Attack of the Chromes: a Google Apps adventure begins

dell-chromebook-11
I’ve been watching the growth of Google’s Chrome OS for some time now – scarily about 4 years have gone by since they first appeared on the radar.

Recently I had the chance to get some in to work with first-hand as part of our STEM Centre project. It’s a new modern learning space and part of that vision involves the effective use of mobile devices.

Dell Chromebook 11 ready for action

Why Chromebooks?

There’s no denying the price point and simplicity of the Chromebook model so even though we’re an Office 365 site at present it would be foolish not to try the Google platform, especially with many of our courses already using online resources via Moodle and similar web platforms. This post covers our first steps along the way and a couple of tips and tricks to get you started if you’re in a similar position 🙂

The Chromebook is an interesting product for education and one that’s been discussed at length over at the Edugeek forums. First revisions of the platform weren’t quite there but looking at Chrome OS now it’s a lot more mature in terms of both concept and implementation. The hardware available has also moved up a level in terms of performance and quality as manufacturers have perhaps shown more faith in the Chrome OS platform.

One interesting point from the past that still hasn’t quite been resolved is Android vs Chrome OS, as it stands still two separate products but with some interesting convergence ideas showing through. On one head there’s ARC Welder allowing Android apps to run in Chrome and then there’s the Microsoft Surface-inspired Pixel C hybrid that could be an effective vehicle for either platform. Just to add another option into the mix you can also now get touch-screen Chromebooks (!)

Which device?

After a video conference with our Google Account Manager to discuss the platform in more detail we decided to get a couple of different devices in on trial. This included the HP Chromebook 11 and 14, plus the Dell Chromebook 11. The latter is particularly interesting as it’s built with the education market in mind and should be a bit more robust in the long term, as proven by this teardown article that pitches the Dell device against the equivalent Acer model:

Ref: http://www.edlisten.com/2014/04/dell-11-vs-acer-720-chromebook.html

One word of advice that we were given is to pay the little bit extra for a 4GB RAM model to avoid performance issues when browsing media-rich sites and \ or using multiple tabs. Thus far the Dell Chromebook 11’s haven’t skipped a beat in use thus far so I’d agree with this recommendation.

Ref: http://thewirecutter.com/reviews/best-chromebook/

The HP G3 14″ is an interesting device for its larger screen size, although from reading around I had some performance doubts related to the ARM Tegra processor. We’re not yet sure if 11″ is enough screen estate for students to work comfortably but the pilot projects will give us some feedback on that front. A 13″ device would be ideal, Dell are launching one but it looks somewhat more expensive than the 11″ version and aimed more at business customers.

In the end we bought in 6 Dell Chromebook 11’s from Haptic Networks to use in the STEM centre alongside a parallel trial of Microsoft Surface 3 tablets (more on that another time).

Thus far the people I’ve shown them to have been impressed by their lightweight sturdy build and solid keyboard (something that’s not quite up to the same standard on the HP devices). Battery life also looks very promising.

The only gripe I have with the Dell units is the fact someone, in their infinite wisdom decided to place a grinning lizard as a non-configurable logon screen wallpaper. There’s currently no way to change it from the Chrome admin console and it seems Dell aren’t too bothered about providing a solution either. I’m just glad the logon box covers up most of the image but even so… a lizard… why?!

Getting started tips and tricks

Although Chromebooks are pretty simple to get up and running using the online management portal there’s a couple of tips I’ll share from my initial experiences

Update in Guest Mode before doing anything else

Although our batch of Dells arrived in one shipment they all had different versions of Chrome OS installed where they’d been produced at different times. The visual differences are subtle but noticeable when all running side by side.

The quickest way I’ve found to get them up to date is to log in using the Guest mode option, preferably on a direct Internet connection then navigate to this URL in the browser:

chrome://chrome

Of course you can do this through the menu but this is so much quicker than pointing and clicking 😉
On two of our devices with the oldest out-the-box OS versions the first update run didn’t get them up to the newest Chrome OS so you may need to repeat the process.

Retrieving device MAC addresses

You may need to retrieve the MAC address of the devices for your Wi-Fi system or asset management records. The GUI way of doing this is a bit click-heavy and requires you to be connected to a network first. Alternatively you can do it a quicker way:

  1. in the browser navigate to chrome://system
  2. do a CTRL+F on the page and search for ifconfig
  3. the MAC address is listed under HWaddr

Resetting a device ready for enrolment

If you receive your Chromebooks before having completed your Google Apps registration it can be tempting to sign into the Chromebook with a consumer Google Account to try them out. This works OK until you then try to enrol the Chromebook as a managed device, at which point it promptly fails as per Google’s documentation below. The KB article also explains how to completely wipe the device using Developer Mode so you can repeat the out-of-box setup process.

Ref: https://support.google.com/chrome/a/answer/1360642?hl=en

Enrolling a device is simple using a keyboard shortcut that will soon become muscle memory CTRL + ALT + E

Ref: https://support.google.com/chrome/a/answer/1360534

Proxy problems

unnamedA page about cloud services wouldn’t be complete without a proxy-related caveat and the Chromebooks are no exception. Initially none of them connected after they switched networks from the direct-connected (NAT) temporary SSID I’d used for setup to the proxied one defined in the policy manager.

My first thought was to switch from Auto Detection using WPAD to a manually-specified proxy address. That change worked wonders almost immediately and I soon had login screens instead of connection failed errors… apart from two devices…

After putting all 6 Chromebooks in a line and rebooting them at the same time I soon found the same two devices failed every time. As far as I knew everything had been updated so it didn’t initially make sense why two were behaving differently from the rest.

After double-checking the Chrome OS versions it then became apparent two hadn’t fully updated and were sitting on Chrome OS 45.x instead of the new 46.x release. After moving them back onto the direct connection for another round of updates they then started behaving.

Moral of the story comes back to my first bit of advice: update, update, update!

It’s also worth running the Chrome Connectivity Diagnostics app on your devices if you suspect any network-related issues:

Ref: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/chrome-connectivity-diagn/eemlkeanncmjljgehlbplemhmdmalhdc?hl=en

Next steps

Now the devices are up and running we need to start provisioning users into the Google Apps tenancy. For that we’ll need to install and configure GADS and GAPS to sync users and passwords from Active Directory. For now Gmail has been turned off until a decision is made about where email lives in future (as it’s not something we’d change part-way through an academic year).

Now just a matter of waiting for some initial user feedback to see how they get on with the Chromebooks and in what contexts they become an effective learning tool 🙂

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