New Chromebooks could prove attractive for schools

Google has added features that will enable users to edit documents offline, read more content created in widely used Microsoft applications such as Word and Excel, and retrieve material from another computer.

Google Inc. is trying to win more converts to a computer operating system revolving around its popular Chrome web browser with a new wave of lightweight laptops built by Samsung Electronics. The latest Chromebooks include many features that could make the devices more popular with school leaders looking to roll out one-to-one computing initiatives with a limited IT staff.

The May 29 release of the next-generation Chromebooks will give Google and Samsung another opportunity to persuade consumers, businesses, and schools to buy an unconventional computer instead of machines running on familiar software by industry pioneers Microsoft Corp. and Apple Inc.

Unlike most computers, Google’s Chromebooks don’t have a hard drive; they function like terminals dependent on an internet connection. Booting up in just seconds, they’re designed to connect quickly to Google’s dominant internet search engine and ever-expanding stable of online services, ranging from eMail and Google Apps for Education to a recently introduced file-storage system called Drive.

The new Chromebooks come with 16 gigabytes of flash memory—the kind found in smart phones, tablet computers, and some iPods. Two USB ports allow external hard drives and other devices to be plugged into the machines.

Chromebooks haven’t made much of a dent in the market since their debut a year ago. In that time, more people have been embracing Apple’s iPad and other tablet computers—a factor that has contributed to a slowdown in sales of personal computers.

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Google says it always intended to take things slowly with the Chromebooks to give its engineers time to understand the shortcomings of the machines and make the necessary improvements.

“This release is a big step in the journey to bringing [Chromebooks] to the mainstream,” said Sundar Pichai, Google’s senior vice president of Chrome and apps.

The upgraded laptop, called “Series 5 550,” is supposed to run two-and-half times faster than the original machines, and it boasts higher-definition video. Google also added features that will enable users to edit documents offline, read more content created in widely used Microsoft applications such as Word and Excel, and retrieve material from another computer at home or an office—features that could facilitate their use by students at home or in school. More emphasis is being placed on Chrome’s web store, which features more than 50,000 applications.

The price: $449 for models that only connect to the internet through Wi-Fi and $549 for a machine that connects on a 3G network. Samsung’s original Chromebooks started out with prices ranging from $429 to $499. Like the original Chromebooks, the next-generation machines feature a 12.1-inch screen display and run on an Intel processor.

Google and Samsung also are introducing a “Chromebox” that can be plugged into a display monitor to create the equivalent of desktop computer. The box will sell for $329.

The latest Chromebook and new Chromebox are available online but will go on sale in brick-and-mortar stores for the first time in still-to-be-determined Best Buy locations later this month.

The expansion beyond internet-only sales signals Google’s determination to attract a mass audience to its Chromebooks, just as it’s done with smart phones running on its Android software. More than 300 million mobile devices have been activated on Android since the software’s 2008 release.

Without providing specifics, Pichai said several other computer manufacturers will release Chromebooks later this year. Google plans to back the expanded line of Chromebooks with a marketing blitz during the holiday shopping season in November and December.

One reason Google is confident that Chromebooks eventually will catch on is because the Chrome web browser has attracted so many fans in less than four years on the market. The company says more than 200 million people worldwide currently are using the Chrome browser.

Like other laptop and desktop computers, the Chromebooks will have to contend with the accelerating shift to the iPad and other tablets. The iPad 2, an older version of Apple’s tablet line, sells for as little as $399, undercutting the new Chromebook. Other low-cost tablets are expected to hit the market later this year. One of them might even be made by Motorola Mobility, a device maker that Google bought for $12.5 billion last month. Google so far hasn’t commented on Motorola’s future plans for the tablet market.

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The new Chromebooks also are hitting the market at a time when some prospective computer buyers may be delaying purchases until they can check out machines running on Windows 8, a makeover of Microsoft’s operating system that is expected to be released in September or October. Microsoft designed Windows 8 so it can be controlled through touch as well as keyboards. That versatility is expected to inspire the creation of hybrid machines that are part laptop, part tablet.

Still, Chromebooks have found some fans in education.

During a recent webinar hosted by eSchool News, David Fringer, executive director of information systems for the Council Bluffs Community School District in Iowa, said his district has been using Chromebooks since January 2011 to help implement one-to-one computing in its high schools.

Council Bluffs is home to one of Google’s massive data centers, and the company approached the district with an offer to pilot 500 Chromebooks when the devices first launched. The pilot proved so successful that the district bought another 1,000 units soon thereafter, Fringer said—and it plans to add another 2,900 this fall, so all students from grades 7-12 will have access to the devices.

With a central, web-based management console for all devices, automatic maintenance and upgrades, and an 8-second boot-up time, Chromebooks are ideal for a classroom setting, Fringer said—as long as you have a “rock-solid” wireless network infrastructure. Another plus is that they come with a real keyboard, unlike the tablets now flooding the computing market. But perhaps their biggest advantage, he said, is the simplicity of their hardware, which makes supporting them a breeze.

“It takes fewer staff to maintain a Chromebook,” Fringer noted during the webinar. “Our ratio was one technician for every 700 Chromebooks.”

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