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A Classroom Teacher’s Thoughts About the Acer 720P Touchscreen Chromebook

Acer 720P Chromebook

acer_c720p_front

At A Glance

Back in March, I posted my thoughts about the Acer C720 Chromebook. On Friday, I received a message from one of my district’s IT support staff, asking if I wanted to put some touchscreen Chromebooks through my normal torture tests – I gleefully answered YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I used many more exclamation points in my response, but to save space in this post, I cut back. In my review of the C720, I lamented the cheap fit and feel of that device. When Dave Last appeared at my door with two Acer 720P Chromebooks, I have to admit to initially feeling let down. Holding the Chromebooks, I again encountered the feel of a cheap, plastic device. The prospect of playing with a touchscreen version of the Chromebook did give me reason to hope.

Unfortunately, the limitations of the device quickly dashed those hopes. Other than the added feature of a touchscreen,  the 11.6″ screen still uses the same resolution as the 11″ HP Chromebook, but Acer sticks with an LCD panel, backlit by an LED light.  The same small screen means that typing a paper, reading PDFs, editing a graphic, or trimming a video will not be as carefree as with a 13.3″ screen – but I can touch the screen.

The case material remains flimsy like the Samsung Chromebook. Unlike the 11″ and 14″ HP Chromebooks in my previous review, the case did not feel remotely industrial. I could easily flex the case, and pushing down in the palm rests produced noticeable “give.” In other words, Acer simply added a touch interface layer to the screen.

Pros

  • Accurate clickpad – the clickpad is nearly flush with the surface of the case, so there was not a noticeable dip.
  • Sufficient ports – With one USB 2.0, one USB 3.0, and one HDMI port, this Chromebook provides plenty of options for peripherals
  • Good (but smaller) battery life – adding the touchscreen adds additional pull on the battery, so the battery life drops from 8.5 hours to 7.5 hours. That’s still better than the 11″ HP Chromebook, but if a user doesn’t use the touchscreen as much as they thought, they still give up an hour just so they can touch the screen.
  • 32 GB of Internal Storage – The increased storage may provide peace-of-mind for students leery of sending all of their documents “to the cloud.”

Cons

  • Case materials – Like many of these initial Chromebook iterations, the case is made of a plastic material that has too much flex. Pushing down on the palm rest resulted in noticeable give.
  • Small clickpad – the clickpad is small. While the trackpad accurately followed my movements, the small size caused me to repeatedly touch it in two places at once, causing random placement of my cursor.
  • The screen (still) does not deliver – The 1366 x 768 resolution is the same as the 11″ HP Chromebook I reviewed, but is does not deliver the same sharp picture. While I could touch the screen, the the results did not always meet the vision. Using Kaizena, my favorite student feedback tool, I had difficulty highlighting long segments of text in a student paper. Instead, I had to settle for highlighting the first word or two. THEN, I could grap hold of a selection bar and pull to select my text. I might as well just use the clickpad or a wireless mouse.

My Take On The Acer 720P Chromebook

I really did want to like this version of the Acer Chromebook more than I did the C720. Maybe I lied when I said in an earlier review that style doesn’t matter to me. Even if I set aside my feelings about the case, I am still left feeling that the hardware and performance felt subpar compared with an iPad and most laptops students or teachers will have used. If I was an IT director trying to squeeze as many devices as possible out of a shrinking budget, I’d have to give serious consideration to this device as the touchscreen does open up possibilities for students.

Room To Improve

This device is better than its non-touchscreen sibling in that it adds another way to interact with the device and doubles the storage capacity. I still implore Acer to work hard to make the outside match the work they put into the inside. Put the flashy Intel Haswell processor into a stylish case with excellent fit and feel. The 11.6″ screen still feels small for me, but I think students in middle school might love that size. I’d like the option to upgrade to an IPS panel to deliver a better picture. This is a better device, but I want Asus and other manufacturers to keep pushing the limits of the technology. I cannot wait for the day that someone greets me at my door with a Chromebook so right I can emphatically say, “YESSSSSS!!!”

These are not the Chromebooks (yet) you are looking for.

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A Classroom Teacher’s Thoughts About The Acer C720 Chromebook

Acer C720 Chromebook

Acer C720

Looking at the Acer C720 Chromebook, I cannot help but be reminded of a Macintosh Powerbook.

Powerbook G3

At A Glance

I don’t know if I can explain why, but from the moment I laid eyes on it, I didn’t like the Acer C720 Chromebook. Maybe I just want companies to innovate and make unique products. Maybe I just don’t like the smaller screen of the 11″ models. Whatever it is, I put off testing this device for as long was possible. Ironically, I ended up spending more time on this device than the Toshiba Chromebook or 11″ and 14″ HP Chromebooks.

Unfortunately, that time did not necessarily make the heart grow fonder. The 11.6″ screen uses the same resolution as the 11″ HP Chromebook, but it uses an LCD panel, backlit by an LED light. With the matte finish, it just does not deliver a nice, crisp picture. The aforementioned HP CHromebook opts for a more costly IPS panel, which delivers a better picture.

The screen, along with the lack of overall screen space, means that typing a paper, reading PDFs, editing a graphic, or trimming a video will not be as carefree as with a 13.3″ screen.

The case material is flimsy like the Samsung Chromebook. Unlike the 11″ and 14″ HP Chromebooks in my previous review, the case did not feel remotely industrial. I could easily flex the case, and pushing down in the palm rests produced noticeable “give.” This was the first Chromebook that evoked an irrational “Eeww!” from me when I looked at it.

Pros

  • Accurate clickpad – the clickpad is nearly flush with the surface of the case, so there was not a noticeable dip. Tyla in 4th Hour noted that she “liked the speed of the clickpad” and that it “closely followed” her movements. I also did not notice the random right-click menu issue I discussed in my Toshiba Chromebook review.
  • Sufficient ports – With one USB 2.0, one USB 3.0, and one HDMI port, this Chromebook provides plenty of options for peripherals
  • Good battery life – with 8.5 hours of battery life, the Acer C720 Chromebook finds a nice balance. Acer’s device weighs only 2.8 pounds, so that means Acer found a small enough, longer lasting battery that delivers a reasonable weight-to-performance tradeoff. Like the Toshiba Chromebook, schools considering 1:1 initiatives will appreciate a device that gets students through an entire school day.

Cons

  • Case materials – Like many of these initial Chromebook iterations, the case is made of a plastic material that has too much flex. Pushing down on the palm rest resulted in noticeable give.
  • The screen does not deliver – The 1366 x 768 resolution is the same as the 11″ HP Chromebook I reviewed, but is does not deliver the same sharp picture. The Acer C720 uses an LCD monitor, while the HP uses an IPS monitor. That explains the difference in picture. Students mentioned that they liked the matte finish on the display because it cut down on glare.

My Take On The Acer C720 Chromebook

Overall, for irrational, subjective reasons, I just do not like this Chromebook. I said in an earlier review that style doesn’t matter to me. Maybe it does. Perhaps this quote from Computerworld’s October 2013 review of the Acer C720 best explains why I don’t like this device:

The Acer C720, on sale now for $249 and expected to ship later this month, is a stark contrast to the recently released and similarly priced HP Chromebook 11. Under the hood, it’s a superior product — especially in the realm of processing power, where the system’s Haswell-based architecture helps it achieve new levels of performance for an entry-level Chrome OS system. On the outside, however — the parts of the laptop you view, touch and interact with — it falls frustratingly short.

I want the Chromebook to meet our needs both inside and out. If our upcoming referendum in Oshkosh passes, in two years, students will receive a device that will be theirs for four years. If it already looks and feels like last year’s computers the day they get it, what will that mean when they are seniors?

If asked, I’d say that if the students don’t mind them, I think it is a reasonable machine. My Pros and Cons above do not point to a landslide reason to not like this Chromebook. Like my favorite television character, Leroy Jethro Gibbs, I’m going with my gut. Plenty of people in educational IT, at various levels, have adopted this Chromebook for their 1:1 initiatives.

Room To Improve

Here’s my suggestion for Acer. Work hard to make the outside match the work you put into the inside. The Intel Haswell chip gives this Chromebook plenty of power, so why did you put it in such an ugly wrapper? The 11.6″ screen feels small for adults. Kids may not mind so much. If you are going to leave the screen this small, opt to upgrade to an IPS panel to deliver a better picture. Don’t try to give us the device we had yesterday – try to envision the device we will need tomorrow.

Student Input

I will update this post later with input from my students.

A Classroom Teacher’s Review Of The Toshiba Chromebook

Toshiba Chromebook

Toshiba Chromebook

At A Glance

When I first picked up the Toshiba Chromebook, I smiled and frowned at the same time. I smiled because it felt like it weighed around three pounds. I frowned because I really didn’t like the feel of the faux metal body. The Toshiba Chromebook looks even more like a Macbook Air than the 14″ HP Chromebook. Maybe that’s part of the problem – I think want Chromebook manufacturers to deliver a Macbook Air, but not at a $1099 price point.

I imagine my students will like the 13.3″ screen nearly as much as they did like they did the 14″ HP Chromebook. There is plenty of screen so that typing a paper, reading PDFs, editing a graphic, or trimming a video will not require that they squint their eyes or move their faces inches from the device. The newly announced Samsung Chromebook 2 will sport the same 13.3″ screen but pack in 1920 x 1080 resolution. Hopefully, the next iteration of the Toshiba Chromebook uses a similar resolution upgrade.

The case material is flimsy like the Samsung Chromebook. Unlike the 11″ and 14″ HP Chromebooks in my previous review, the case did not feel remotely industrial. I could easily flex the case, and pushing down in the palm rests produced noticeable “give.” I’m not really a looks guy when it comes to devices, but the dimpled, faux leather body material did not impress me.

I was impressed, however, by the placement of ports. Placing the jack for the AC adapter on the left side of the device, rather than in the back, means schools using a Chromebook Cart would not have to worry about damage to the hinge and spine every time students return the device to the cart. Two USB 3.0 ports and an HDMI port on the right side of the Chromebook means peripherals don’t get tangled up with the power cord.

Pros

  • The. Screen. Is. Serviceable – The 1366 x 768 resolution is not enough to provide crispness on a 13.3″, diagonal, canvas. I came away feeling as disappointed as with the 14″ HP Chromebook screen. Netflix, WeVideo, and Screencastify all look OK on this screen. Like the larger HP Chromebook, there’s no need to squint to see the screen.
  • Near “sweet spot” weight – This chromebook weighs 3.3 pounds, and I felt a noticeable difference in my already-heavy Saddleback leather backpack. This might not seem heavy to students or teachers after repeated trips between home and work.
  • Sufficient ports – With two USB 3.0 and one HDMI port, this Chromebook provides plenty of options for peripherals,
  • The keyboard – The keyboard has a nice, tactile response when typing, but every key does not make a loud click. That’s a plus – in a classroom full of students banging away at keyboards, that would get distracting in no time.
  • Good battery life – with 9 hours of battery life, the Toshiba Chromebook finds a nice balance. Toshiba found a small enough, longer lasting battery that delivers a reasonable weight-to-performance tradeoff. Schools considering 1:1 initiatives will appreciate a device that gets students through an entire school day.

Cons

  • Recessed clickpad – the recessed clickpad doesn’t feel right. I have notice that on devices that recess the clickpad too deeply, I have far more false right clicks than clickpads mounted flush to the case.
  • Looks – The dimpled, faux metal case is not terribly appealing.

My Take On The Toshiba Chromebook

Overall, I like this device. Toshiba’s initial entry into the Chromebook market manages to deliver a serviceable device with which students and teachers could certainly be productive.

Teachers investing in an external monitor for home will love the ability to connect their Chromebook via the provided HDMI port. I never used to concern myself about monitor size, but my now-older eyes appreciated the difference when I connected to the 21″ LED monitor at school. The nine hour battery life means a whole day of use at school with charge left over to continue working at home.

In my district, it is possible that devices like Chromebooks will replace desktop machines for teachers. Trust me – teachers used to a school machine and a home machine will appreciate the 3.3 pound weight of this Chromebook as they start to carry it with them.

If asked, I’d say that the Toshiba Chromebook will work well for both students and teachers. I may quibble about placement of the clickpad (it is beyond annoying to have the right-click menu constantly pop up) the screen resolution, and the faux metal case material, but this Chromebook has a lot to like.

[Updated on Monday, March 10, 2014]

After conferring with my students, I’d have to say that they didn’t notice the benefits I see in the Toshiba Chromebook. If they believe that “It’s just another Chromebook,” then perhaps I’m being too picky. That being said, this is a group of seniors who will NOT have to use this device for four years. They test drove it for a class period. It will be interesting to see long-term use feedback. I think I still like the 14″ HP Chromebook more, despite the weight. Students, though, seemed to like this unit.

Room To Improve

Here’s my suggestion for Toshiba. Work hard to innovate on your second attempt at the Chromebook. The 13.3″ screen feels about right – a 13″ screen might might be even better, especially if combined with a 1920 x 1080 resolution. If we need a bigger screen at home, a large monitor is cheaper than a whole system.

See if you can trim the bezel – this Chromebook has a noticeably smaller footprint than the 14″ HP Chromebook – keep going. Work on keyboard  placement – the palm rest looks similar to the 14″ HP, so I imagine my student Yachee will still find it difficult to reach all of the keys. Give your device a solid, industrial feel – people know cheap when they feel it – this could move you out in front of the pack. We all know that metal is not a viable material to achieve the needed price point, but ditch the faux metal look. We will appreciate a solid, indusrial plastic with little flex or give far more than dimples.

Don’t try to give us the device we need today – try to envision the device we will need tomorrow. More and more storage space is available through services like Box, Dropbox, Drive and others. At some point, it will be impractical to provide card storage slots. Give us the device that works when wireless is ubiquitous. Everyone thought Apple was crazy for delivering a Macbook Air without an optical drive. A look at the current Chromebook market says otherwise.

[UPDATE: Monday, March 10, 2014]

Student Input

I had students in each class use the Toshiba Chromebook to finish research and start writing their paper. I came away surprised by their responses. Many of them referred back to the 14″ HP Chromebook and said that it reminded them of a real computer.

1st Hour

Katie in 1st Hour said, “I don’t really notice a difference, in this one [Toshiba] – it’s just bigger.” We even compared it side-by-side with the Samsung Chromebook, and Katie said that while it appeared the keyboard on the Toshiba was more spaced out, it actually wasn’t different.

2nd Hour

Hannah in 2nd Hour said, “The thing that I liked the most was the wide screen.  On the smaller chrome books, it’s sometimes hard to see things.  This screen allows you to have a closer look at text and sort of blows things up for you. ” She was less enamored of the clickpad, noting that ” It’s almost just a little too far down.” By “down,” she means that the click pad is recessed below the case surface. Interestingly, Hannah believes that “…this bigger laptop would be difficult to haul around in your backpack.  It can get damaged more and you can just throw the smaller laptop into your backpack without worrying about space.” I hadn’t thought that students would want a more compact device. The importance of screen size may be more of an issue for me because I have bifocals.

4th Hour

Deidre in 4th Hour said, “I really like this.” When I inquired further, she explained, “The other Chromebooks [Samsung] feel cheap. This one feels more like a computer.” She was impressed by the screen and the response of the keyboard.

A Classroom Teacher’s Review of 11″ and 14″ HP Chromebooks

Many of the reviews I read about Chromebooks are written by tech reviewers and business writers. Very few educators have written detailed reviews. This past weekend, I had an opportunity to take both the 11″ and 14″ HP Chromebook out for a spin. Given this limited time, I worked quickly to put both devices through their paces. I even made sure to have students use them during classtime on Friday and asked for their feedback.

HP Chromebook 11″

11″ HP Chromebook

Pick up the 11″ HP Chromebook, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Unlike the flimsy, fragile feel of the Samsung Chromebooks, the HP version has a more solid feel to it. It’s still just a plastic case, but it feels like it has more substance. Don’t confuse this with the solid feel of a Macbook Air – this plastic bends and flexes when handled roughly like a student might – but it doesn’t feel like it could break at any moment. This is more important than one might think. Students, especially high school students, notice when computers are old and slow or Chromebooks feel more like a Winfun Elite Plus Laptop than an Acer C7 Chromebook.

One of my main complaints about the Samsung Chromebook – an opinion repeated by many of my students – is that it feels cheap. From the plastic casing to the inaccurate trackpad to the low-quality display, the Samsung Chromebook is serviceable but not spectacular. That is why I asked Matt, Kayanah, and Matt to use the 11″ Chromebook during class time for research.

IMG_0676

Matt tries the 11″ HP Chromebook

Pros

  • The. Screen. Is. Phenomenal – The 1366 x 768 resolution is the same as the 14″, but in a smaller screen size, it looks GORGEOUS. Netflix, WeVideo, and Screencastify all look great on this screen. Despite its small size, students didn’t have to squint to read the screen.
  • Lightweight – weighing in at a sleek 2.3 pounds, this device screams to be picked up in one hand and carried from class to class.
  • The keyboard – students and I both commented on the keyboard. Matt said that he liked how the keyboard had the tactile feel of a laptop keyboard. He does not like the crowded keyboard of the Samsung Chromebook.
  • Looks – I have never paid much attention to looks, but students repeatedly commented on how much they liked the sleek, white look of this Chromebook. Matt in 4th Hour commented that this Chromebook is “just a lot sleeker and the key pad is much smoother.”

Cons

  • Limited ports – only 2 USB 2.0, an audio in/out combo jack, and a Slimport video out.
  • Poor battery life – for schools looking to use Chromebooks in 1:1 initiatives, a six hour battery life does not make it through an entire day. That means having charging stations available throughout the building for students to recharge.

HP Chromebook 14″

14″ HP Chromebook

The 14″ HP Chromebook makes you feel like you are working on a full-blown laptop computer. It’s still just a plastic case, but this grown-up version has all of the weight and solid feel of a laptop. While you shouldn’t confuse this solidity with the industrial feel of a Macbook Air – despite the obvious homage to the Macbook Air’s tapered design, this is definitely not a Macbook – this is a nice effort to make a serious version of the Chromebook.

Yachee likes the larger screen size.

Yachee likes the larger screen size.

Pros

  • It feels like a laptop – I know all of these are basically the Chrome OS in a plastic wrapper, but from the very beginning my students have spoken derisively of the cheap, plastic feel of the original Samsung Chromebook. Students like the feel of this unit, and feel like they “are using a computer, not a toy.”
  • Plenty of ports – 2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, HDMI, Audio in/out combo jack, 3-in-1 card reader (SD/SDHC/SDXC)
  • Excellent battery life – with 9.5 hours of charge, students can come to school with their devices charged and use them all day long. Teachers will appreciate not having to locate a charging cable for Johnny during the middle of a lesson.

Cons

  • This is HEAVY – You feel all 4.07 pounds of this Chromebook. Probably part of the tradeoff for excellent battery life.
  • The. Screen. Is. OK– The 1366 x 768 resolution is the same as the 11″, but in a larger screen size, it looks serviceable but is not as crisp as the smaller unit. Netflix, WeVideo, and Screencastify all work well on this screen. Students commented frequently that they loved being able to look at an actual large screen. They didn’t feel at all verklempt about the resolution and didn’t notice the difference until I asked.
  • Too much bezel – The weight of this device will be a drawback once teachers and/or students start transporting it. Perhaps trimming the bezel would shave off precious ounces. I know that the size of the internal components dictates case size, but I think they can do better. As an added comment, Yachee in 4th Hour said that he felt HP had created “too much palm rest.” He said it was hard to reach all of the keys with his palms resting on the palm rest.

Assessment Considerations

Both of these Chromebooks will meet the technical specifications for the Smarter Balanced Assessments. See chart below.

Smarter Balanced Technology Requirements

Smarter Balanced Technology Requirements

My Take On These Chromebooks

Overall, I like both of these devices and think they are a significant improvement over the original Samsung Chromebook I have used extensively. That being said, I now marvel at how much Samsung managed to fit into their Chromebook 1. Remember, they included two USB 2.0 ports and an HDMI port.

The 11″ HP ditches the HDMI port in favor of a Slimport video out. That’s a deal-breaker for me. We need standardized components and cables in education, not proprietary. This device could work as a teacher device if it used an HDMI port to allow teachers to hook up to an external monitor at home.

My students repeatedly commented that they liked the 14″ Chromebook’s screen size and said, “It feels like a real laptop.” I also like the additional real estate, but after watching House of Cards in 1366 x 768 resolution on the 11″ Chromebook, the same resolution on the 14″ Chromebook looked fuzzy. I know we will not ask our students to watch Netflix on school devices (they will at home), but they may be asked to create and edit HD video. The lower resolution is noticeable.

If pressed for a decision, I’d say that the 11″ device is a nice fit for students and many teachers would like the 14″ unit. Here’s the thing, though – many teachers have had desktop computers available and do not transport a device between home and work. Once they start carrying a Chromebook back and forth, they will realize how heavy 4.07 pounds feels in a backpack or briefcase.

Room To Improve

Here’s a suggestion, though, HP. Find the sweet spot between these two devices. A 12.5-13″ screen might provide enough space to satisfy all comers. The 1366 x 768 resolution won’t look as blurred at this “in-between” screen size. Trim the bezel – the smaller the overall footprint of the device, the better.  If you can get the weight down to 3-3.3 pounds, this will demand people’s attention. HDMI is a deal-breaker. Instead of the two USB 3.0 ports included on the 14″ model, go with one. That still leaves room for an adapter for wireless mice. The 3-in-1 card reader (SD/SDHC/SDXC) is nice, but as more and more of us move to the cloud, is it a necessity? Especially for education?

I know it is easier said than done, but if manufacturers find the holy grail combination of features, weight, and reliability and they will not be able to produce these units quickly enough. Hit the sweet spot between these devices, and schools can consider a single device rather than looking at one for students and one for staff.

Consider Your Audience

This is unrelated, but related. I read a great post by Lucy Gray this morning explaining to EdTech companies how and when they should talk to educators. I’d like to add this to the mix: find classroom teachers and get your products into their hands. I know that IT departments make purchasing decisions, but they often do not use these devices in the classroom or deal with 4th graders precariously balancing their Chromebook as they traipse across the room.

I am very fortunate that my district gave me the opportunity to to look at these two units. Most classroom teachers never have that opportunity. Google, HP, Dell, Samsung, Acer, Lenovo, and Toshiba…do yourselves a favor. Bend over backwards to get your devices into the hands of tech-savvy, connected classroom teachers like me. We will get them into the hands of actual end-users so that you will know how classroom teachers and students – your presumed intended audience – feel about the tradeoffs you have to make to deliver a Chromebook at an educational price. Let us give you feedback – we may never get to the big conventions, but we use your products with our students every day.

Contact me at jeffrey.see@oshkosh.k12.wi.us. I’ll test drive your device and get it into the hands of my students and fellow teachers. We’ll put together a review of how your product works in practice.