News

This software turns old laptops into new Chromebooks

By Bridget McCrea
October 27th, 2015

Using device-agnostic software called Neverware, districts are breathing new life into old laptops

neverware-laptopsWhen Waller Independent School District of Waller, Texas, decided to start upgrading its laptops and desktops to Windows 7 in 2014, the district had one big concern: time. After years of using Chromebooks alongside its traditional laptops, school leaders were anticipating lightning-fast boot up times from their new investments.

What they found was less than encouraging—even newer laptops, they learned, require a good 60 to 90 seconds to boot up. “In education, that just doesn’t work,” says Rosa Ojeda, technology director for the 8-school, 6,700-student district. “When a teacher is working with 30 students, and when each needs a minute-and-a-half to boot up, you’ve lost that educational moment.”

In addition to its hardware challenges, Waller ISD also faced funding issues. “Our teachers are at the innovative state and ready to start using technology in the classroom,” Ojeda explains, “but our current budget doesn’t support that. We’re buying computers, but it’s still difficult to purchase as many as we really need.” She adds that the district has been able to leverage grants and support from programs like Computers for Learning and federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security.

With thoughts of lengthy boot-up times, budgetary woes, and obsolete hardware swirling around in her head, Ojeda found the answer to all of those issues at an educational conference she attended in 2014. “I ran into Neverware,” says Ojeda, “and saw a demo of an older Dell 640 running Windows 7 and booting up in about 30 to 45 seconds. It was definitely an improvement (in speed) over what we were dealing with.”

Neverware, a New York-based startup, makes software that lets older computers run newer operating systems without compromising speed. When the company released CloudReady—a full operating system that makes a computer function like a Chromebook—Waller ISD decided to invest about $100 per device (to cover the cost of a new solid state drive for the computer) in its fleet of 6- to 8-year-old Dell desktops and laptops. “We bought new batteries and loaded the machines with more memory and waited to see what would happen,” Ojeda recalls. “We wound up with 14-second boot-up times.”

Even more impressive, says Ojeda, is the fact that 95 percent of the laptops that would have otherwise been rendered unusable once Windows 7 was installed were now back in service in the classroom. “We’re able to keep these devices and extend their life out a few more years,” says Ojeda, whose district has acquired 1,000 total licenses for CloudReady. “That’s a thousand machines that we would have had to pull from our fleet.”

What’s old is new again

Waller ISD has seen good things come from its efforts to recycle older computers into usable machines. Take annual student registrations, which are typically held over a 5-day period at the start of the school year. Until recently, the district fielded a number of complaints about the small screen size of students’ 11-inch Chromebooks. “Parents didn’t like filling out all of the paperwork on that small screen,” says Ojeda. Today, the same process takes place on the Dell 830’s or 840’s 14- to 15-inch screens. “We’re able to meet the needs of the community,” says Ojeda, “and in a very fiscally-responsible manner.”

Aside from the $100 investment in solid state drives, Ojeda says the time and cost involved with converting the older equipment into usable devices has been “fairly minimal.” The drives were ordered in quantities of 100 and installed over the summer—a task that was handled by the district’s network staff, campus technologists, and students. To ensure a smooth transition to the new operating system, three of the school’s technologists received their Google certification (on the administration side).

Fountain of youth

According to Andrew Bauer, president of New York-based Neverware, the company offers a free version of CloudReady for individual users, be it a student’s laptop or a home-based desktop. In differentiating the paid version from the free option, he says the former includes technical support via phone, chat, and email, and the ability to integrate with the Google Management console.

At Huntsville School District in Huntsville, TX, Director of Technology Tracie Simental says the district explored various ways to keep aging hardware in service. “We had a lot of older Netbooks and laptops that were going to be removed from circulation because they couldn’t survive past the Windows XP upgrade; their lifecycle was over,” Simental explained. On a positive note, those machines had been well cared for because most resided on carts. “They still had some life left in them,” she added.

To stretch the lives of those 4-year-old machines, Huntsville SD installed CloudReady on 300 of them. Simental says the learning curve was minimal because students and teachers were already using Google, Chrome, and Chromebooks in the classroom. After installing the software, she says boot-up times shrank to 12 seconds and battery life doubled. Now going on six years old, those 300 devices are still running CloudReady and are only retired “when the wheels actually fall off of them,” says Simental.

To other schools considering a similar move, Simental warns that Chrome can be a “pretty meaty program that heats up the bandwidth.” Put simply, make sure your network can support the additional 200-300 computers before setting those devices loose in the classroom. “These days everything seems to have a trickle-down effect on our wireless setup,” says Simental. “Before we passed the computers out, we made sure our network could handle it.”

For example, she says any rooms or spaces that lacked a dedicated wireless access point (WAP) were outfitted with one. Simental sees this as a particularly important strategy because “when users can’t get connected, teachers and students will get frustrated and will stop using the technology that you just rolled out.” Ultimately, Simental says students really want computing power and internet access and are less concerned about the equipment itself.

“The kids really don’t care if they’re using older laptops,” says Simental, who recently used CloudReady to resurrect a set of 30 “forgotten” laptops that were stored on a cart. “That’s just one example of how we’ve been able to give new life to older technology that in the past would have just been left idle.”

Bridget McCrea is a contributing writer for eSchool News.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of Huntsville School District. It is located in Huntsville, Texas.