The business case for Chromebooks in a Mac lab

When you look at the raw dollar numbers, the Chromebook wins over the Mac in the lab scenario.

Chromebooks may be a game-changer in education, particularly when replacing much more expensive computers. Think you can’t swap out a Mac in a Mac lab with a Chromebook? Think again.

As my ZDNet colleagues James Kendrick and Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols wrote earlier, Chromebooks seem to be slowly finding their way into educational institutions. I don’t find this much of a surprise. A few months ago, I gave a webcast for CBSi (ZDNet’s parent company) entitled "Enterprise-proofing the Apple ecosystem,” and in it, I put together a business case for why Chromebooks may be much more cost-effective than Macs.

The scenario

Let’s start with our basic scenario: a school has a $25,000 budget for a Mac lab, that’s intended to support a class of 25 students. What is the best option that will give the students the most hands-on time with Macintosh applications and learning?

The Mac-only solution

I started out looking at the least expensive Mac-based configuration, a classroom containing Mac minis. While the Mac mini itself can be had for as little as $579, adding a wired keyboard and mouse (about $98) and a cheap DVI monitor with a cable ($150) put the total at $827 per seat.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of parts for this configuration, increasing the chances that pieces might walk, get lost, or otherwise break. While a little more expensive, the MacBook Pro (at $999) is far easier to deploy and manage. In talking to lab managers in schools, most of them prefer MacBook Pros for their students. If you want to cut corners, though, you can get almost the same solution for $849 if you buy an 11-inch, 128GB MacBook Air at the educational discount.

So that’s the configuration we’ll use. $849 per seat with MacBook Airs. It’s just slightly more expensive than the Mac mini solution, but requires a lot less management and fiddling on the part of the lab managers.

Given a budget of $25,000, you’d think you’d be able to equip each student with a MacBook Air. After all, 25 MacBook Air’s cost $21,225. That leaves $3,775 for other stuff in the lab (including software licenses, cables, computer locks, a router, a server, etc.). In practice, $3,775 isn’t enough to equip the rest of the lab and so the most practical approach would be to share the Macs.

Instead of one computer per student, the Mac-only solution would typically be deployed as one Mac for every other student. This would cost $11,037 (deploying 13 Macs), leaving $13,963 for the remaining lab materials (again, including software licenses, routers, servers, etc.)

Overall, that’s not a bad solution — as long as you’re willing to accept that students will have to share the MacBook Airs. Given their small screens and small footprint, it may not only be a less optimal learning environment, it may be difficult for the sharing students to see what’s on the screen.

What about Chromebooks?

Here’s where things start to get interesting. At first blush, you may rightfully respond that Chromebooks are anything but MacBooks. And you’d be right. Chromebooks are limited to living in Chrome OS. But Chromebooks do run a variety of remote access applications (RDP, etc) and can therefore act as virtual desktops to server-based VDI systems.

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As it turns out, there’s a pretty capable Macintosh VDI system provided by a company called Aqua Connect. They offer a remote desktop services solution for OS X. Essentially, what that means is you run the Aqua Connect software on a Mac server and it spools out remote desktop sessions to anything that can RDP into it… say, for example, the lowly Chromebook.

So let’s see how this adds up. Chromebooks can be had on Amazon for as low as $139, but those are used or refurbished. The least expensive (in quantity one) volume Chromebook available new right now is the Acer C720 Chromebook, for $179. Let’s price this out as though there’s no volume discount (remember, we took an educational discount on the Macs in the previous scenario).

Multiplying $179 by 25, we can get one Chromebook per student for a total of $4,475. That’s less than a quarter of the price of the MacBooks. After deploying one Chromebook per student, the $25K Mac lab is left with a budget of $20,525. You can do a lot with that much money left in the budget.

Let’s start by buying one of those slick new Mac Pros. At the education price, the lab can score a 6-core, 3.5Ghz Intel Xeon E5-based machine with 16GB of RAM and 256GB PCIe-based flash storage. That’s one fast server! That server becomes the VDI server for the RDP class solution.

Even after buying the 25 Chromebooks and the server, the lab is left with a budget of $16,826. That’s enough to buy all the licenses, accessories, and anything else needed in the lab (a projector, anyone)? It’s also enough to boost the capacity of the server and still have a few bucks left over.

The list of Chromebook benefits in a lab scenario

The big benefit, obviously, is the fact that each student has his or her own computer to work on, without sharing. There’s no doubt that a one-user per computer environment is vastly better for education than requiring students to share machines (and all the related hassle and management that would require).

But Chromebooks offer labs another benefit: Power Wash. While Macs would need a lot more effort (Carbon Copy Cloner works, but takes time), Chromebooks can be easily and instantly reset for a new class or new student. I’ve talked about the benefits of Power Wash before and it’s not to be underestimated.

And then, of course, there’s that remaining $16,826. That’s enough to not only give each student his or her own machine to use when in the lab, that’s actually enough left over to create a second lab.

That’s why, when you look at the raw dollar numbers, the Chromebook wins over the Mac in the lab scenario.

Something to think about, isn’t it?

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at


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