Which of these two rugged Chromebooks is the best buy?
2018 is turning out to be a stellar year for Chromebooks and it's only the beginning of the year. This is even more evident when you look at the "ruggedized" education-focused models and see their prices. You used to need to spend an arm and a leg to get an educational Chromebook, but new products like the ASUS Flip C213 and Lenovo's 500e bring these tough and capable laptops into the $300 range. At that price, buying one is a no-brainer. Choosing which one to buy is a little more difficult.
Let's start by comparing what's the same. The Lenovo 500e and ASUS Flip C213 are both 12-inch Chromebooks (that means they have an 11.6-inch display) designed for the education sector. A Chromebook built for education isn't that different from a standard model outside of how they are constructed. Educational tech hardware needs to be able to help teach the next generation, but it also needs to be able to take a lot more abuse than a standard consumer model does, and both of these products have what it takes to meet those standards:
- MIL-STD-810G compliance
- Spill-resistant keyboard tray
- Rubber bumpers and construction that will survive a fall
Both models run Chrome OS (of course) which isn't subject to a manufacturer's whims when it comes to the user interface, application support, or pre-install applications. You'll see official support with automatic updates direct from Google for at least 6.5 years so a Chromebook you buy today will have the latest version of its software in 2024; long after you've stopped using it. After the AUP (Automatic Update Policy) period has finished, you're free to install Chromium (the free and open-source operating system Chrome OS is based on) for as long as you would like.
One thing the same on every Chromebook is the software and 6.5 years of full support from Google.
Both Chromebooks also have access to all the apps you'll find in Google's Play store, as the Android app framework is now a part of Chrome OS. There is one difference in the software, though. The Lenovo 500e sold through retail channels will still offer the G Suite for Education and Google Classroom support. For most of us this makes little difference, but if you're buying a Chromebook that a student or teacher will be using it would be nice to have access to everything on both a "work" and a personal Chromebook.
They're also pretty similar when it comes to tech specs. You'll find 32GB of storage (eMMC for those interested in the type), an outdated 1366 x 768 display resolution, support for an EMR stylus, a microSD card reader, 4GB of memory and an Intel Apollo Lake processor in each. The last two aren't quite equal, though.
Let's start with the processor. Both are Apollo Lake (Goldmont) Intel Celeron processors. Apollo Lake is Intel's 2016 platform for embedded, mobile, server and light workstation products and they are suited quite well in the coming ARM vs. Intel CPU wars in this segment. The Celeron series has several models to choose from and the N3350 we see in the ASUS C213 is identical to the N3450U inside the Lenovo 500e in some specs: 1.1GHz, 2MB of cache and a TDP of 6 watts. Where they differ is the burst speed and number of cores, with the N3450U in the Lenovo being the superior product with a 2.4GHz burst speed and four cores compared to the 2.2 GHz burst speed and two cores from the N3350 seen in the ASUS.
Both models also feature 4GB of DDR4 RAM thanks to the Intel Goldmont CPU architecture that brings DDR4 and other goodies like USB 3.1 support to mobile processors. But again, things aren't quite equal because the ASUS C213 has 2400MHz RAM and the Lenovo 500e has 1600MHz RAM.
Small differences in specs aside, both of these models have hardware that's very well suited for a premium Chromebook.
It's unfortunate that the better memory isn't inside the Chromebook with the better CPU because that would make deciding which has the better hardware an easy decision. From a performance standpoint, the Lenovo 500e will be better at any task optimized for the x86 Goldmont architecture when it comes to calculations, but the 2400MHz RAM makes the ASUS C213 better when it comes to memory utilization because of the higher clock speed. Chrome OS (and that includes the Android portion) will be optimized for the Intel chip on both models, but I would have to pick the ASUS as having the better hardware because of the faster RAM and the way Chrome uses RAM and sandboxes each process.
But really, this is a complete wash. You would see very little difference in how either of these Chromebooks operates in day-to-day use. Technically the Lenovo can calculate twice as much data per second (even more when the CPU clock is boosted) but the processor isn't going to be the bottleneck here. Ditto for the RAM; the ASUS C213 can swap more data in and out of memory faster because the memory is 25% faster, but the 1600MHz memory in the 500e is more than fast enough. These are Chromebooks. Chrome isn't designed to play intensive 3D games or compile a big software project or render a 50GB 3D CAD file.
Know that either of these models will be a good match form Chrome OS from a hardware perspective, and the minor differences really only matter if you plan to install another OS on them.
Another thing that's always important to consider is the price. Thankfully, both models look good here.
The Lenovo 500e as displayed at the announcement and currently listed on Lenovo's website has a $309 price tag. The ASUS C213 comes in two flavors, and the model that compares with Lenovo's offering can be bought right now at Amazon for $398. These models feature a display that's not only touch-capable but also supports a Wacom EMR pen. If you've never used a stylus with Wacom's EMR technology, know that it's one of the few passive designs that work as well as an active stylus that needs a wireless connection and takes a battery. It's a good thing to have if you think you might want or need stylus support.
All things being equal here, and despite minor differences in the hardware I think they are, the Lenovo is the easy winner if you want a Chromebook with stylus support baked in because the 500e is almost $100 less.
Lenovo also has a model without a stylus, the 300e. It has an ARM CPU instead of the Intel we see in the 500e, but the look, the rugged MIL-STD design, and Chrome software with Classroom apps are the same. For models without a stylus, you'll see the Lenovo 300e at $269 and the ASUS C213 at $299. The ASUS is the better choice because the Intel CPU is worth the extra $30. ARM chips work great for Chrome OS and Android apps, but the Intel will squeeze out a bit more performance.
One thing is certain; seeing consumer sales of these education and enterprise-grade Chromebooks at these low prices is pretty awesome and I certainly hope the trend continues!