It’s easy to make a case for the use of Chromebooks in the classroom. This new line of devices provides the accessibility of a tablet with many of the core features expected of an enterprise device, all at a very low price. But while planning a roll-out of 25 Chromebooks in my school I came across an issue which I feel hasn’t been addressed — is Chromebook hardware really robust enough to be used in the classroom?
Chromebooks are £200 laptops (not taking the Chromebook Pixel into account) and such a low price point comes with significant compromises in the build of the hardware. These devices are, including even the slightly more robust Samsung Chromebook Series 3, the flimsiest IT hardware I have ever used.
Putting aside concerns about the operating system, can such a damage-prone device really be as cost-effective in the classroom as the price would suggest? The two most popular Chromebooks on the market at the moment are the Acer C7 and Samsung Series 3. Both are of similar hardware quality but the Samsung, while priced ever so slightly higher, is of a better build and also happens to have the edge in appearance.
The Samsung is clearly modelled after the Macbook Air, which makes it very thin and attractive. Rather than the premium all aluminium build of the Air, however, the Samsung Chromebook is built from a faux silver, paper thin plastic — and when I say thin, I mean really thin.
A couple of months ago, when we decided that we wanted to experiment with Chromebooks in one department of our school I purchased a Chromebook for personal use so that I could familiarise myself with the operating system, experiment with managing the devices through Google Apps, and also see if the hardware was up to scratch — if you’ll excuse the pun. While I don’t intend this to be a review of the Samsung Chromebook, I will address some of the concerns I have with the hardware.
The display itself is dull and washed out, but this is a £220 device, and as such this is acceptable. The main issue is the flexibility of the Chromebook’s lid. Even lightly pressing on the case depresses it by a few millimeters. As you can see in the image to the right, the screen bends when even light pressure is applied. A textbook dropped even lightly on the laptop will crack the screen.
Stacking these devices is also a concern, as the plastic casing provides very little protection against bumps or knocks.
The keyboard and touchpad are actually nice to use, imitating well their counterparts on the Macbook from which their design language is taken. I would even argue that the keyboard is better than the one on my ASUS Windows 8 laptop which costs £400.
For general use the touchpad is fine, however, again, the issue of build quality raises its head. Putting even slight pressure on the bottom of the touchpad depresses it back into the case of the Chromebook beyond the point of a click being registered. Any further pressure will quite easily cause permanent damage to the multitouch surface. This being the main point of input for users makes this a significant concern.
While a majority of laptops are manufactured in plastic, the Chromebook is made of exceptionally thin material. So much so that the entire laptop bends and warps with only a slight touch. When opening the laptop you can feel the screen flexing under the pressure of the hinge. Also, the case of the Chromebook is silver, but this colouring easily rubs off revealing the darker, matt surface underneath. I carry my Chromebook in a neoprene case and have looked after it fairly well, but even with this care and attention the device is covered in scratches and rub marks. A few weeks of use in a classroom will leave this device a lot worse off.
The Chromebook Paradox
There are two main attractions of the Chromebook, the low price, and the speed and minimal management needed to be afforded by the operating system. Currently, Chromebooks — the low-end devices — sit in the sweet spot just below the price of full-blown laptops, making the argument for forgoing a traditional operating system in favour of Chrome OS relatively easy. Increase the cost of the hardware, however, and the argument for Chromebook quickly fades. Why buy a Chromebook when you can purchase a laptop with a “full” operating system that runs the Chrome browser as well? Do the benefits that Chrome OS undoubtedly has to outweigh those provided by Windows? That’s a decision for teachers and network administrators.
More solid and robust Chromebooks are beginning to become available. The Lenovo Chromebook, for example, is built to the standards of a traditional laptop. The problem, however, is that the price is comparable with a standard Windows laptop. I love my Chromebook. It has the accessibility of a tablet with the functionality provided by a traditional laptop with a hardware keyboard. Would it replace my main laptop? I don’t know, but I can certainly see attraction for teachers and administrators alike. My main concern is that we make sure we’re balancing accessibility of ICT with hardware repair costs which will undoubtedly increase with the currently available batch of Chromebooks.
If we assume a Windows laptop costs £400 there’s an immediate cost saving to be made. A class of 25 Chromebooks would immediately save £4500 – almost enough to purchase another 25 Chromebooks. Based on my experience with the device, however, I would not be at all surprised to have a 50% damage rate within 12 months. The hardware just isn’t designed to be used with anything other than kid gloves. It’s possible I am being pessimistic — your mileage may vary — but experience tells me otherwise. I’ll post the results of our trial in the new term.