Sunday, 28 May 2017

Spin x360: New Chromebooks First Impressions

The promise of a stylus on ChromeOS

I'm fortunate to have an Acer Flip 11 and and HP x360 Chromebook to try out this week to evaluate. This blog posts sets out my thoughts on how useful they may (or may not) be from my perspective as someone who buys quite a few Chromebooks from a number of suppliers for different roles - but hopefully if you're buying just one for yourself there will be something of interest here.

The HP Chromebook using Office 365 Video - the screen and sound are pretty good

If I was buying one for myself

To get the straightforward out of the way first. I don't have definite pricing on either of these to compare with a standard Chromebook but I think I can say when and if I'd choose to get one.

What they both have in common

These are both pretty good little laptops for anyone that generally lives on the web (I'll get to Android in a second). If you have ever used a Chromebook you'll find both of these very nice to use and very similar, but better to what came before. Both are made of "nice plastic," both have good enough keyboards and trackpads and very nice screens and both have very long battery life. They also appear to have more memory and "fizz" than older models and handle many many tabs in Chrome open at once.

They will both run Android apps. I can't test it on these but I saw it done last week on the Acer and it was seamless and slick - for a school I have some reservations about Android apps, but for a personal laptop that opens up a lot of possibilities.

They both flip. You can effortlessly bend the screen back on itself and make the Chromebook into a "tent" or a tablet. You can buy a pen to go with them and I tried it with Keep and it worked really nicely - fluid and responsive. There is a glitch in the way Keep works in portrait that would drive me insane if this was my own laptop and I cannot believe this is actually on sale in the state its in.... I would say though that both are a little heftier than an iPad, so if you think you'll be cavorting around a classroom with one, you'll probably want to hold it two handed and take your time.

After a couple of days the way Keep doesn't work properly in landscape with the pen is annoying me mightily

For me that's a really important use-case. A lot of our staff use expensive iPads as companion devices for work, and taking photos of student's work for later review or sharing is a very important function. Both these devices have a nice rear-facing camera with good resolution and a neat little app - so I can happily use this device as a slightly heavier replacement for the iPad, that I can later fold back to laptop form factor.

A niggle though.... on my iPad I can open the Google Drive app and directly photograph into a folder on my Drive from the device - so as I wander my class the images of work can be appearing immediately on the big screen.

It is not possible to directly take photos into Google Drive from the Camera App. A teacher would have to take the photos, run the Files app and upload. Maybe the Android version of Drive will fix that?

So all round good - two tweaks to software needed but the hardware fine. If I were buying a Chromebook for myself and these were within my budget I'd definitely go with this rather than the old models. If I were buying a class set.... well, read on.

What sets them apart

Generally these are both very credible little laptops and I know both brands have their fans. Personally I was biased towards the HP because of past positive experience but I've tried to be as fair as I can:

  • The Acer has its camera in the hinge, the HP in the palmrest. I definitely prefer the HP in this regard.
  • Both are made of good plastics but the HP actually manages to feel quite premium... bizarrely I hated the construction of the Windows version of this laptop but this is much nicer. The Acer has stickers. Three stickers. Gah.
  • The trackpad and keyboard are marginally better on the HP but the Acer's are very good (somehow the keyboard feels more cramped although they seem identical in overall size)
My guess is the HP will be more expensive and in truth if you want to save a little the Acer is great. With my own money I'd buy the HP.

But I'm Buying them for Schools

So far so good. Most Chromebooks get bought by schools. If you were buying a few hundred the price increase on these will add up to a lot of money. Here are some thoughts on how they'd stack up.

As a shared device for students

Almost all of the Chromebooks we buy are for set of devices that get shared over the course of a week by many students. They are workhorse devices - sometimes used for a whole lesson, sometimes dipped into for a few minutes. We expect to get many year's use out of a device and to have minimal support issues with them. The one big win for these devices is they use USB C for power and have it on both sides of the case, so on a laptop trolley you can put them in either side and I assume they aren't too fussy about which charger is used on them (probably fair to say not all USB power adaptors are created equal but I have been happily using either adaptor with either laptop without issues).

I can see the next version of the entry level non-touch Chromebooks having the same ports as these - or at least USB C - that will be a definite choice. But none of the other stuff really makes me thing it is worth considering either of these devices in this role - even worse, Android apps look to be a disaster for this kind of shared use, we're back to exactly the same bloatware download for every user slowing down the system that we moved to Chromebooks to escape.

USB C and A ports on either side really useful - hope to see lower end models get this too.
So there is no way I would buy either of these laptops for shared classroom use. We don't currently buy shared devices for staff but if we did, the more premium nature of these might be something to consider.

As a personal device for students

The dreaded 1:1. I am not a fan of 1:1 as a practical approach as frankly it always seems to end in a finance agreement for parents to pay for the laptop (in which case, as a parent I'd rather choose what I bought for my child...) but there are schools that are, and there are use-cases for our academies where 1:1 makes perfect sense - for example we have several that issue a Chromebook to a new 6th Former to use throughout their studies.

In that situation the add-ons in these devices compared to the bog standard Chromebook might be compelling. They feel nicer and will certainly be better received. They have the camera which will get some use. They are faster and I think the keyboard and trackpad will be better.

I think the whole flippety thing is a red-herring - without the pen it's a novelty and the pen isn't so well evolved yet as to make it compelling.

Android apps make good sense in this kind of situation - it is possible to "bless" certain apps as being available at your school - or even to mandate every device has them, and I can see that being useful.

This year, I think I'd stick with the better "non-flippety" Chromebooks most likely unless the price difference is very small but it is a very close call and we shall see how the pricing compares.

As a personal device for staff

We've been moving away from the Windows laptop as the main device for staff slowly for a while now - some academies in particular are having a lot of success with a good desktop PC in every classroom and where necessary an iPad as the teacher's personal device to communicate, screencast to the big screen and run specific apps (like SIMS): indeed that is the basis for our Star Classroom setup.

Could these flippy Chromebooks take over that role in a world where the room had a PC already in place and the teacher needed something for creating content anywhere, accessing SIMS, grabbing photos of student's work and screencasting?

Minor weight issues aside, assuming Android apps work as well as the demonstrations, and that the price per unit is less than the new iPad plus annual MDM costs (I would never use iPads without some kind of management system like Casper) I think this is a really interesting device. I think this year, after some trials that is the kind of initial use we may see these new Chromebooks filling that role as the cheaper ones gradually take on the features of this generation.

As a device for me?

It's not long ago that I felt the pain of getting a Pixel - one of the first generation - and for a good while it was my main laptop and I can honestly say I could do everything in ChromeOS I do now. The issue with it was heat and battery life - after a year it could barely manage 2 hours away from the plug, so I went with a MacBook not because of MacOS (which I do love but I can happily live without) but because it was (at the time) the ideal hardware for me - light, great screen, great trackpad and huge battery life.

Already, after using the HP in particular to do some routine work, I could see myself using this as a main day to day laptop - and I certainly wouldn't feel bad asking any colleague to do the same (if they are Microsoft Office users I'd probably want to check that the Android Office apps works as smoothly as I'd expect - but I have no reason to think they wouldn't).

I'd probably try the stylus and maybe use it a fair bit, but I don't see anything quite like the sophistication of Windows 10 ink here - enough for me to use from time to time, but not enough to change the way I work away from QWERTY to pen.

Wrapping Up

I seem to be damning with faint praise in all the above, so I'll try and end with a little balance. These are revolutionary devices - truly a huge step up. The best Chromebooks you can get.

It looks to me that as a device for a teacher, the Chromebook is ready to supplant the iPad or Windows PC (or often, both). That's a tough call to make (and a huge step, because an error in that kind of choice will affect a lot of people very badly). I certainly would not want a cut down Windows 10S device instead of one of these. Within Android apps like SIMS Teacher and the Microsoft Office ones they are great. Same for a student who has a device all day every day.

The niggle for me is that shared device, which is what got me into Chromebooks in the first place. That proposition - a stateless, cheap little computer that will do a lot of things very well is not advanced by these devices - the extras like the stylus and flipping won't match the extra cost, and the idea of downloading all my Android apps every time I login is daft.

Great little computers. I'll be more excited by the next generation of low end ones that steal some of this hardware at a class-set price point.

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