Surprised By Dell's Chromebook 11

Could you imagine making the switch?

June 26, 2014

Dell sent me a Chromebook 11 to review with an eye towards the education market.

I’ve been wondering how well the Chromebook would work for online learning learning.  

What would it be like to participate in open online edX or Coursera courses on a Chromebook?  

How well would a Chromebook work for doing coursework in an online program or blended class?  

Is the Chromebook a reasonable choice for a college student?  Or a college professor?   

A higher ed lens for reviewing a Chromebook is a bit strange.  Google has not really positioned the Chromebook as a learning platform the the postsecondary market, instead focusing its marketing efforts on the K-12 sector.  

Google’s argument is that the Chromebook makes for the perfect 1:1 device in a K-12 setting.  That a Chromebook is not only inexpensive (less than $300 for the Dell 11 version), but that the total cost of ownership is way lower than a traditional laptop because a the Chrome OS is bulletproof and that data can’t be lost (as it lives in the Google cloud).   

I think that the case for a K-12 1:1 Chromebook program is pretty strong.   

But how does the Chromebook stack up for higher ed?

I’ve actually been amazed at how much I enjoy working with this Dell Chromebook 11.  

For about a month now I’ve been alternating between the Chromebook and my 13 inch MacBook Air.  No, I would not trade my Air for a Chromebook. But I did find the Chromebook surprisingly enjoyable to use.

The main reason that the Chromebook is appealing is its simplicity.  The Chromebook is a great machine if you can live in the browser.  

The thing starts up almost instantly.  

Web pages feel like the load really quickly.

You are a click away from Gmail and Google Drive.  

The keyboard on the Dell Chromebook 11 is really nice.  The screen is reasonably bright.  The battery lasts a good 7 or 8 hours.  The device feels both light and solid. 

The simplicity of the Chrome OS is actually very satisfying.  You feel close to your work and your content, as long as your work and content are on the Web.

If you do your writing in Google Docs and your teaching (or learning) mostly through an LMS than the Chromebook works just great.

Pair a Chromebook with the world of open online education and you suddenly have a very inexpensive way to learn.  There was something subversively fun about cruising around edX and Coursera courses with a Chromebook.  

I could definitely see buying a Chromebook as a second computer, a backup computer, or a travel computer that you would allow you to worry less about theft or damage.

Yes, the the Chromebook is seriously hobbled when you don’t have a WiFi signal.  But Google has been evolving the Chromebook platform, and it is now possible to create new docs or edit existing Google Drive documents if you don't have a signal.  Same for reading and composing new e-mails if your e-mail client is Gmail.  

Where the Chromebook falls really short is when you need to leave the Google ecosystem.

There is no offline Evernote application.  If you are offline you can't access existing Evernotes or create new ones.   This is bad.  I'm typing this review on in Evernote on the Chromebook using the Evernote Web app. I use Evernote for almost all my short writing and to organize all my notes, to do's, and tasks.  Not being able to get to Evernote would mean that I really can't work.  Why Google or Evernote has not come up with an offline option for the Chromebook escapes me.

The other challenge is any e-mail client beyond Gmail.  For better or worse (mostly worse) my work e-mail and calendaring are through Outlook.  The Web version of Outlook works very nicely on a Chromebook.  Unless you change your e-mail client and run all work e-mail and calendaring through Gmail and Google Calendar you will be dead in the water with a Chromebook if your connection should go down.

Challenges around offline access to non-Google apps represents a serious drawback to living with a Chromebook.  But I'm not sure that this is a fatal problem.  

If a Chromebook was the only computer I owned I would make the switch to going all Google.  All e-mail through Gmail.  All writing through Google Docs.  All presentations through Google Slides.  All spreadsheets through Google Sheets.

Yes, you would lose some functionality by using only Google tools.  But you would gain some benefits with easier collaboration and the peace-of-mind that comes (for some) with having all your data living in the cloud and accessible from any browser.

The striking benefit of a Chromebook is how cheap the thing is.  I'm pretty amazed that I could envision myself living quite happily with a computer that costs less than $300.   

If your budget is tight, and you need a machine for online learning, then the Chromebook deserves a good look.

My experience with the Dell Chromebook 11 has been much more positive than I ever expected it to be.  

I've learned that living in a Chromebook / Chrome OS world sounds much worse than it actually is.

I've discovered that the only way to evaluate a Chromebook is to actually live with it for a while, as the experience is different enough from life in Mac or Windows world that it can only be understood if it is experienced.

Can you think of a reason why you might be interested in buying a Chromebook?

Have you, or anyone you know, made the move to going all Chromebook?


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