Academic Technology @ Palomar College

Low-end Web Computers

HP Omni120tHouston, we have a problem.  We have lots and lots of highly capable PCs on their way out of warranty, and no well defined budget with which to replace them.  Furthermore, technology is sprinting to web-based mobile-compatible platforms (iOS, Android) that make our PCs look and behave like dinosaurs.  On top of that, the PCs were purchased for the computing standards of another era, where bloatware was the rule and web-based applications did not exist.

I propose a solution, of sorts, that makes the distinction between web users and desktop users.  The vast majority of students in our computer lab (at Palomar College rooms LL-103, 104, and 109, the largest labs on campus and only full-time public access labs) are web users.  If you stroll about the aisles you will see students working on Blackboard, using student eServices, using Facebook and YouTube, doing research (or just surfing the web) and once in a while, you will see them using Word to type a paper, or creating a PowerPoint presentation for class.  My point is the vast majority of their activity is web-based.

What you rarely, if ever, see them doing is burning DVDs, using Adobe creation products like Photoshop, Flash, Illustrator, recording audio, editing video, or processing sophisticated spreadsheets, yet we pay huge licensing fees for programs like Office and the Adobe creative suite.

If we could find a computer that could be run with an operating system and a single application—a browser—and if it could be show that it meets the majority of student needs, it would make sense to replace the battleships in at least one of our labs with these lower cost units.  I do believe computing is moving to the cloud, as they say, and would like to do an experiment to verify that in one of the labs.

The computer I have in mind would have to:

  • Run a browser that supports javascript, it goes without saying, but NOT Internet Explorer.  IE causes us more problems than any other piece of software we use;
  • The browser (Firefox would be my choice, but Chrome would be a good alternate—from our support experience these are the most trouble free browsers) would have to support plugins for Flash, Silverlight, Java, Google Earth, Adobe Reader and QuickTime.  Wait, aren’t some of these old technology?  Yes, but a) after day 1 there is no such thing as new technology; and b) Palomar has a huge investment in media and databases that require these systems and it would be foolhardy to abandon them.  For this reason iOS and Android devices, as cool and now as they are, are ruled out.  For an operating system I would recommend Windows 7 with an upgrade path to Windows 8 next year.  Apple hardware is just too expensive to consider, though I like OS X; and Linux is too far outside the skill set of the techs on campus to make it a wise choice.
  • Have audio processing capabilities (i.e., an integrated sound card);
  • Have a decent high resolution video display;
  • Have at least 2 free USB 2.0 or better 3.0 ports;
  • An Ethernet port or a wireless N card, though we would have to be sure our wireless network was up to processing a multi-computer lab;
  • Have a keyboard and mouse, of course;
  • Have a small but adequate hard drive (on low-end machines I suspect we will not be able to say what size the hard drive should be—it only needs to hold the the OS and browser, but 500GB these days is about minimum);
  • Have about 4GB of RAM;
  • Be energy star compliant.

We will not need to install Office, because Office is on the web now, free.  Many students will prefer Google Docs, which is also free.  Storage for student data is also free, via dropbox, box, skydrive, gmail, or by any number of other similar services, and these services have the advantage of syncing with student home and mobile computing platforms.

We will also not need Adobe creative suites, because web-based graphics, audio and video editing are now possible through Aviary and a number of other really well executed web services.  The era of software and hardware as a service (SaaS and HaaS) is here and we ought to be taking advantage of it.

I am not advocating converting the entire computer population of our labs to this configuration, since some students will be taking creative, content producing classes in Office and Adobe products, and need a place to do their homework.  But for the vast majority of students, they will be able to accomplish their work just fine on the computer platform I have in mind, and I hope it will reduce the cost of computing by around 2/3 or more per unit.

I’ve done a little shopping, and here are the computers I am now considering.

The HP Omni 120T – a nice all-in-one unit that fills the bill.  It has a DVD burner, which we don’t need, but you can’t get rid of it.  I have a question about how capable its integrated graphics might be, but it is worth looking at.  List price: $549, though we could probably do better buying in volume.

The Gateway ZX6961-UB21P, price from vendor $599, found at $502 on Internet; or any one of a number lower cost Gateway Towers, like the Gateway SX 2850-33, which list for $549 but I have seen as low as $388.

The Asus ASUS All-in-One PC ET2011ET – P E5800, list $599 from CDW, but we can probably find a slightly better price.

The Lenovo ThinkCentre A70z 0401 – P E5700, at $499 at CDW, but I would like to see it bumped up to 4GB RAM.

The four computers listed above are all-in-ones.  I like the idea of all-in-ones because a) it gives our long suffering, crammed together students some leg room for a change, and b) the display will be new and crisp, rather than buying a low-end desktop, which we can get for under $400, and using some of the crappy ole Dell matte-finish monitors we have.  Remember, these computers are for web interface and information consumption.  I believe that if the picture looks good students will want to use them.  Students are a graphical bunch, as are all humans.

What about warranties?  These computers all come with a 1-year warranty.  I think it is time we took a new look at our policy on warranties.  It’s nice to have a five year warranty and if anything goes wrong call Dell and tell them to fix it.  But that luxury comes at a high price.  I think it is wiser to take a look at the published mean time to failure on the unit we decide to buy, and multiply it by the number of computers we are purchasing, figuring a percentage that will fail within x years.  This number is almost certainly going to be much lower than the cost of the warranty—that’s how warranty vendors make money, after all.  These workstations are so cheap that I think it makes more sense to buy some spares and replace the lemons rather than sinking a lot of money into useless warranties.  I don’t know what the campus failure rate of the current crop of Dell computers we have invested in is, but from the experience we have had with our labs I would say it is very low indeed, below 2%.  I’m sure we could easily have purchased a couple extras for replacements, and saved all that warranty money.  Any computer will come with a 1-year warranty, proof against a crop of lemons, and beyond that I say play the percentages.

What about anti-virus?  We already license Symantec, but there again we are probably wasting money.  AVG or Microsoft Security Essentials works just fine, and are free.

We discussed this issue at our Technology Planning meeting yesterday, and my fellow technologists all took the idea seriously, I am happy to report.

If you know of computer platforms we should consider, I would appreciate hearing about it.  It’s time to bear down and see what we can do to replace student technology with affordable, modern platforms that take advantage of the new cloud and web-based services while at the same time saving the District some money.

3 Responses to “ “Low-end Web Computers”

  1. Katie says:

    Hey Terry!

    You KNOW I love this idea–

    I told you that I always share your wonderful blogs with my husband–he asks this “As Windows is a significant licensing cost, wouldn”t it also be more cost effective to use Linux, which is, in reality, incredibly easy to install.” He says that in his experience the Ubuntu installer is actually much easier to use than Windows. Of couse the desktop is laid out slightly differently, but not by much. More from him “Maybe try setting up one machine to test your sense that it is too hard first . . .

    Thanks for being a thought leader on this!

    • Terry Gray says:

      I think Linux would be a good solution, but many on campus would disagree and I think it better to get things going in the right direction and then refine later once they are established. Too many variables at first adoption invites dissension. Furthermore, we have a site license for Windows, for as many workstations as we have and, it seems impossible to purchase a cheap computer from a name vendor that doesn”t already include Windows. Often there is no option to remove the OS. Finally, I am keen to find out what will happen with Windows 8 and the so called MS app initiative, and don”t want to preclude it by making a hasty decision from the get go.

  2. I don”t know about AVG but we would not be able to use Microsoft Security Essentials due to licensing restrictions. “Microsoft Security Essentials is available for small businesses with up to 10 PCs. If your business has more than 10 PCs, you can protect them with Microsoft Forefront Endpoint Protection.” – http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows/products/security-essentials

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