MIDI standard in development, which will (finally) allow Chromebooks to be used with USB MIDI instruments? (See this link) Web MIDI is already in Chromebooks–there is a lack of apps that utilize it so far.
5) Did you know that most web-based programs work on a Chromebook?
6) Did you know that Chromecast now works with the entire desktop, and that you can purchase AirParrot to show a Chromebook over an AppleTV? Chromecast is $35, and I am not sure how much a HDMI to VGA adapter costs for the device. In the past, my Kanex ATV Pro (converts HMDI to VGA for Apple TV) did not work with my Chromecast. That said, Chromecast mirroring is “laggy.” Whereas sound can sometimes lag when I mirror with an iPad, the video and sound both lag on Chromecast–even with the latest version of the device.
7) And most importantly, did you know that there is now a Chromebook that folds in half and can be used as a tablet (in truth, there are two such devices right now–the Asus Flip and the Acer R11 Convertible)?
I now have the Asus model in my possession. After (Minnesota) taxes, it came to $239. That’s less than 1/3 of the cost of my iPad Air 2 (which I maxxed out with LTE and 128GB of storage). On a more comparable note, the entry model iPad Air 2 (at 64GB–don’t ever buy a 16GB device again) is $599. So the Asus Flip was less than 1/2 the price of the “base” iPad model that I would consider buying. I purposely bought the Flip with 2GB of RAM because that is what schools would buy if they bought them (they would not spend the extra $50 for two additional GB of RAM).
I have been spending the evening with the Chromebook, and overall, I am impressed. The Asus Flip is very close to being a solution for music education. If money wasn’t an object, I wouldn’t choose the Flip over an iPad; but if your school has a choice between buying a Dell or Acer clamshell model or the Flip, I would encourage the purchase of the Flip for use in music and other non-typing classes.
I’m not making the claim that the Flip is more durable than other models…I would be terrified of dropping it, and it doesn’t seem like you can use a case with it without impacting its ability to flip. It is significantly smaller than my old Samsung 303 Chromebook, and the screen is only slightly smaller than my iPad. The Flip has a 10″ (diagonal) screen, but is in a widescreen mode versus the iPad’s 4:3 mode. Therefore, the Flip’s screen is only 5″ wide (roughly) while the iPad is nearly 6″ wide. The screen of the Flip is nice–most Chromebooks have low quality screens, whereas the Flip’s is clear. It doesn’t compare to the iPad’s retina screen, but then again, the iPad costs two to three times as much. If you didn’t buy the Flip for the flipping, it would be worth it for the screen versus other Chromebooks (other than Google’s top of the line Pixel model). If you are a musician wanting to view music on a device, and the iPad is too small, skip the Flip, unless you are going to use a MusicXML music viewer such as NeoScores, where notation can be instantly resized. If you need a bigger screen, wait for the iPad Pro in about a month.
The Flip weighs about 1 pound 15 ounces, whereas my iPad Air 2, in its case, weighs about 1 pound 8 ounces. Most tech journalists would complain about the difference of a half a pound, but for most users, you could deal with it. The most awkward thing about the Flip is holding it with the keys in the back…it is a feeling that takes getting used to. The keyboard itself is disabled in this mode, and the touchscreen overlay (something I suspect Asus put together above Google’s operating system) works surprisingly well–far better than some Windows devices that I have used. Asus should get this right, as they have made many Android and Windows tablets, convertibles, and even Flip devices in the past.
One oddity about the Flip is that it has a unique charger, when most devices are shipping with USB charging capability of some kind. Having a proprietary charger in today’s mobile world is a strange choice for a new device. Other than its unique charging port, the Flip has two LEDs (battery charging and power), a volume rocker, a power button (on the side of the device), a headphone jack, a MicroSD slot, two USB ports, and a mini HDMI out port. I wish they would spend the extra $3 and ship these devices with a mini HDMI to regular HDMI adapter.
The negatives of the Flip, with the exception of the solution of the form factor issue, remain the sameas other Chromebooks. As a whole, there are not a lot of quality apps for the device, and nearly all of the quality apps require a subscription for the best features. While I love what Noteflight, Flat.io, NeoScores, and MusicFirst are doing by creating a number of quality apps, many schools simply cannot afford a subscription (for the record, Noteflight and NeoScores have free versions, and Flat.io is still free). I think that developers deserve to be paid, even if schools are too cheap to pay for software. The issue is that when your school district has selected a device for the primary reason of cost savings and streching their dollar, they aren’t putting aside money for music departments to buy music specific apps–and to do so annually (In comparison, on the iPad, generally, apps are “buy once”). Other than NeoScores, I cannot find a PDF web app that allows for horizontal page turns and allows annotation. And I do not believe that you can add a scanner so that an app such as NotateMe’s PhotoScore (in-app purchase) could be developed/created.
That said, we’re almost there with this device. If programs can establish themselves with Web MIDI, and NeoScores works out the bugs, Google incorporates more of Android into Chrome, and Chromecast mirroring can become less “laggy,” the Flip is just about the perfect form factor. Teaching in a 1:1, I no longer think you want to distribute a device where students can detach a keyboard. I used to think this was a good idea; but having seen what students do to iPad cases, I fear what they would do to a Chromebook detachable keyboard. As a result, a device where the keyboard folds back might very well be the device that can work for all subjects without compromise. We’re almost there–and the remaining issues might be worked out before this version of the Flip reaches its end-of-life. I wouldn’t tell you to go buy a Flip today–it still has most of the compromises of any Chromebook.
In closing, I think the iPad still holds the greatest value for education (music and otherwise) with available apps, accessories, mirroring, and MDM control (particularly with Casper by JAMF). There is a strong chance that your decision makers may not see the value in a device that costs two to three times more than a Chromebook. In that case, advocate–at the least–for this device. You should never buy a device for what it might do, but there is enough promise around the corner that many additional uses could be present on the Flip in the next six to eighteen months. I can’t promise that, but it seems likely. The worst possible scenario is that your decision makers choose a clamshell device that won’t ever fit easily into your music room. Try to educate those decision makers that there are better options on the market that either do work or potentially will work better for all subjects in the future.
P.S. The animated GIF at the top of the screen was recorded with my iPhone 6S with the new “Live Pictures” feature, and then converted to an animated GIF with the app Live GIF (link). Inserting it into the blog required saving the image OFF of the iPad and then uploading it via the web on another device (incidentally, the Asus Flip) as iOS doesn’t play well with animated GIFs (or more specifically, not yet).