With the soon-to-be-nationwide Covid-19 school shutdown in the United States, and need to move to e-learning (either formally or informally), and/or to work from home, there are a lot of people in my immediate circle who find themselves suddenly needing computing devices for every member of the family, and not necessarily being able to afford them. For some of these people, especially the WFH-ers, a Windows machine is basically mandatory for VPN or other software reasons and it’s relatively easy to steer them to appropriate hardware (and fix up eBay purchases where necessary). For the school-age kids though, Chromebooks are an interesting option. So, I figured I might as well play with one firsthand so I can make informed recommendations; I have been following their development since the first Cr-48 but have never actually owned one.
In case you’re wondering why I picked Chromebooks rather than, say, sub-$200 Windows 10 machines like the HP Stream 11:
- Dollar for dollar, you get a more recent, and more capable machine if you’re buying a Chromebook vs a general-purpose PC.
- Several of the local schools issue them to students from middle school onwards, so the child’s experience will be directly transferable to school.
- These machines are highly manageable with built-in parental controls; Windows machines are much harder to lock down.
- Mechanically durable models are available, designed specifically for tweens or younger with features like rubber bumpers and other shock isolation systems, waterproof keyboards, carry handles and so on.
- The software is durable too – there’s little or no way to infest a Chromebook with malware.
- Because these devices are bought en masse by school systems, and retired in batches, there are huge surplus supplies on the secondary market at very attractive prices.
- Battery life is generally excellent.
There are more Chromebooks on eBay than you can possibly imagine, and it’s quite time-consuming to filter out the useful listings. For one thing, Chromebooks have a limited support life, measured from the date of product announcement/release. Google documents the AUE (Auto Update Expiration) dates for certified hardware at this link. So once you set yourself a price limit (mine was $50, shipped) you have to start checking the models against this list. Not that the machine will stop working on that expiration date, but it’s good to have the latest updates and features, and frankly the price spread between “ancient and unsupported” and “still has some updates left” is negligible. Incidentally, the AUE date is sort of fuzzy – machines frequently continue to receive updates after that cutoff. For example, as a sidebar comment – while purchasing hardware for this article, I accidentally bought a Lenovo ThinkPad 11e Chromebook, AUE June 2019 – and it still received updates in March 2020. This seems to be a commonly reported phenomenon – the AUE date is “support not guaranteed after…” not “support will stop on…”.
You’ll also have to contend with the fact that eBay surplus machines will be pre-loved by schoolchildren. This means they’ll cover a wide gamut of possible missing/damaged parts, and most sellers don’t give you a photo of the actual unit you’re going to receive, because they have a single listing to sell however many hundreds of them they have in stock. Prepare your children or other recipients to deal with the fact that they’re not receiving new in box merchandise – it’s a tool, not a fashion accessory.
I decided to “standardize” on the Lenovo N22, which has an AUE date of June 2022. The specific SKU I bought was model 80SF, which has 4GB RAM and 16GB eMMC storage. There is also a SKU with only 2GB RAM – I see no reason to buy it, since the price difference is negligible and there’s a chance I might want to repurpose this into a pure Linux machine later. (It’s possible to flash BIOS updates onto the machine that turn it into a generic PC). Note that I very explicitly chose a Chromebook based on an Intel CPU, rather than the ARM-based models. This is mainly to make it easier to reuse the machine for something else, should I so desire.
I actually bought two of these computers (err… not counting the 11e I bought accidentally); one for me, one for the 11yo in the house. The picture you see above is the better of the two units; it’s basically in perfect condition except for one missing screw cover (lower right of the screen, just under the “N22” badge). The other unit has a couple of missing rubber feet from the bottom, all of the bezel screw covers are missing, and there are a couple of light spots on the screen. However, everything works and nothing is broken, which is all the seller promised, and that’s all you can really ask for. They were ~$50 each, shipped, including charger.
This SKU has a 1.6GHz Braswell N3060 dual-core CPU, 720p webcam (rotatable to face either forwards or backwards), two USB 3.0 ports, fullsize HDMI and SD, stereo speakers, Bluetooth and dual-band WiFi with a 1366×768 screen. Very low end for a PC, but satisfactory for what is essentially a dedicated Linux web browsing terminal.
The setup process for an adult user of a Chromebook is simple enough – just log in with your Google account, basically – but it’s rather more complicated if you’re setting up an account for a child. The parent has to have Google’s Family Link app running on a smartphone; you have to set the Chromebook up initially with the parent’s account, and then add the child’s account after setting it up in Family Link, and the process is extremely glitchy and ill-documented (the Family Link setup workflow UI assumes you’re setting up an Android phone for your child, not a Chromebook, and some of the steps are unreliable and need to be repeated). It took us about 15-20 minutes to figure this all out, including quite a bit of Googling. Don’t expect to enjoy this process.
As far as the multimedia experience is concerned – the inbuilt camera is perfectly adequate in good lighting, and the audio is frankly great – you can listen to music on YouTube etc and really enjoy it, with plenty of volume and a strong bass. The screen is bright and while it’s not very high resolution, you can use it in most conditions short of direct sunlight. The picture I took here doesn’t really do it justice, but I was sitting in the afternoon sun in Indiana’s spring, with the sun behind the screen, and at maximum brightness it was just usable.
Having used Linux and Chrome on significantly higher-end hardware, and found it sluggish – I am REALLY impressed with the snappiness of the Chrome UI. Reviewers of Chromebooks seem to concentrate on how the machine degrades when numerous tabs are open, but this isn’t really important to me – I typically only have a few tabs open. What’s important to me is responsive behavior in the browser for the foreground tab, especially on scripting-heavy pages (a lot of shopping sites are script heavy). And, given what I’m about to uncover next, there’s an even more important aspect to system performance.
What’s this secret I promised to reveal? Well, ChromeOS is in a bit of a transitional stage right now – besides the regular Chrome extensions that work on Windows, Mac and Linux – and hence also on ChromeOS, there is an actual ChromeOS application store. These apps are, however, now being completely deprecated and will disappear shortly, because ChromeOS now includes an Android runtime environment and access to the Google Play Store. So you can install most if not all of your favorite Android apps directly on your Chromebook. Yay!
Well, not exactly yay. Android apps are quite performant, yes – though the runtime environment is pretty bloated. I haven’t experimented with any games (11yo reports success on this metric :)), but other apps such as Facebook, Messenger, Microsoft Office, etc. all have good responsiveness. Unfortunately, they don’t have a very pleasant UI – because they act like an Android app running on a tablet, which has never been very enjoyable. It’s also a bit confusing to be bouncing between the native browser environment and the Android environment – it all does work, but it’s a bit like the difference between Windows Metro and Classic; two very different UI paradigms living uncomfortably under a single roof. It’s unclear how or even if Google intends to address this; Android apps aren’t designed to work on what is essentially a netbook. In general, I think I’d advise you to use the web versions of whatever you can, rather than using the Android app in emulation. You’ll also conserve the machine’s limited storage space more effectively this way.
With all this said, the Chromebook – especially at my cutoff price of about $50 – is a great option for kids for the reasons I stated at the opening of this article. In the uncertain months ahead, this is money well spent on hardware that will enable children to access education resources. Especially if you’re a multi-child family without a lot of money to spend, I heartily endorse this approach.