Buoyed by Chrome OS success in schools, Lenovo unveils two new Chromebooks

The N20 and N20p models start at $279 and ship this summer

With low-cost Chromebooks catching fire in education settings, Lenovo has expanded its Chromebook line to consumers.

Lenovo announced two consumer-grade clamshell Chromebook models today, each with an 11.6-in. display and running Intel Celeron processors. The Chromebooks go on sale this summer starting at $279.

The new N20p includes a touchscreen with a keyboard that can flex backwards by 300 degrees to convert the Chromebook from laptop mode to standing mode.

"Chromebooks have really taken off with those nice, low price points targeted toward education," Ashley Rodrigue, a Lenovo ambassador, said in an interview. Successful sales of earlier Lenovo clamshells with the Chrome OS prompted Lenovo to produce the new Chromebooks, which are even lower in price than some education models announced in January, and will probably attract some of the most price-conscious schools and consumers, she explained.

The N20 model, selling for $279 starting in July, has a traditional laptop design. The new N20p, selling for $329 starting in August, upgrades on the clamshell concept to include a touchscreen with a physical keyboard that can flex backwards by 300 degrees to convert the device from laptop mode to standing mode.

In standing mode, the N20p lets users watch videos or play games or browse with touch.

Each new Chromebook weighs less than 3 pounds and the 11.6-in. displays offer 1366 x 768-pixel screens.

Each model provides six to eight hours of battery life and will be powered by a Celeron processor, Rodrigue said. Also, each will come with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, 16GB of internal storage and 100 GB of free cloud storage from Google.

Access to cloud storage is essential to the Chromebook concept, which allows the Chrome OS devices to keep data and many apps and services in the cloud through an Internet connection rather than on-board as with traditional laptops. As a result, these new Chromebooks boot in seconds instead of minutes and get automatic and fast updates to apps. Both models will work offline for writing emails on Gmail and while creating documents with Google docs. Users can also open, edit and share Microsoft Word and Excel files with other users on other devices. Remote desktop access to software on other PCs is also possible.

Lenovo announced two other Chromebooks in January, the ThinkPad 11e and the ThinkPad Yoga 11e, which are designed primarily for use in school. Lenovo refers to the N20 and N20p as consumer-grade Chromebooks.

The ThinkPad Yoga 11e, which goes on sale in June for $429, is a clamshell with a touchscreen that converts to a tablet with a keyboard that folds back a full 360 degrees. It can be used as a laptop or tablet, but also can be stood up in a tent mode or a standing mode. It runs either Windows 8.1 or the Chrome OS, and was originally announced for education buyers. Lenovo is now offering it for consumers, as well.

Rodrigue couldn't say whether previous Lenovo Chrome OS models have done better in sales than the Windows models, since the Windows versions started selling earlier.

Lenovo first "had a lot of success" with Chromebooks with the Lenovo ThinkPad X131e, which could either be purchased with the Windows or Chrome OS. "That became the second-best selling ThinkPad," she added.

Lenovo is the largest seller of laptops in the education sector; Chromebooks are now used in 5,000 U.S. schools, with one-third of all laptops used in schools Chromebooks, she said. "We're seeing a large percentage of commercial notebooks going the Chromebook route."

The consumer-grade N20 and N20p are partly a response to the success of Chromebooks within schools, she said.

Some educators have raised reservations about using Chromebooks, which function best with an Internet connection. The problem is that about one in four Americans still don't have broadband Internet connections at home (above 4 Mbps for downloads), which means that educators might save on low-cost Chromebooks for their students, but risk having students go home to a slow, or non-existent, Internet connection.

"With Chromebooks, you are dependent on connectivity and lack of connectivity is certainly a concern," Rodrigue said. "We're seeing now you can still do quite a bit with Chromebooks offline, but that's about 20% of what you can normally do with a [traditional] laptop."

Lenovo has worked to build partnerships with schools and advisory councils to develop more Wi-Fi hotspots for use by students, she said.

Google, which designed the Chrome OS based on Linux and the Chromebook concept, recently said it is interested in providing public, outdoor Wi-Fi to connect to its expanding Google Fiber networks in cities, but whether that directly benefits schools and students is so far unclear.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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