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Six Clicks: The best Chromebooks for school

School will soon be in session and a Chromebook may be just what you need for the coming academic year.
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1 of 8 Steven Vaughan-Nichols/ZDNet

Chromebooks in school

Chromebooks have proven to be wildly popular in schools. More than a million Chromebooks were sold to schools this spring alone.

For schools, Chromebook math is easy. In Google's Chromebooks for Education program, each device can cost as little as $279 and they're easy to manage from a centralized console. For school districts the real killer feature is this: If they buy through the Google program and a Chromebook stops working, Google just replaces it for no additional cost.

Chromebooks also come with their built-in advantages: They require no anti-virus programs, they boot up in fewer than 10 seconds, they automatically update to the newest patches without any fuss or muss, and with them you can use a wide variety of educational and productivity programs.

Some people are still under the illusion that Chromebooks can't be used when they're off-line. That's not true. I can write documents, answer e-mails, read e-books, watch a movie. In short, I'm as productive on my Chromebooks when I'm off-line as I am when I'm using any old-style desktop with Linux, Mac OS X, or Windows without an Internet connection.

It's also true that Chromebooks don't come with much storage. They average 16 GB to 32GB of solid-state drive (SSD) storage or up to 500 GB of hard drive space. I've never found that I need that much storage. In no small part that's because almost all Chromebooks come with a free 100GB of Google Drive for two years.

Now Chromebooks aren't for everyone. If your school has some particular program you need, say Adobe Photoshop, then a Chromebook isn't for you. That said, your college requiring Microsoft Office is not a deal-breaker. Google Docs now supports Microsoft Office formats.

If you absolutely must have "real" Microsoft Office, that's not a problem either. The Web-based Office 365 works just fine on Chromebooks.

Put it all together and the trio of security, low-cost, and speed make Chromebooks in general a natural for almost any student. Sorry, Microsoft, for students Chromebooks make a great deal of sense.

Read more:

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Dell Chromebook 11

The Dell Chromebook 11 was made for education, but as ZDNet's Steve Ranger pointed out, Dell's Chromebook is too good to be left to the kids.

This model is powered by Intel's 1.4GHz dual-core Celeron 2955U processor with integrated Intel HD Graphics. You can get it with either 2 GB or 4GB of RAM. If you're the kind of person who likes to have dozens or hundreds, of tabs open at the same time spend the cash for the extra RAM. You'll be glad you did.

It comes with an 11.6-inch display, 16GB of internal storage and an SD card slot, plus two USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI connector and an audio jack. There's no wired Ethernet port. For wireless connectivity there's dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.

Many reviewers really like the Dell Chromebook 11. The 2GB model costs $279, while the 4GB version runs $299. If, that is, you can get one. Dell's run short of them. That's both because of demand, and sources tells me, there's an Intel Haswell i3-powered model coming real soon now. If you can get one, do so.

CNET: Back-to-School Tech Gift Guide

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3 of 8 Steven Vaughan-Nichols/ZDNet

Acer Chromebook C720P

Another worthy Chromebook for the student is Acer's new Chromebook C720P. This model was the first Chromebook — outside of my beloved, but much too expensive Chromebook Pixel — to come with a touch screen.

I've found a touch screen to be useful in a Chromebook but not worth the extra $100 that brings its price up to $299.

This model does, however, also come with a 32GB SSD — unlike its excellent older brother the Acer C720, which only has a 16GB drive.

Otherwise, the two models are identical. Each comes with an 11.6-inch display; a SD card slot; one USB 2 and one USB 3.0 port; an HDMI connector; and an audio jack. For wireless connectivity, it uses dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.

Finally, if you want to try this model at faster speeds and more RAM, the C720 Chromebook with Core i3 has just been released. ZDNet's own James Kendrick, the only person on the planet I know who has played with more Chromebooks than I have, found it the "fastest Chromebook I've used, with the exception of the Chromebook Pixel." At $379.99 list price, it should be!

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4 of 8 Steven Vaughan-Nichols/ZDNet

HP Chromebook 11

The HP Chromebook 11, with its dual-core 1.7GHz Exynos ARM processor and 2GB of RAM isn't the fastest Chromebook around, but ZDNet's Matthew Miller really likes both its display and keyboard.

Like almost all of the Chromebook family, the HP Chromebook 11 comes with a 16GB SSD drive , a SD card slot, two USB 2.0 ports, and a headphone jack. One interesting addition is that this model uses a mini-USB port for its charger. This means you may be able to use your Android smartphone charger in a pinch if you've left its real charger at home.

Beside supporting dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, you can also get this device with a Verizon 4G option. The ordinary one costs $199. With 4G it will run you $299. I travel a lot and there have been times I've needed 4G, but if you spend most of you time at your Wi-FI equipped school, office, and home all have Wi-Fi, I wouldn't bother with the 4G.

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5 of 8 Steven Vaughan-Nichols/ZDNet

Lenovo N20p

I like the Lenovo N20p. They're not the cheapest Chromebooks around: the 1.83GHz Intel Celeron N2930 processor model runs $349.99, while its otherwise identical twin with a 2.16GHz Intel Celeron N2830 processor will cost you $329.99.

On the other hand, while the keyboard isn't as good as a Lenovo ThinkPad's keyboard, it is an excellent keyboard. If you spend your time writing papers for class all the time you'll really appreciate this.

This Chromebook also comes with a touch screen. Its six cell battery also gives it a long life, up to eight hours. That's none too shabby for a Chromebook with with an Intel rather than ARM-based processor.

Both models come with 2GB of RAM standard. You also have the option of upgrading to 4GB. Most of the other features are the same as you've seen on the other Chromebooks: 16GB of storage, a headphone jack, a USB 2 and USB 3 port, an HDMI port and an SD Card slot.

The one exception is that the N20p comes not just with dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4. It also supports the newer and faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi. This can make a real difference if you're home or office, as mine does, already supports 802.11ac.

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Toshiba Chromebook

You say you want a bigger Chromebook screen? The Toshiba Chromebook with its 13.3-inch display has you covered.

Other than that, it comes with the usual feature set of a 1.4GHz Intel Celeron CPU, 2 GBs of RAM, a 16GB SSD, dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4, a headphone jack, two USB 3 ports an HDMI-out port and an SD Card slot.

At $299, that's a little on the high side, but friends who've bought one tell me it has excellent battery life and they love the screen; so if those factors are important to you, then give this Chromebook a try.

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7 of 8 Steven Vaughan-Nichols/ZDNet

Samsung Chromebook 2

Samsung was the first big name vendor to really support the Chromebook with the Samsung Series 5 back in 2011. I still have that Chromebook and while it's showing its age, it's still useful. The new Samsung 2 looks good but at $299 and $399 list price for the 11.6- and 13.3-inch, respectively, they strike me a little pricey.

Still, you might be tempted by the 13.3-inch model because it has a true 1080p display. While it doesn't equal the Chromebook Pixel, it's also a third of its price.

The other important features are an odd mix of a little too slow for the price. For example, the eight-core 1.6GHz Exynos 5 Octa chip is a little slow while the 4GBs of RAM is just right.

Otherwise it's an ordinary Chromebook with a 16GB SSD, dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4, a headphone jack, a USB 2 and USB 3 port, an HDMI port and an SD Card slot.

Still, if you want to sneak watching a HD movie in while you should be studying...

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Chromebooks

So which Chromebook is the best for you? As always, it depends on you and your needs. While all these Chrome OS powered laptops resemble each other, there's enough differences in price, quality, and features that only you can decide on which one is the best for your school.

Personally, of this selection, I'd go with the Dell Chromebook 11 — if I can find one! After that, for me, it's a toss up between the Acer Chromebook C720P for its price, and the Lenovo N20p for its keyboard.

At these prices, however, it's hard to go too far wrong. Pick the one you like best, and best of luck with school this year!

CNET: Back-to-School Tech Gift Guide

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