Pick a Repairable Laptop for School, Not a Chromebook
Product Design

Pick a Repairable Laptop for School, Not a Chromebook

When you buy a new laptop for school, you’ve got a lot of things to worry about: Will it let you do all your schoolwork? Does it fit in your budget? Does it fit in your backpack? You probably don’t think to check whether it’s still receiving security updates. If it’s new, of course it is… right? 

Unfortunately, if you’re buying a Chromebook, you shouldn’t assume your device will remain secure. You can buy a brand-new Chromebook that Google has already marked obsolete. A Public Interest Research Group report found this month that eight newly expired Chromebook models are still available for sale on Amazon. 

Every Chromebook has a built-in Auto Update Expiration date, which is a certain number of years after the model was first placed on the market. After its date of expiration, that model will no longer receive automatic Chrome OS updates. These updates include security patches, bug fixes, and new features—leaving the Chromebook more vulnerable to security threats and making it impossible to run software or websites that require the latest version of Chrome OS. Okay, sure, nobody expects a manufacturer to support their stuff forever, you might say. But because AUE dates are based on the first time a Chromebook is sold, even brand-new units may be past their expiration date.

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Repair guides for many brands of Chromebook computer.

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This expiration can cause real problems for educators and students. Some schools have found that their students’ expired Chromebooks can’t access state testing sites, Lucas Gutterman of PIRG said in a report on educational Chromebook churn, published as part of the Designed to Last Campaign he directs. “We expect milk to expire, but not laptops,” Gutterman quipped.

The low price of Chromebooks is tempting to students, parents, and schools around the world. Nearly six million Chromebooks were sold last quarter—sales driven by “a strong demand in the education sector in the US,” according to Canalys research analyst Kieren Jessop. Lots of schools have already placed their orders for technology for fall, and many schools in the US have chosen to use pandemic education funding on Chromebooks. Who can blame them, working on shoestring budgets, always trying to do more with less? Still, AUE dates mean that schools may find their laptop fleets are insecure a lot sooner than expected.

In some cases, tech-savvy school districts can get around AUE dates by installing alternative operating systems such as Cloudready or Linux on expired Chromebooks. Of course, not all Chromebook hardware allows for this, and not all school IT departments are prepared to manage a fleet of Linux machines—though Fixit Clinic’s Peter Mui has offered support to any schools that are ready to take the leap.

Several years into this pandemic Chromebook boom, however, schools are starting to find that Chromebooks’ longevity problems extend beyond AUE dates. Students in the Chromebook repair internship program in the Oakland Unified School District fixed 3,353 Chromebooks in the first summer of the pandemic—but they had to send more than 8,330 laptops to e-waste recycling due to hardware issues. As students worked through the laptop carts, they were only able to save about two in five devices. Some have batteries and bezels secured with industrial-strength adhesive, or plastic clips that are easy to break. 

Not all Chromebooks allow you to replace a keyboard, but it’s possible in this Lenovo N22. Even better when the keyboard can be released from the top case for replacement, as in the Dell Chromebook 11 3180 (featured in the header image above). Better still when you can replace individual keycaps.

Plus, as Chromebooks get older, finding parts for them becomes harder and harder. iFixit users complain about not being able to find parts like charging ports and hinges. Students are frequently forced to cannibalize parts from other devices. This process works for parts that go bad rarely, but there often aren’t enough screens and batteries to go around. Chromebook batteries generally last about 400 cycles, which most students will hit within a school year or two.

Still, training students to fix Chromebooks is one of the most cost-effective ways to keep them working as long as possible, and many schools have started similar programs inspired by the Oakland model. Lockport Township High School in Illinois is currently training their third crew of student Chromebook repair technicians. (If you’ve got a program like this, FYI, we offer volume discounts for schools purchasing a large quantity of Chromebook parts.)

Google, to their credit, has started to make some moves toward better repairability for Chromebooks. They’ve made a Chromebook repairability page, where they link repair manuals and parts for some models of Chromebook (it’s dependent on manufacturers being willing to participate, and so far only Acer, CTL, and Lenovo have agreed). And they have a guide for schools that want to set up their own Chromebook repair programs.

But these moves don’t go far enough, according to Gutterman: “While Google has taken steps to increase expiration dates, these changes still fall short of what is needed to reduce e-waste. No school should have to stop using a laptop that still works, just because it’s reached its ‘death date.’”

If you’re thinking about buying a Chromebook for your own schoolwork or en masse for your school, there are some things you should consider:

  1. When is the AUE date for the laptop you’re considering? Will it last you the whole time you’re in school?
  2. Are there repair parts available? What’ll happen if your screen bezel cracks, or a keycap falls off?
  3. Can you get a replacement battery? Are there instructions for DIY install? 

Remember that behind the price tag of a cheap laptop are hidden costs for repair (and, if that fails, replacing the entire device). Ultimately, it may be worth putting in a little more money now and getting a laptop that will see you past your freshman year.

We’ve got some advice on picking a college laptop for some more-repairable suggestions.