The last year has seen some interesting devices start to emerge in the laptop market again as PC manufacturers start to differentiate their machines with cutting edge designs, premium materials and interesting form factors. But the top end of the market is not the only place that is seeing innovations. An area that is also seeing interesting changes is the budget end of the laptop spectrum, and one of the most important of these innovations for schools is an innovation on price.
The Acer E11 is possibly the cheapest full Windows laptop that I have ever used. The price of this machine is approximately $170USD at time of writing, here in Hong Kong it was purchased for a little over $1300HKD. By any measure that is crazy cheap for a laptop and potentially a game changer for schools if it’s any good. But what do you actually get for $170? Surprisingly, quite a lot.
The specs on this machine will be familiar to anyone who has been purchasing Chromebooks for schools recently. It features a Dual Core Intel Celeron processor (not the lowest model either), 2GB of Ram and a (relatively) generous 32GB of storage. Going around the machine the sides are pretty sparse with only a headphone socket, full size SD card reader and a lock port. Acer took all the usual ports and placed them at the rear of the machine. These include USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 ports, HDMI and even an ethernet port.
The screen reminds me of any standard Chromebook display. It’s plenty bright enough but viewing angles and colours leave a little to be desired. The keyboard is not as large as some budget machines but it works okay. The touchpad was surprisingly nice. It claims it is a ‘Precision Touchpad’ on the specsheet and certainly was smooth and accurate. Two finger scrolling was smooth but each scroll didn’t seem to move too far down a website or document, maybe that can be changed in the settings.
Overall performance was pretty good considering the price. Boot up was quick and general moving of files and installing stuff was good. Web pages loaded quickly and didn’t seem to suffer too much with a number of open tabs. Graphics performance also seemed okay for basic 3D tasks. Windows 8.1 that comes pre-loaded on the machine has proved to work absolutely fine on these low power machines and Windows 10 makes the same promises so I don’t see that this machines lower performing CPU is going to render it obsolete anytime soon.
But how does it compare to the plethora of Chromebooks that have seen massive uptake in schools? For me it’s got some advantages but also some disadvantages that put me in a bit of a quandary about which I would get for a school. Of course if your school doesn’t use Google Apps then the Chromebooks wouldn’t be a consideration at all. But we do use Google Apps and services, A LOT. So while the Acer E11 has no issue at all accessing Google Apps and can happily install Google Chrome, it lacks the elegant simplicity that a Chromebook brings in being able to login to any machine and get all your apps, files and settings immediately at your fingertips. It’s a bit of a less talked about advantage of Chromebooks but they really are the best laptops for a shared device environment like a school where any student can pick up any machine and have all their stuff available straight away in any app. But as mentioned before, the E11 has no problem getting to these things, it’s just going to need you to log into your Google services and then log out again afterwards.
Having a full Windows laptop though also carries some large advantages as well, depending of course on what you use in your school. Where I saw this laptop straight away as having more utility is that it can run a few things the Chromebooks cannot. These include some of the local apps for coding and robotics that school are using. I put a few apps on the E11 to demonstrate this. First is GameSalad creator. Now this $170 laptop is able to visually code iOS and Android apps … and it runs it really well. Running Kodu was also not an issue and 3D performance was nicely brisk. Slightly away from coding Minecraft ran ok at lower settings. If schools are using VEX robotics products then this machine is pretty perfect for programming them using Modkit and then students sending their code to the VEX brain over USB. These are all things that we can’t do on a Chromebook.
Of course another thing it can do is to run full Office 365. I have to say that I’m not a big user of Microsoft Office any more and do 99% of my stuff in Google Apps. But for some schools I’m sure it’s a big plus to be able to run Office.
So overall is this laptop worth $170 to schools? I would say resoundingly ‘yes’. Is it better than spending a little bit more to pick up a Chromebook? Well, that is going to entirely depend on what your students spend most of their time doing on laptops and what you want the machines to do. For the majority of students I work with that is Google Apps and Web based tools. But I can certainly see a place for these in a school and maybe even as an addition to our existing Chromebooks for the times we need Windows specific local apps. I’m also pretty excited to get my hands on one of the new Asus and Haier Chromebooks that are coming soon as they should be hitting an even lower price point than this one.