Sunday, August 25, 2013

Which Chromebook is Right for You?

Lately, I have been getting ready for deployment of almost 400 Chromebooks at the middle school in the main district I work for as a Tech Integration Specialist. Each of us in the IT department as well as a few chosen others in the district have been trying out different models ahead to see which is best for the students, and what one teachers or other users may prefer.

For those chosen teachers and a couple of admin, we had them try the Samsung xe303C model which we called the "3 Series". This is the less expensive of the Samsung models at $249 and really was the one we were looking to purpose for the middle school students. The battery life on them is pretty solid and can last almost all day for a typical school day, or just under 6 hours expecting that they may go idle, sleep or intermittently be turned off during that time. They do not have a large solid state hard drive so not a ton of offline storage but they turn on and off quickly nor do they run hot to touch which is what we want for students; long battery life, instant on/off, not overheating quickly. The challenges are, that they do not have the best output to a projector. Even though it does come with HDMI, the mirroring feature is not perfect and I work with many classrooms that do not have HDMI ready projectors. Also, you can not run any java based programs even web-based ones that work in Chrome on other devices such as laptops. Grade book programs like PowerSchool/Grade, Screenr, IEP Online or other Java dependent web apps will not work and you can't connect to your Interactive Whiteboard, of course. For students, though, this isn't an issue. They access their grades through a web portal, usually, that doesn't require java, create videos with apps like WeVideo and don't really need to connect to the classroom projector or Interactive Whiteboard software. We found this model is perfect for the grade 5-8 student user. There are two USB ports on the back (1 is a 2.0 and the other a 3.0 for the major techies out there), 1 HDMI port and a Multicard SD/XD port which is great for students who have take photos with phones or cameras using these cards.
fragile Ethernet port
5Series side ports
3 Series

Some others and I tested out the XE550C or "5 Series". This is the more expensive Samsung model at about $600. The price was already higher than we wanted for students but this was a test for a teacher, trainer or admin. The first pro I found for this model was that the output included a DP++, or DisplayPort, which works well in mirror mode output to a projector using a DP++ to VGA adapter (seen in the picture above). This is wonderful in a district where you use Docking stations that also use DP++ ports but not so great when you can't find your VGA adapter and run to the local Radio Shack to grab one in a pinch where the young teenager behind the register tells you loudly and slowly like you are learning a new language." I THINK YOU MEAN AND H-D-M-I to V-G-A Adaptor. HDMI IS WHAT...." No, I tell them, I really do mean DisplayPort and the fact that they are now staring at me blankly is not filling me with confidence that I'll find one easily in time. So if you can get a hold of DP++ adapter, this model has great output to most VGA projectors. The powercord is a little less flimsy on the end to snap off like the student model and the battery is close in comparison to the 3 Series. This one does also have a Multicard slot as well as an Ethernet port for situations with lack of wireless but it didn't always configure intuitively like I thought and seemed a bit clunky but better than nothing when trying to train a group of teachers while the wireless keeps dying. While it felt a bit sturdier than the student model, because I do so much training in different settings, for my needs, I decided to move on to the next model we were trying out.

The third model tried out by our techs (and later purchased by myself) was the newer model by Acer. A great price at just around $200, it appeals to the teacher and trainer for that a few more reasons. First, it has both a VGA and an HDMI port to output to displays such as the older projectors found in most classrooms (so I can easily project no matter what classroom projector I work with during training sessions). Second, it does have a 320 G solid state drive for storing offline files. Working a lot with websites, screenshots, videos, I find myself downloading a lot to the Files app and rarely pulling them off to a USB drive or moving them to my Google Drive as they are often too big. Third, the end of the powercord is much more durable instead of the tiny pin sized end that the Samsung has and it also has more keys on the keyboard than the Samsung. There IS a delete key, Page Up/down and there ARE all of the Fn, or function keys, on the Acer model which are all missing from the keyboard of the Samsung models. Teachers that are used to these keys on standard computer keyboards get a bit frustrated with their disappearance on the Samsung Chromebooks. Also, the Ethernet port was a bit less fragile and the overall size of the devices itself is very slightly smaller for storage in smaller cases including in my iPad bag so now I can travel with one bag for both my Chromebook and my iPad. Lastly, the battery on the Acer is removeable (unike with Samsung's) so an extended battery may be possible to add on in the future. The only downsides with the Acer is the multi-touchpad is a bit less responsive than the Samsung but my wireless mouse took care of that and the hard drive adds a little heat and weight but not too much.

Conclusion: Samsung XE303C is the right fit for most classroom students. The Samsung XE550C was a bit high in price but a decent choice for school admin. The Acer would most probably be best received by the majority of teachers, trainers or others that need to share their display with others, watch their budget and are used to a traditional keyboard.

Note that I have not yet tried Lenovo's Chromebook at the time of this review. Maybe that will be next.

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