Considerations for purchasing Chromebooks
Chromebooks have recently emerged as a third option between MacBooks and Windows laptops; generally they are small, light, and cost-effective machines that work very well for the use case they're designed for.
However, there are a number of properties of Chromebooks that can make purchasing them less straightforward than other machines. This article will attempt to touch on most of the things to think about when purchasing Chromebooks
As a quick summary of the following information: it is best to contact your SSCF representative before purchasing Chromebooks, to ensure that you are getting a model that meets your needs that will have any acceptable lifespan.
Google Auto Update policy
Unlike Windows or Mac computers, each different model of Chromebook has its own lifespan, and at the end of that lifespan it will stop receiving updates (making it unsuitable for university work). A Lenovo and Asus model released at the same time may have a difference in several years of viable lifespan between them due to differences in update policies. Purchasing a Chromebook without carefully observing it's end-of-life (EOL) date can result in paying full price for a laptop whose life expectancy is less than one year.
This is probably the most vital consideration in purchasing a Chromebook, as it can make or break both the cost-effectiveness and usefulness of the machine.
The following web page gives the EOL dates for each model of Chromebook: https://support.google.com/chrome/a/answer/6220366?hl=en. SSCF recommends choosing a model that will receive updates for at least 5 years after it has been deployed, to ensure the maximum viable lifespan for each Chromebook. However, it is worth noting that buying a Chromebook with a six-year lifespan is essentially equivalent to purchasing it at a 20% discount, since it will be in use 20% longer than a machine with a five-year EOL.
Your SSCF representative is familiar with selecting models with optimal lifespans, and is happy to help you find a model that will meet your needs.
Pros and cons of the Chromeos operating system
On a more positive note, a ChromeOS with a good EOL date can be an excellent investment without sacrificing performance. By design ChromeOS is very lightweight compared to Windows and MacOS. An informal rule of thumb that I use is that a Chromebook will feel like a non-ChromeOS laptop that costs about 2-2.5x as much as the Chromebook; in other words a $200 Chromebook will feel like a $500 Windows laptop, and a $500 Chromebook will feel like a $1000 Windows laptop or MacBook.
However, the reason that ChromeOS is able to achieve its lightweight feeling is that its functions are rather limited compared to an operating system like MacOS. Essentially (with some caveats), Chromebooks are only able to do the things that you can do in the Chrome browser on another laptop, including running any Chrome extension that the browser supports. This does include a huge number of common tasks, including checking email, browsing the web, attending Zoom meetings, and so on. Conversely though, Chromebooks are not able to do tasks that require specific programs, notably they do not support the Office suite, and are generally not a good option for most programming environments such as Matlab, R, etc.
Both sides of the ecosystem are making strides towards allowing Chromebooks to be fully-fledged machines. office365.ucsd.edu does have a web portal in which you can edit Word and Excel documents through the browser, and a variety of Chromebooks do support Android apps, which can provide additional functionality like Remote Desktop. However, particularly Android support is in its early stages, and with a few manually-vetted exceptions SSCF does not recommend assuming that any Android apps will work as expected on Chromebooks; although we hope that this will improve in the near-to-intermediate future.
Due to the lightweight nature of ChromeOS, the specifics of hardware selection are less vital than they are for other platforms. The operations ChromeOS supports will generally run on any hardware that a Chromebook comes with; although the old adage that you get what you pay for does apply (a more expensive Chromebook with better hardware will usually run faster and smoother than a cheaper machine).
The primary specification that's worth thinking about is screen resolution. Most commonly, Chromebooks will come with displays that have either something like 1366 x 768 pixels (sometimes called 720p), or 1920 x 1080 pixels (sometimes called 1080p). The 720p machines are usually cheaper, and for a machine that's used primarily as a grab-and-go loaner for taking to meetings across campus for notes, they should function just fine. If a good display is more important, for instance if the Chromebook will be used more frequently, and especially for attending Zoom meetings or watching video, the investment in a 1080p display can be well worth it.
There are some other hardware-based considerations that can be relevant to purchasing a Chromebook. For instance, if a Chromebook is going to be used for presentations -- i.e. an instructor using it to show slides to a class -- then a 2-in-1 form factor and/or an above-average processor might be important. If your use-case for a Chromebook involves presentations, or was not otherwise covered in the above, we recommend reaching out to your SSCF representative so that they can advise you on selecting the correct model of Chromebook for your individualized needs.
University licensing for chromebooks
The final consideration for Chromebooks is that they should be licensed by the university; similar to the way that Windows and Mac machines are joined to AD and/or configured by SSCF.
Licensing allows SSCF to track Chromebooks purchased by the Division, and in the event that a Chromebook is lost or stolen it can be remotely locked and wiped. SSCF can also introduce login restrictions to managed Chromebooks (for instance to only allow UCSD accounts to log into the Chromebook), automatically deploy useful extensions, and perform other management tasks as needed.
The Enterprise License costs approximately $33 per Chromebook, and can be found using CDW Part: 3577022. There is a setup process for each Chromebook to associate it with a license that takes about 10 minutes. For small batches of machines your SSCF representative can license them, but the process is easy enough that anyone can complete it if it makes more sense to ship Chromebooks to their intended users rather than sending them through SSCF. Instructions for licensing Chromebooks can be found here: https://sscf.ucsd.edu/pm-tutorials/tutorials/self-license-a-chromebook