Chromebooks for schools are generally sold out: Here are 3 options to get students online

I’m getting hammered with Google News story alerts about school district after school district unable to get enough Chromebooks for virtual learning. And checking Chromebook inventory at typical retail outlets basically confirms from that perspective: Most Chromebooks are simply sold out. Don’t panic though: There are some ways to get your students online and productive in what are typically Chromebook-based districts.

Install Neverware CloudReady on an old computer

Image courtesy NeverWare

Neverware has made a name for itself by creating its own Chrome OS environment that can be downloaded and installed on non-Chromebooks. In fact, many people who still have old Chromebooks that no longer get software updates turn to CloudReady which actually does keep their device up to date for the most part.

Neverware’s CloudReady is free for home use and is relatively easy to download an install. I won’t cover the process here as you should first check device compatibility and follow the official instructions. Note that if CloudReady hasn’t been officially tested on your particular old hardware, there’s a good chance that it will work just fine. So it’s definitely worth the try.

Once CloudReady is installed, your student will have essentially the same Chrome OS experience as any Chromebook. That means the same user interface and most features on a traditional Chromebook. That means the software will look and behave just like Chrome OS for all Google services such as Docs, Meet and Gmail.

Purchase a low-cost Raspberry Pi for a student desktop

While Chromebooks are hard to come by, the relatively low cost Raspberry Pi computers are readily available. I’d recommend the latest Raspberry Pi 4B with at least 4 GB of memory, which by itself costs as little as $42 on Amazon right now. This is just a basic computing board; you’ll also need your own microSD card, USB or Bluetooth keyboard, mouse and monitor but if you have any of these lying around, they should work with with the Pi.

If you want a full kit with a case, cooling fan (it’s not a necessity but nice to have), memory card, cables and power supply, I recommend this CanaKit bundle for just under $100. I have two of these for various projects and they work well.

Keep in mind that this is a small, Linux-based computer that runs on a chip typically used for smartphones. So it won’t be as powerful as a standard Chromebook. It also comes with the Firefox browser, which should work fine with Google services at your local school, although you can install Chromium, which is the open sourced version of Chrome.

This will be fine for getting things done although it can be hit or miss when it comes to videoconferencing. Google Hangouts and Meet reportedly work fine with an optional USB webcam, preferably with integrated speakers and microphone, else you’ll have to add those too, but not so much for Zoom. It might be worth considering using a tablet or smartphone you have on hand for synchronous learning: Students can participate in video conferences on the secondary device and get work done on the Pi.

Pay a premium for an actual Chromebook

I hate to suggest this because I don’t like to see people spending more than they need to. But I’m adding it because some people may feel that even an overpriced Chromebook is better than a student with no Chromebook.

While the big box stores may be out of stock when it comes to Chromebook inventory, I have seen some Chromebooks in stock if you’re willing to pay a premium. I’m not going to suggest specific options here but recommend doing a Google Shopping search for various Chromebooks.

When I do that I see various third-party resellers with inventory but with premium pricing. Some of the premiums are as low as 10 percent, which in the case of a pandemic situation, may be worth paying. Others are ridiculous amounts, practically doubling the cost of even very old Chromebooks. So search far and wide, comparing the premium prices, as well as shipment dates, against current MSRPs of Chromebooks.

Keep in mind that any old Mac or Windows computer you might have gathering dust should be able to run a browser and likely even video conferencing software. So if you’ve got any hardware that still works, even if it’s several years old, bringing it back to life for basic browsing and online studies should do the trick here until Chromebook supply catches up to demand.

6 thoughts on “Chromebooks for schools are generally sold out: Here are 3 options to get students online

  • September 1, 2020 at 11:04 am
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    Running an old Windows computer might pose a problem because it may attempt to download updates and attempt to install the current Windows 10 OS when it connects to the Internet. And the ensuing ordeal would likely make that option more trouble than it’s worth. However, another option may be to look for refurbished Chromebooks on Amazon, eBay, Best Buy, B&H Photo, etc. Also, I have an old Chromebook that still works fine despite being past its AUE date. I just don’t know whether to recommend for or against using a Chromebook past its AUE date on a short term basis. I wish that I could recommend looking for a Chromebox because those seem to be readily available. It’s a very, very good performance option that’s probably too costly to recommend and that, like the Raspberry Pi option, doesn’t lend itself to mobility.

    Reply
    • September 1, 2020 at 11:08 am
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      Windows 10 does allow you to set “online time” which is any block of start and end times where it won’t check for updates. I see that on the gaming PC I built this summer. So that’s pretty much a non-issue now. It even suggests those times based on your usage. Yup, refurbs are another great option as are Chromeboxes, which can be had for under $300 and can handle whatever tasks a student might need. Mobility seems to be less of a challenge to me since kids are home if they’re in a virtual learning environment.

      Reply
  • September 1, 2020 at 11:24 am
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    Just for the record whilst CloudReady from Neverware can be put on Chromebooks (which involves opening up to remove a write protect screw and installing a new BIOS) Neverware in no shape or form officially support this. I help on the support forum and we get a few people upset when things go wrong.

    CloudReady is brilliant but can be tricky to install at times whether that be on PC, Mac or Chromebook. It’s easiest to install on PCs and Macs than Chromebooks though, no write protect screw to remove and generally no or few BIOS changes.

    Also no Playstore Apps on CloudReady.

    Raspberry Pi are great but too slow in my experience.

    Best reliable solution will to be install Linux of some shape or form, it’s not so hard to use these days, especially if you stick to browser based things.

    The real best solution is just to buy a Chromebook, money talks, lol.

    Reply
    • September 1, 2020 at 11:32 am
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      All great points, James. Thanks for the deeper dive into the challenges of installing CloudReady on a Chromebook!

      Reply
  • September 1, 2020 at 11:47 am
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    I had a 2011 MacBook Pro that was basically non-functional due to the SBBOD (spinning beach ball of death) as result of the old hardware being overtaxed by each new Mac OS. It was finally was completely overwhelmed by High Sierra. I wiped the Mac OS and installed Ubuntu 20.04, so it is now a pure LInux computer running chromium-browser, the open source version of Chrome. If you don’t have an old Mac like this, you can probably find one on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace for somewhere around $50. I love playing with my rPi 4 but the Ubuntu 20.04 computer has a 500 GB hard drive, an Apple Superdrive, a built-in camera, and tons of free software such as LibreOffice. I just checked and Neverware can be installed on LInux, so maybe get a geek neighbor to do that for you so you don’t have to deal with the terminal, although the Gnome desktop on 20.04 is really quite user friendly. This solution is miles ahead of using the rPi for less money.

    Reply
  • September 2, 2020 at 6:12 am
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    My understanding is that the Chromebook shortage is because 1. factories are struggling to catch up after the initial lockdowns and 2. there is a shortage of a particular chip. I’m guessing most Chinese factories should be back to somewhere close to full capacity.

    With that in mind are there any indications of when supply will be able to more than cover demand?

    Reply

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