Would You Send Your Kid To College With Just a Chromebook?

Back in June I posted a blog entry where I discussed my initial impressions with my first Chromebook and the overall Chrome OS experience. This post is really just an interim update. In the four months since my initial post I’ve lived with one of several Chromebooks in my daily work environment. I should note that I’ve upgraded from the HP Chromebook I originally wrote about. That device was passed down to one of my daughters to make way for a more capable Chromebook. What I replaced it with is a somewhat smaller but much more powerful Dell Chromebook 11.

My day-to-day work requirements are interesting and (I think) somewhat unique. I build a lot of complex web maps using ESRI’s Web App Builder technology. The desktop system I use is a powerhouse. The graphics card alone costs more than most folks’ desktop computers. Of course whatever I build will run just fine on my system. But I need to test functionality on low end hardware that better replicates what the common user in my office has on their desk. That’s where the Chromebook comes in handy. With a low-end processor and limited system memory I am finding a Chromebook the ideal test platform for these web maps. If it runs OK on my Chromebook it will run OK on virtually all desktops in my office.

The next requirement is presentations. I give a LOT of presentations, sometimes several times a week. Most presentations involve a mix of PowerPoint slides and live web maps. We used to be shackled to our wired conference rooms that run hand-me-down desktops hard wired to old projector systems that may, or may not, be working at any particular moment of any particular day. My GIS group got smart and a year ago we purchased our own HDMI capable projector. When coupled with a Windows laptop the projector frees us from the tyranny of the wired conference room. But when I use a Chromebook to run a presentation I do it to drive home the point that cloud-based services have matured to the point where you can now easily run complex applications and presentations using nothing more than a Chrome browser. No Windows necessary.

Presentation suite

How would you like to walk into a conference room to give a computer-based presentation and find this? No, this was not staged – this is its natural state. I just opened the cabinet doors and that mess spilled out onto the floor under its own power. (FYI, the projector is mounted on the ceiling)

Chromebook projector

The tangled mess in the previous picture can all be easily (and cheaply) replaced with a Chromebook, projector and a single HDMI cable. If I’m feeling real adventurous the cable gets replaced with a Chromecast

So just how good are browser based services running on a ‘cloud only’ computer? Well let’s get back to the question I pose in the topic of this post. Would you – could you – send Junior off to college with nothing more than a Chromebook? First some background. I’ve put two kids and one wife through college with a mix of Windows laptops and MacBooks. Both of our daughters went off to college with Windows XP or Windows 7 laptops and my wife went off to graduate school with a MacBook. I was their IT support. I picked the hardware and software packages, did the installs, set up the anti-virus protection, set their systems up in their dorm rooms, interfaced with the college IT departments, managed software updates, fixed printer driver problems, replaced at least one very expensive but very broken laptop and provided 24/7 phone support for hardware and software issues. I came out of that experience with a new found respect for the folks working in computer support call centers.

When you look at the things my kids did on their computers you quickly realize that most activity focused around word processing, surfing the internet, email and on-line chat, and managing their entertainment catalogs. A decade ago you still needed a Windows or Apple OS system to do just those few simple things. The things kids do on their laptops today haven’t changed all that much, but there has been a huge shift towards doing those activities via cloud computing services. Junior’s music library, term papers and emails no longer need to be created and stored on the laptop hard drive. It can all be done in the cloud. This shift was made possible by the emergence of something not available a decade ago – robust and inexpensive cloud computing environments like Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive. Today’s cloud-based applications and storage environments can provide 100% of the common functionality the old heavyweight laptops running installed apps used to provide. In today’s world Junior doesn’t need a $600 laptop with a spinning hard drive to get through college. A simple $300 Chromebook should do just fine.

Let’s talk security and systems administration. Our girls would come home for Christmas and spring break with their laptop hard drives stuffed full of viruses and malware – even with things like Norton and McAfee running. It became part of our family holiday tradition for Dad to take a day to line up all the laptops and update the anti-virus software and clean out all the crap. Then there was the issue of the the owners trying to stuff 300 gigabytes of music onto a 200 gigabyte hard drive and wondering why the laptop takes 30 minutes to boot up and runs like molasses in winter. Ever take a call from a panicked college student trying to finish a term paper on a laptop with a full hard drive? I have. Repeatedly. My daughter must have dumped her iTunes library half a dozen times just to make space for research papers. These problems simply don’t impact a cloud-based Chromebook. There are zero virus/malware issues with Chrome OS and when Junior busts his on-line storage limit you simply log on to Google Drive or OneDrive and buy more storage. Takes all of 5 minutes if you work slow and stop for a cup of coffee.

Windows 10

A casual stroll around Wal-Mart was all it took to remind me that even in the Windows 10 world you still need protection

What happens when Junior has his laptop stolen while he’s at the library studying for finals? In the old days you were out the expensive hardware, the installed apps and all the documents, data, music, videos and emails stored on the laptop. With a Chromebook you are out… a cheap Chromebook. You log onto Amazon and have a new one overnighted to Junior’s dorm room. He opens it up, logs in and everything – everything – he had on his stolen laptop is immediately available on the new unit.

Some say “But wait, a Chromebook is useless without an internet connection!” True enough, but I challenge you to show met a college campus or surrounding community that isn’t an electron soup of overlapping wi-fi nodes. If Junior can’t find a wi-fi signal on or near his college campus these days he must be attending the Community College of Kazakhstan. But let’s say Junior is some place where wi-fi simply is not available. What then? Does Junior have a smartphone with a data plan? Of course he does. Make sure the hot-spot feature is available on the phone and Junior runs out of excuses for not answering your emails about his declining GPA.

It’s not a perfect world and there are plenty of college students who still need a computer that can run installed apps. I’m thinking engineering, or computer science, film production or any course of study that requires things like remote desktop connections to Windows servers, running Photoshop or heavyweight video editing software or other applications that just don’t work well via web interfaces. In these cases a Windows or Mac laptop still makes sense. However, it also also makes sense to load them up with cloud-based office apps and on-line storage. By using cloud services where possible you are reducing risk in case Junior’s $2,000 MacBook Pro disappears.

So would I send Junior off to college with just a Chromebook? Heck yes!