Chrome Notebooks: Welcome to the easiest student laptop ever

Chrome Notebooks: Welcome to the easiest student laptop ever

Summary: It's not perfect, but the Chrome notebook begs to be used for 1:1 in a school that has embraced Google Apps for Education as their collaboration platform of choice.


Technology pundits have been all over the board on Google's new Chrome Notebooks. They love it, they hate it, they don't know what to do with it, they don't know who will use it, they don't know if the world is ready for it. The folks here at ZDNet certainly have different opinions on the matter:

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Most of them cite completely valid concerns, challenges, and prospects for Google's operating system and the upcoming notebooks/netbooks on which it will run. I wrote last week that I expected Chrome OS to be a game-changer in terms of 1:1 computing and now, having used the demo Cr-48 that Google sent me as my primary computer for a few days now, I can say that this is the closest I've ever seen to an ideal student computer for secondary school 1:1 deployments.

That's not to say it's without caveats and you'll notice I was quite specific in my recommendation. This little computer is not going to have me trading in my MacBook Pro. It does make me wish I'd bought a Mac Pro with a giant monitor for my creative work that could sit on my desk, leaving the Cr-48 as my primary mobile machine, but even that scenario wouldn't always work out well (more on that later).

Before I go further, be sure to read Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols' proposal for how he expects the Chrome notebooks will ultimately be managed in the enterprise. Not only do I think he's right, but there are already Chrome apps that allow for a limited degree of management. It's only a matter of time before these are fully integrated into Google Apps domains for customers who want it.

That being said, if we can look a ways into 2011 and assume that there will be some reasonable degree of administrator manageability for Chrome OS, let's take a little more time to examine how the notebooks would work in a school. First, you need a Google account (whether consumer Gmail or Google Apps) to log into the notebook. Once in, you're in a browser, logged into your Google account. Thus, schools that aren't using Google Apps need not apply. The only way to ensure that everyone can consistently access their machines and leverage those manageability features that we know are on the way (including the existing Vyew virtual classroom app) is to centrally manage Google account information (as can be done in Google Apps for Education).

Within the browser, as with a desktop/standard laptop, Google Apps provides access to word processing, spreadsheets, website creation, presentations, blogging platforms, and more. The Chrome Web Store has free apps for photo editing, video production, note taking, Google Books, etc. Chrome OS, like the Chrome browser, now supports inline PDFs, leaving little need for any desktop productivity applications.

As I noted in this year's Ed Tech predictions post, schools will have the opportunity to spend a lot more time thinking about learning platforms and a lot less time worrying about hardware. The Chrome OS lends itself to cloud-based learning tools, whether Google Apps, an LMS, or another web-based platform for collaboration and instruction. The OS is the browser, after all, so all of your students' activities can be focused around modern collaborative tools and access to information.

Next: Some big caveats »

Don't worry, I'm not completely ready to throw out the Classmates and iPads and thin clients and desktops here. While the Chrome OS is a great basis potentially as a hybrid thin client for accessing virtualized applications and shared computing resources, I'll be the first to acknowledge that neither Chrome OS, nor the Cr-48 is perfect. It will not meet all student needs all the time and it isn't for everyone, regardless of grade level. Secondary students, especially those in 9-12, will be adept enough at accessing cloud tools and focused enough on collaboration and producing written, as well as basic visual content, that Chrome OS is ideally suited for most of their activities.

Younger kids are still much more likely to use actual Windows and Mac applications and simply don't (and shouldn't) spend as much time immersed in the Web as their older counterparts, making a completely Web-dependent notebook less attractive. Similarly, while some college students may think that Chrome OS is the ultimate Facebook machine, how many college students really have the cash to keep a netbookish device and a desktop or full-featured laptop?

This, as you'd probably expect, is the biggest caveat around the Cr-48 and the Chrome notebooks that will succeed it. It is, at its core (no Intel pun intended), a netbook on which you can't install applications (at least none that don't come out of the Chrome Web Store). I know, I know, I said it "Sooooo wasn't a netbook" over on the Google blog and, conceptually, that's completely true, in my opinion. From a strictly hardware view, however, it's a big-screened netbook. A single-core netbook at that. No matter how much I like it and can envision it being amazing in the classroom, it's not going to run Photoshop.

Nor will it run CAD or Sketchpad or Maple or any number of other hugely useful applications that like processors, RAM, and discrete graphics cards. Even for me, despite my initial regret at not having a giant-screened Mac Pro for screaming performance in video and photo editing and the Cr-48 for my main mobile machine, there are too many times when I need to run a virtual machine or generate artwork while I'm on the move. Sure, Chrome OS has utilities for collaborative drawing and abilities to touch up photos, but those 15-layer Fireworks files just aren't going to fly.

And for our students, even in that ideal age range of 14-18, there are times when a quick low-resolution video, edited for YouTube isn't going to cut it. There are times when serious technical drawing is a must or number-crunching beyond the power of Wolfram Alpha and Google Spreadsheets is in order.

1:1 deployments with the Cr-48 or any other low-cost device (even iPads) won't replace a powerful multimedia lab or two. In vocational technical schools, it might not even be a good choice at all.

As it stands right now, the OS and the devices themselves are very much in beta (I just switched mine to Google's development channel for more frequent, less stable updates). The codename Cr-48 itself refers to a particularly unstable isotope of Chromium. Flash support is spotty at best (I couldn't get an Adobe Connect room to open, for example) and access to system drivers is through a barebones web interface, making it very difficult to really tune the touchpad (and it definitely needs tweaking).

All caveats aside, whether as a result of the beta nature of the device or the actual use cases that a cloud-based OS can support, the Chrome OS and Notebook are, in many ways, just what the doctor ordered for educational computing. No saving, not dogs eating your homework, no viruses, not access to the underlying OS; just consuming and creating content in a remarkably seamless way. Schools just need to be ready to make the shift to the cloud (or have already made it) if they want to fully exploit the potential of the new OS.

Topics: Laptops, CXO, Enterprise Software, Google, Hardware, Legal, Mobility

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • IMHO, nah

    Take all your points, and apply them to any netbook and you can do all of that and a lot more besides. You can say it's easier to maintain, but there's nothing stopping someone selling a locked down netbook that can only surf.

    So what they have their is a browser in an ugly box.

    They need to rethink what their market is, and then design a proper OS for it and a proper product.

    Their TV project too, I think is yuck too. First time I saw it, it has a MOUSE CURSOR, WTF??? Why did they put a mouse cursor on it?

    There's a lack of visual and design UMPH there in Google. They really need to get some design gurus like Apple has in these projects early on.
    • RE: Chrome Notebooks: Welcome to the easiest student laptop ever

      I agree. In fact Google could have made a significant evolution of traditionnal O.S by building an O.S which fully take advantage of the cloud without being so dependant of it.
      They could have built an O.S which:
      * Updates itself continuously in a transparent way for the user and without need to reboot
      * Support both local apps and web apps in a transparent way for the user who should not see difference between local and web apps
      * Provides some API which enable local apps to fully take advantage of the cloud,etc...
      Instead of that they provide an O.S which virtually a browser. How boring...
    • RE: Chrome Notebooks: Welcome to the easiest student laptop ever

      @guihombre - nothing stopping someone from selling a locked-down laptop that you can only browse on ... and whose OS is automatically updated, and that's (relatively) security-bullet-proof, and that boots in 2 seconds. Hmm, maybe there IS something stopping people from doing that - namely, having to redesign the OS.

      Anyone who says "just run the Chrome browser on a standard OS" isn't understanding or appreciating the whole picture, imo.
    • RE: Chrome Notebooks: Welcome to the easiest student laptop ever

      @guihombre Actually, "they" don't "need" to do anything. If you don't like their free products, help yourself to a full refund.
    • RE: Chrome Notebooks: Welcome to the easiest student laptop ever


      Do you ever wonder Chris about the damage you do with your little hobbies? Less discerning people are going to think you know what you are talking about and buy these bricks for their poor kids. The same price would get them a Win 7 netbook and if necessary you could force them to use just Chrome and their educational products which, like most of their software, seems to be done with duct tape and string.

      As an educator your first concern should be giving children the best tools to make it in the world, not forcing them into some weird fringe.
  • Don't forget the CITRIX connection

    "No matter how much I like it and can envision it being amazing in the classroom, it?s not going to run Photoshop. Nor will it run CAD or Sketchpad or Maple or any number of other hugely useful applications that like processors, RAM, and discrete graphics cards."
    It doesn't have to: instead of connecting to the public cloud ... you use CITRIX RECEIVER to connect to your company's private cloud or your family's personal cloud. You haven't quite embraced the concept that CR is a diskless display terminal, not a computing application or storage node.

    "There are too many times when I need to run a virtual machine or generate artwork while I?m on the move."
    CITRIX RECEIVER to your office or home.
    [I find it ironic in the extreme that M$ are being forced by VMWARE et al to rush into server virtualisation, for as the performance of graphics application serving over the network improves with things like HDX ... so the door opens for Google to replace WINDOWS.]

    This dual connection capability to public or private clouds seems ideal to me. If you don't trust much of the public then you can configure to use mainly the private. There will be terrible transition pains for businesses making a direct leap to 'all public' operation: so having the option to switch back to 'legacy' applications will make life manageable in the interim.

    One of the critical factors for the success of CR is the latency and bandwidth of the network, since it will limit the performance of the device. I'd rate the provision of a GB Ethernet connection as 'must do soon for businesses'.
    Indeed those who have a CR sampler might like to test the performance of Receiver on a wireless LAN. Hopefully ZDNET Asia will be able to test the performance of an Ethernet-enabled CR over an optical broadband connection. Then I think CR might fly. Of course it might not.

    Another is the price of a CR. If Google pitch it at the same level as PC ... claiming that having taken away lots of M$ pain, security issues, management issues and so on ... they would like to keep that money ... then I can't see so many takers. If they make it a lot cheaper than a PC, say $200 (even at a loss initially), then I think production might have a problem matching demand.

    Rather than just one CR, I wonder if there is room for a small number of variants? Personally I like the 'pure terminal' idea (how did you guess?) so a variant without camera, HDMI and all that toy stuff would suit. Indeed why not go even more minimalist and blow the Apple MAC MINI out of the water too? No screen or keyboard - I'll plug my own in thanks.
    • RE: Chrome Notebooks: Welcome to the easiest student laptop ever


      "It doesn't have to: instead of connecting to the public cloud ... you use CITRIX RECEIVER to connect to your company's private cloud or your family's personal cloud. "

      Eh, have fun trying to get that idea across to ZDNet authors. They've railed against private clouds for a while now. They prefer to be "pure" in that they want 100% public clouds. Not that there's really any benefit to everything being in a public cloud - they just like being pure for purity's sake, and they take the same attitude towards local vs cloud computing as well.

      "for as the performance of graphics application serving over the network improves with things like HDX ... so the door opens for Google to replace WINDOWS."

      Network performance will always have its limitations, period. You can't move data faster than light, so there will always be latencies, and IMO reliability will always be an issue at the internet scale. It's also the case that sending raw video will always be more wasteful than sending data that can be processed by a client. "More technology" can't bypass the fundamental laws of physics, and video streaming isn't magic.
    • RE: Chrome Notebooks: Welcome to the easiest student laptop ever


      Still laughing.

      Photoshop or CAD over Citrix ;-) You really have swallowed the thin client scam haven't you?
      • RE: Chrome Notebooks: Welcome to the easiest student laptop ever

        @tonymcs@... <br>Citrix works well for CAD or Photoshop on a fast LAN connection - at least for the type of CAD applications that students are likely to use. If you are going to play around with a complete 3D model of an Airbus A380 with all its cables and components, you will need a high end workstation - even a high end laptop won't do. However this is not the sort of model that CAD students actually work with.<br><br>To run it CAD or Photoshop on a portable device, The student would have to invest in software licenses and a high end desktop rather than a Windows netbook, so there is a cost barrier there already.

        Of course it is not an exclusive choice between Chrome OS and a Windows or Mac desktop or laptop. You can match and mix seamlessly. Students on a CAD course or graphics art course can buy a high end laptop, and install Chrome OS browser to access the rest of the content in the same way as Chrome OS users. The rest of the student population who don't need AutoCad or Photoshop can buy a Chrome OS to access their content.
  • RE: Chrome Notebooks: Welcome to the easiest student laptop ever

    Until the proper business models for the future educational cloud services is worked out, my prediction is that even though hardware worries may start to deminish (the Cr-48 is still a bit of hardware) they will be replaced at least in the interim with a new set of worries which we will look at in the future as "the learning curve for the early adopters". Example: At the moment I see a lot of educators around the world worrying about how to deal with the news that Yahoo is shutting down Delicious. "and a lot less time worrying about hardware"
    Harold Gilchrist
  • Please fix p2 link

    • RE: Chrome Notebooks: Welcome to the easiest student laptop ever

      Instead of using the "Next" link, try the link over to the left where there are square links labeled "1" and "2". The "2" link takes you to the correct second page.
  • Great!

    Let's start building those psychological profiles for the Google corporate/government database while they're young.
    Tim Patterson
  • Sorry

    I can't think of one school district that is in their right mind that would trust all their students to work in he cloud and only in the cloud. Do you even work in education IT? I mean we all know you are Google Fanboy but to limit a device like that with or without an offline mode. Sorry but I cannot see it being an ideal student laptop any time soon.
    • Have to Agree

      Also, what happens when the Internet goes down? Everybody goes home? Google for me thinks the internet is the place to be. I get that. But to be honest I would question putting all my faith in Google with Cloud applications and storage. In education their are so many other teacher aids in terms of software that would not run on a Google machine. Same goes for the corporate enviroment. I think Google fanboys are dreaming.
      • Actually...

        I do believe Google thought things through here. Your points are valid. Although, according to the videos, keynote and CR-48 itself, I think Google has it all figured out ahead of time.

        From what I've seen, all Chrome OS netbooks have 3G cards built-in into them. So, even if you do lose internet, you can hop on over to so-and-so carrier's network. Chances are that'll be free since the CR-48's is.

        If you haven't signed up on a carrier's network and you still do loose network, Google Docs and possibly others will offer offline access by the time consumer models start shipping.
      • Re: Actually


        3G Cards? Really? You think a school is going to pay for cellular internet service in a time where education can barely get enough money from the state and federal tax money to get more essential things like updated school books and repairs to their schools. I am in IL and I know for a fact that the state of IL owes my district a whole lot of funding for the past couple years and it doesn't look any better anywhere else in the country. I have yet to see an estimate on how much these Chrome CloudBooks are gonna cost.

        Also I have been in education IT for nearly 10 years in the High School grade levels and it has been my experience that the teachers want a computer that can do almost everything and we do not have the funding to supply specialized computing systems for this and another system for that. It is all about flexibility. They want a device that they can turn on and run just about any application they want to use be it locally installed or in a local or internet cloud. It all comes down to flexibility. The approved google cloud apps CANNOT be the only choices that students can have no matter how well they may work.
      • RE: Chrome Notebooks: Welcome to the easiest student laptop ever

        @jscott418 <br>Even if the Internet goes down, in a corporate, school or university you will have access to the corporate/school/University LAN/WiFi intranet and all the content and Moodle/Blackboard servers, and Citrix can give you access to various Windows and other applications running on servers or visualized desktops. LAN and WiFi access to the local network is about as reliable as you can get. Basically the loss of Internet in the case of Chrome OS in a corporate/school/university environment is the same loss of Internet with desktops and laptops - basically you lose the Internet but can access the intranet. <br><br>This means that irrespective of whether you use Chrome OS, or a conventional laptop or desktop the loss of access access is the same: if you use webmail on the intranet, then you are fine, but if you use external webmail (like Yahoo or GMail) then you lose access to that. <br><br>Having said that most broadband connections are very reliable and on top of that, most corporations/schools/universities have redundant ISP connections. Large numbers of schools already run their email and apps on Google apps, and most don't seem to have significant problems with Internet connectivity. With 3G connectivity on top of that, Internet downtime will be zero pretty well. <br><br>Most teacher's aids and other educational software actually run on a server and are accessed via a web interface (eg. Moodle/Blackboard) which is completely compatible with Chrome OS.
  • your bias for all things google clouds you judgment

    sorry - i think your admiration for all things google is a detriment because it makes you short change the district and students in favor of supporting a corrupt google business model.
    Ron Bergundy
  • I doubt it

    Lets not forget this is Google we're talking about. They have a history of horrible produts and failures.