Google meetup and Chromebook thoughts

In December I received an invitation to a meeting at Google’s London headquarters. Having missed the Google Teachers’ Academy, I was quite pleased to meet up with other colleagues using Google Apps and hear more from Google about their plans for education (especially as we now have Google Apps at Felsted and my next place of employment). After being ushered in to Google’s offices I heard a number of speakers talk about how they use Google Apps and Google state that they really wanted to support and encourage teachers. To this end, they provided a Google Chromebook to all attendees which, in my humble opinion, was a very nice Christmas present! I must admit that ever since the ‘launch’ of  the Cr-48 by Google, I had always been interested in the concept because it fits within this growing trend of ‘Post PC’ technology (what I take to mean that the desktop computer with an internal hard drive is not the dominant means for accessing information and creating content). Below are my general impressions after using it for almost three weeks.

Hardware

The Chromebook looks exactly like a traditional laptop with a 12 inch screen and I was pleased to feel that it felt solid, mirroring the general view of the meetup attendees that it had a certain ‘heft’.  The keyboard was pleasant to use and the screen felt surprisingly large after using an 11 inch MacBook Air although I did miss the obvious colour enhancement that comes with a ‘glossy’ screen. What was really disappointing was the trackpad; it felt cheap in comparison to the rest of the device and not as accurate as I would have expected. The Chromebook comes with two USB ports, one mini VGA, one SD Card slot and the biggest surprise being the SIM card holder. I popped a SIM card in from my old iPad and I was given the option to connect either through Wifi or through the mobile network. Mobile data reception was good and it worked well on a variety of train journeys around the country (although this may have to do more with the network rather than the device itself). Other minor quibbles presented themselves with prolonged use - the light sensor worked relatively well with automatic dimming and brightness depending on conditions but it was a little inconsistent when travelling by train and the trackpad would be unresponsive at times. On balance, I found the Chromebook to be a solid device with an impressive battery life. However the key feature would be the software…

Software

The Operating System is based on the Chrome web browser and did what you expect when viewing content so no more needs to be said. However, things took a turn for the worse when I tried anything more than this. For all of Google’s savvy, the file browsing experience when plugging a USB stick/SD Card in reminded me of old versions of Windows (and not in a nostalgic way). I also found it very frustrating when trying to open a document via USB that a message asked me to upload the document first rather than open and convert it for me via Google Docs.  This was in complete contrast when electing to print a document and I was automatically given the option of converting it to a PDF and uploading to my Google Docs account. Viewing media content was a little better and the Chromebook was able to handle images and video via the SD Card slot well (although I only tested the mp4 format). I was quite pleased with this feature until I tried to upload to something to dropbox or Flickr which was not possible within the OS (although I am sure there must be an extension in the Google Marketplace for this). What really struck me at this point was the inconsistency of experience – some things worked as you would expect with a Google product and others, well, it smacked of a lack of development time. It also showed the major weakness of the Chromebook; if you are not completely wedded to the Google Apps experience, it can be hugely frustrating to use in a personal context but I can see that within a managed environment, this may be seen as an advantage and Google also offer management tools for schools to help with this.

Closing thoughts

I liked the Chromebook and it has rapidly become the other device I use when travelling.  Would I recommend it to schools? There are essentially three things to think  about here. The first is the necessary infrastructure required to run these devices; robust wifi and the deployment of Google Apps are essential otherwise the experience and learning possibilities are practically meaningless.  The second issue is price. At £399, the Chromebook is comparable to laptops and even the iPad it comes off poorly in a number when making comparisons in term of screen size, storage and the ability to run both a wide variety of applications (PC Laptop) and dedicated ones (iOS apps). Priced at £200-300, I would seriously rethink this view…

The last, and most important element, is how it would support teaching and learning within the classroom and outside it. The design and features including the ability to use a 3G network would lend itself to being used on trips and in the classroom and when integrated with Google Docs, possibilites for collaboration are impressive and some of the web only appliations are impressive (such as Aviary). However, it does not appear to offer enough (yet) to differentiate it from other pieces of technology but I believe that this is a first generation offering and I fully expect the hardware and the services it uses to improve greatly over the next year or so. One hope is that Google works with mobile operators to offer a data package to schools with filtering and management tools to encourage use in different contexts…

I want to thank the Google team for taking a first bold step in engaging with the education sector and I look forward to their escalating involvement with schools this year starting with  BETT and hopefully including plans for another Google Teacher Academy. My reasoning is very selfish; education is such an important task that I not only use all the brains I have but also all the brains I can borrow (apologies to Woodrow Wilson).

Image: slgckgc@Flickr 

  • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

    Hmmm… I’ve seen someone else use that quotation before. ;-)

    Thanks for the road test review, Nick. I’m not as jealous as I was now!

  • @DeputyMitchell

    Great post Nick, I have to completely agree with you too. The best thing about the Chromebook is the speed and ease of boot up and keyboard as you say is a pleasure to use. The trackpad does not compare to my macbook pro and does feel cheap – but it is I guess? 1/3 of the price. The concept is great and I’m sure… again like you say… this device will get better and better over the coming month to a year.

    Thanks for your post – enjoyed reading.

  • http://www.nickdennis.com/blog Nick Dennis

    It is a good quote and I have used it a few times! :) As I said, it has become my ‘other’ device but I do not think it is quite there yet…

  • http://www.nickdennis.com/blog Nick Dennis

    Keyboard it nice to use and the boot up time is great as it reduces distraction from the learning/work at hand. I did not really want to make too much of a comparison with the MacBook but the trackpad felt very poor after using the Air…

  • Stephen Lockyer

    Good, accurate review. I love the response times, and haven’t yet even shut it down properly. It has taken over my ageing MacBook downstairs. I haven’t downloaded many extensions, but have had a little success with Dropbox, although it isn’t as easy as it should be. I suppose the true test for education will be if it is adopted easily. Given the Cloud diet of Apps we are heading toward, the concept may be ahead of its time, and the hardware catching up!

  • http://www.nickdennis.com/blog Nick Dennis

    Thanks, Stephen. I personally make a lot of use of it in terms of browsing and picking up email. Documents in dropbox do not appear to open in Google Docs (not sure why this is the case) but it highlighted the limitations of using the Chromebook as the sole device. I really like the concept and think it will develop – I really hope the link with other cloud based apps and the Chrome OS improves in the next few months.

  • http://www.oliverquinlan.co.uk/blog Oliver Quinlan

    I have to agree on the trackpad issue Nick. The keyboard is great, as is the screen, but I find myself mis-right-clicking all the time with the built in trackpad. An improvement to this would make a huge difference to the machine.

  • Steve Philp

    What makes Chromebooks so brilliant for schools is the ease of use of the management console in Google Apps – I can control the extensions that my staff or students open up, the websites that appear at start up, the websites they can access… all in a way that I’ve never been able to do with our PCs, ipods or Kindles.

    I agree that for personal use they are limited, but I have found them great for taking notes at lectures, taking minutes at meetings and using on trains.

    And I used one this morning to run my presentation in which I showed my staff how to use Chromebooks

  • http://www.nickdennis.com/blog Nick Dennis

    Steve, would be very interested to hear more about what you are doing in your school.

  • Anonymous

    Well done for this thorough review – v useful! 

    “robust wifi and the deployment of Google Apps are essential otherwise the experience and learning possibilities are practically meaningless.” is the key point for me, especially for schools to consider. Anything that is web based only is restrictive…at the moment. 

    !

  • http://www.nickdennis.com/blog Nick Dennis

    Thanks, Zoe. I was going to post a review at the end of the first week but I was still ambivalent about using it and wanted to give it a proper run. You may find interesting the review at engadget on the Series 5 Chromebook: http://engt.co/yHA8Fo

  • Anonymous

    Indeed I do – an interesting strategy!

  • Anonymous

    Great review Nick, thanks for sharing. 

    Two thoughts on the point you made about costs…

    Firstly, the real cost to a school is a lot more than just the purchase cost of the device, so even £399 may be reasonable against say, a £500-600 RM laptop that requires regular updates from a separately paid-for and maintained server, and of course software licenses across both. I’d estimate a Chromebook over it’s life is around a third the cost to run for a school versus a traditional windows based machine. 

    The second thing is that schools can lease (to-own) of course, meaning spread payments but also new laptops after three years – versus the life-support approach most schools run on their ageing PCs. And of course, no one can put a cost on the amount of teaching and learning time you get back from a 4/5-year-old XP machine taking over 10 minutes to boot, versus 8 seconds and a child just opening the lid of a Chromebook. Nor the incredible amount of hours spent across the school applying patches, downloading updates, installing software, fixing viruses…………..

    It’s interesting that no one talks about how long it takes a smartphone or iPad to boot up, or how little maintenance they require, but that’s because we take it for granted. Chromebooks are the start of this in a laptop/desk environment. Zero maintenance, instant-on must be the only way the post-pc world will evolve, and that’s a huge benefit to schools.

  • http://www.nickdennis.com/blog Nick Dennis

    Thanks for the comments. You are right in that the cost over time is never really calculated for owning a laptop and this has to be judged based on how much use is made of it. I think the Chromebook is a promising device and when used in the correct context, would be incredibly powerful in terms of supporting learning. However, and I would like to stress this, it does depend on the context and having the correct infrastructure in place (time, money, resources and training) and unfortunately, devices such as the Chromebook or the iPad for that matter can be seen to be a panacea for all kinds of problems but once in place cause more problems than they were supposed to resolve. What I would really like to see is an effective example of their use in schools so if you know of one, let me know.

  • Anonymous

    For sure, you’re absolutely right Nick – neither iPads nor Chromebooks are right for all schools, it’s highly contextual. And yes, they do throw up new problems as well as fix old ones. So for the right school, they’ll solve more problems than introduce new ones, and only time will tell how many switch and to what benefit to teaching, learning and finances! 

    I’ve been looking at some of the US schools who’ve adopted Chromebooks, they are fairly well signposted by Google but let me know if you can’t find them. (I’ve found a couple that are not publicised too). In the UK, I’m working with a school in the south east to pilot them this term, and Steve has been doing a great job of blogging about his experience with them (warts and all!) in his school in Birmingham. http://frogphilptech.posterous.com/

  • http://www.nickdennis.com/blog Nick Dennis

    I would be interested in talking to secondary schools about their deployment and how it has supported learning. Interesting reading about Steve’s experience – thanks for passing that on.

  • http://ag4it.myopenid.com/ Adam

    Chromebooks do have advantages for education.  However some institutions will still require access to Windows applications.  In order to extend the benefits of Chromebooks schools will need to provide quick and easy browser-based access to these Windows applications and also to virtual desktops.  Ericom AccessNow provides this support and enables Chromebook users to connect to Terminal Servers, physical desktops or VDI virtual desktops – and run Windows applications and desktops within a browser window, without having to install anything on the user device.

    Here’s an example of a large school district that is using Ericom AccessNow to provide 30,000 students and staff access to Windows applications from Chromebooks, iPads and other devices:
    http://www.ericom.com/pr/pr_111206.asp?URL_ID=708

    Ericom also offers special pricing for education customers.

    For more info, and to download a demo, visit:
    http://www.ericom.com/html5_RDP_Chromebook.asp?URL_ID=708

    Note: I work for Ericom

  • http://www.nickdennis.com/blog Nick Dennis

    Adam, many thanks for this. Looks interesting even if it does seem to defeat the object of possibly ordering Chromebooks for schools in the first place!