Lenovo gives Chrome OS a try with Chromebook for Schools

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In perhaps a sign that Chrome OS hasn’t been a failure, Lenovo plans to release its first Chromebook laptop, which it calls a “rugged” model for K-12 schools.

Before now, only Acer and Samsung have offered computers based on Google’s Web-based operating system. Their first Chromebooks launched in 2011, and both companies released new models late last year, including a $200 laptop from Acer and a $250 laptop from Samsung.

Lenovo’s ThinkPad X131e Chromebook

Lenovo’s newly unveiled ThinkPad X131e Chromebook runs on an Intel processor (no word on which one) and has an 11.6-inch, 1366-by-768 resolution LED display. It also has three USB ports, HDMI output and VGA output. A blog post from Google says the X131e lasts 6.5 hours on a charge, and it weighs about four pounds. A bumper for the top cover, stronger corners, and reinforced hinges account for the laptop’s rugged design.

Lenovo only plans to sell its Chromebook to schools at volume bid pricing of $429 and up, starting February 26. The company hasn’t said whether it’ll release any Chromebooks for consumers.

It’s nearly impossible to write about Chromebooks without discussing why they should exist. The common argument against these machines is that similar Windows laptops can be had for roughly the same price without restricting you to a computer that only runs Google’s Chrome browser and can’t install any other software.

My feeling has been that Chromebooks—or the really good ones, at least—provide an Apple-like experience at a fraction of the cost. No, you can’t find all the applications you might want in a Web browser, just like you can’t get Microsoft Office on an iPad or play all your favorite computer games on a MacBook. But the Chromebook performs its core function of Web browsing very well, and a lot of the little things—weight, thickness, boot times and quality of the keyboard and trackpad—are better than what you’d get on a comparably-priced Windows machine.

I know this from experience, having purchased Samsung’s $450 Series 5 550 Chromebook late last year. I brought it with me to CES 2013 last week, and used it as my primary laptop to carry around and to file stories from the show floor. It always booted up quickly, was light on my shoulder and was a pleasure to type on. Not all Chromebooks are as well-suited for the task—Acer’s $200 model, with its bulky construction and three-hour battery, is a bit puzzling to me—but the $450 model was a great travel laptop. I can’t say the same for most sub-$500 Windows machines.

Also, price is a consideration. Lenovo’s Windows-based X131e, for instance, starts at $539. Schools could some money by getting Chromebooks instead, and they won’t have to worry about viruses or deal with installed software.

It’s unclear if Lenovo plans to do more with Chromebooks in the future, but there are rumors of a Chromebook with a touch screen in development (though rumors of a late 2012 launch didn’t pan out). Maybe Lenovo, with its many experiments in convertible Windows 8 machines, would be a good candidate to release one.

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