The business case for Chromebooks in a Mac lab

The business case for Chromebooks in a Mac lab

Summary: 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.

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

Topics: Mobile OS, Apple, Google, Laptops


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Wouldn't use a Mac in the first place`

    Why would you ever use a Mac in the first place if price is an issue? Chromebooks are just laughable with absolutely no applications at all.
    Buster Friendly
    • And you think your words will change anyone's view?

      • You think

        You think a personal attack is a rational reply?
        Buster Friendly
        • Personal attack?

          You're very sensitive.
          I'm questioning if you think that those who like Chrome Are suddenly going to think again based on your rant?
          • That's a good question...

            What about your tasteless insult?

            Do you really think that it'll bring more users to Chrome OS?

            If anything, it'll turn people away from it, seeing what kind of community drives it.
          • @ForeverCookie

            This is the first time I have ever come across the word "really?" being referred to as an insult. This seems to be an emerging pattern by Chromebook knockers as a number anti-chromebook trollers have started using this response. I guess this could be a directive put out by those in Microsoft responsible for astroturfing and shilling. They probably figured that they have no rational arguments to make, so the only way to deal with anyone who questions the standard Microsoft shilling lines is to play the injured party.
          • "tasteless insult?"

      • I guess the truth does hurt

        going from your reply.
    • Given that this is a Mac lab for students studying Mac stuff

      I fail to understand why you'd even worry about it. It isn't your problem, since you won't be taking that course, right?
      • Yes and no...

        Gewirtz didn't actually say it was a Mac lab for students studying Mac "stuff," he just said it was a Mac lab. When I was in university, they had a mix if Mac, PC and NeXT labs but they were all open access. The classes typically weren't specific.

        In grade school, it's even less likely that a computer lab has to be Mac or PC (supported by the article's assertion that a Chromebook can replace a Mac), rather that the school has made an arbitrary choice, which makes this entire article strangely skewed: Mac vs Chromebook. In between those extremes you have Windows systems that would give a good blend of flexibility and affordability that the author has chosen to ignore.

        Essentially, this article presents a Hobson's choice: buy Macs and live with an expensive system that cannot provide enough resources for the class, or buy Chromebooks and afford enough for everyone while offering a reduced experience, when in fact there are lots of other choices including Windows devices and Linux devices or a mix of all of them.
        • Exactly

          He said it was a lab for "a class." Anthropology? Computer Science? Physics? Foreign Language? Filmmaking? Music?

          Then he proceeded to put the old wine of specs and costs into a new skin regarding this vaguely-described lab.

          The Chromebook is less expensive, unless it doesn't do quite what you need, and then it becomes the most expensive option, and with that hardware, extremely efficient at not doing what you want.

          Of course, let's all admit that even by pointing out a certain lack of bakedness to this morning's presentation, we are tacitly approving the conceit that here is an excellent location to communicate with hypothetical lab IT managers who are unaware of Chromebooks and the costs and benefits. I'm going to take a long look in Photo Booth and think about what I've become.
    • Ha Ha

      This fantasy Mac Chromebook lab could teach students how to be as least productive as possible, while trying to look cool. I see a lot of artists and stoners signing up for that lab.
      Sean Foley
      • its public school union K12

        nothing but a future dem voter warehouse, education is at the bottom of the list, babysitting kids for large sums of cash at the top.

        labs should only contain thin clients on a vesa mount lcd, anything else is just wasted money.
    • LOL absolutely no applications at all

      How embarrassing it must be to not have even made the effort to check out your own claim. Because if you would have looked at the Chrome apps available you would not make such a stupid comment like that.
    • Windows costs AT least the same as the Macs, if not more

      In addition, you have to pay for virus protections, setups, multiple updates, license management on multiple systems, rebuilding when infected...
      • Of course ... Jessie ...

        because with the wide open backdoors in the Apple system catching a virus should be the least of your concerns.
  • Strikes me as a fairly second class experience

    I have to work over RDP occasionally out of necessity (remote sites, etc.) but it really is a bit of a second class, laggy experience.

    If I were taking a course on Macs, and was advised I was being supplied the environment, I would feel gipped if it turned out it was a crappy form of remote access on a non-native RDP client on a crappy Chromebook. Would not be happy if I were forced to go buy my own Macbook just so I could properly do the course without lag.
    • maybe you should try a Chromebook.

      You may be surprised.

      You'd certainly learn how childish it is to call them 'crappy' - but maybe you don't know about wifi and the cloud?
      • Surprised by what?

        I'm a programmer and musician. What could a Chromebook possibly do for me, other than act as a thin client to an X, VNC, or terminal server?

        I know enough about ChromeOS to know there's no hope in hell of me working in what I normally work in. I make binary executable apps, and I need to use binary executable apps.
    • Different on the same LAN

      I use a lot of RDP sessions daily, and on the same LAN (as long as it's good enough) you get "near as" native speeds.
      Even to remote sites, if their pipe is up to spec, it can be fine.

      If it's not, yes, you want to smash your monitor in..........