Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Poor Man's Chromebook

Is it possible and practical to revitalize aging netbooks or laptops, creating a reasonable stand-in for a commercial chromebook, with minimal time and expense?

That is the basic question.

The question stems from the situation we have at our school.  We have a number of basic laptops and netbooks which are showing their age.  For us, the targets of this question are:

  • A fleet of 100 Lenovo x-120e laptops purchased in 2011, equipped with the AMD Fusion E-350 1.6 GHz processor and 3 GB of RAM.  These currently run Windows 7 reasonably well, but take a long time to authenticate to the network and obviously don't run bloated software like MS Office very well.  Once up and running, they are relatively capable browsing machines, though they do struggle with streaming video.

  • A fleet of 48 Dell Latitude 2100 netbooks with atom processors and 1.5 GB of RAM, purchased in 2009.  Again, seem to be capable browsing machines, but the overhead of network login and Windows loading makes them less and less practical.

In my experiments with Windows, both types of machines actually perform pretty well, even on Windows 7, once you get them logged in and running and if you can avoid a bunch of background tasks like java and windows updates.  They're not great at MS Office or video, but they do pretty well with most Google apps.  I've tried various login methods and stripping all but the essentials out of the image, but boot times are still unacceptably slow, even with local, automatic login.  I think this could be improved if you take the device off of the domain, but then what's the point of using Windows?

The goal is not to try to turn these into newly capable laptops... they are old machines and will never perform as acceptable laptops.  However, we are a GAFE school as well as a 1-1 iPad district.  The iPads work great, but we find ourselves needing a tool which makes the basic Google apps more accessible to our students, particularly those above grade 8.

Obviously we'd love to have a fleet of Chromebooks.  Unfortunately, our budget is dedicated to iPads, and while we may switch to Chromebooks in the future, I currently have these laptops deployed but not being used because of the slowness issues mentioned above.

Here's what I've tried so far:

  • Chromium OS - Just couldn't get it to work.  I'm sure there are smarter geeks out there who could find the right build and maybe get things up and running, but I just don't have the desire, energy, or time to do this much trial and error experimenting.
  • "Stripped down" Windows.  See above.
  • "Lite" linux distros - Including Debian live, Elementary OS, Mint, Linux Lite, Precise, Ubuntu and Zorin.  I can get all of these to install and run.  Each has their little glitches and gotchas, but can be made to work.  Again, time and energy.  Currently, I've sort of settled on Mint and have added the chrome browser, which may not even be necessary because firefox does a decent job with basic google apps.

Some success and I've learned some things, but this is only part of the battle.  If this Mint prototype is practical, then I need to image or replicate, deploy, and manage.  All new experiments.  It's fun, but I don't have the time to reinvent or research all of these processes.

My original thought was to develop a "build" that locked the computer into the chrome browser and functioned as an ersatz Chromebook.  But as I've played with Linux, it occurs to me that it would be much more educational to simply provide a basic, Linux-based computer to students, and make them responsible for dealing with any problems beyond the initial set up.  

This is the sort of thing I get excited about.  Let the student be the admin and learn their way around Linux if they want more value from the device than simply using chrome.  I've even imagined letting students sign up, and then walking them through the install and initial config (about 30 minutes).  Perhaps start a computer club or something based on this.  

So, I see some potential, but of course a group is always smarter than an individual (particularly this individual).  I'd be interested in what the rest of you think or have tried.  Please feel free to leave comments or we can start a discussion on the list-serve.

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