Rugged reinforced lid (with whiteboard). Resists drops. Reversible camera. Carrying handle. Excellent battery life.
Lacks USB-C port. Keyboard isn't backlit. Subpar audio.
- Bottom Line
Your kids will jump for joy—or at least jump up and down on—CTL's super-sturdy chromebook, designed to survive hard knocks and whiteboard scribbles while delivering first-class performance and battery life.
What sets one chromebook apart from another? Processor, memory, and storage? Screen size and resolution? CTL, which specializes in classroom chromebooks, makes a pretty good case for its lid. The back of the display of the CTL NL61TX ($289) doubles as a whiteboard, so your child can doodle or personalize his or her laptop with dry-erase markers. More interesting, the company says the lid can withstand up to 365 pounds of pressure before the screen breaks. Tossing books on top of the system in a desk or backpack? No problem. It's also resistant to short (27-inch) drops and bumps. Kids are likely to love the novelty of scribbling on the lid, and parents will like the durability of this long-lasting, capable chromebook.
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Little White Whale
Thanks to its reinforced lid, the NL61TX measures 0.88 by 11.8 by 8.4 inches (HWD). That's a little on the chunky side, even compared with a convertible like the Dell Chromebook 3189 Education 2-in-1 (0.8 by 12 by 8.2 inches). At 2.75 pounds, however, it's light and easy to carry—some aluminum rivals, like the 2.34-pound Samsung Chromebook Plus and the 2.43-pound Asus Chromebook Flip, are lighter still, but the CTL hides a pull-out carrying handle, just the right size for little hands, between its hinges.
Closed, the laptop looks like a white slab with a matte bottom and reflective or glossy lid. The usual Chrome logo is absent, though there's a tiny CTL logo—the only thing about the system that looks fragile or flimsy, a decal that kids will scratch off in no time—in a corner of the whiteboard panel. Like all whiteboards, it's hard to get the lid completely clean unless you apply a slightly damp sponge as well as a dry cloth or eraser. Opening the lid, you'll see a dark gray keyboard tray and palm rest with black keys and touchpad and a thick, dark gray bezel around the display.
The carrying handle isn't the only trick up the device's sleeve: The webcam centered above the screen can be rotated to face away from the user, snapping pictures of a classroom science experiment or a friend across the cafeteria table. Images, however, are typical webcam fare, tending toward the grainy and prone to wash out or blur fine details, and students might accidentally break the camera by trying to rotate it the wrong way.
So-So Sound, Spiffy Screen and Keyboard
The lack of a USB-C port is unfortunate, but otherwise the CTL's connectivity is exemplary: On the laptop's left side, you'll find a connector for the pocket-sized AC adapter, an HDMI port, a USB 3.0 port, an audio jack, and an SD card slot. The right edge holds another USB 3.0 port and a Kensington lock slot. Bluetooth and 802.11ac Wi-Fi wireless are standard. Miniscule speakers on either side of the system produce tinny, strangled sound.
From the search instead of Caps Lock key to the browser and system control keys (back, forward, refresh, brightness, and volume) in the top row, the NL61TX's keyboard is standard chromebook fare. As usual, Windows users will miss Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys (there are Mac-style Ctrl- and Alt-key combinations with the cursor arrows), but once you master those you'll enjoy a crisp, quick typing feel, with adequate travel and springy feedback. The touchpad glides and responds to one- and two-finger taps smoothly.
Though a conventional clamshell rather than a laptop/tablet convertible, the CTL features an 11.6-inch IPS touch screen (an equally sturdy non-touch model, the NL61X, is $259). The screen's size and 1,366-by-768 resolution are standard for entry-level laptops, but are executed here about as well as they can be. Thanks to IPS technology, colors are vivid and viewing angles are broad, with sharp focus and high contrast (although it's a shame to turn the brightness down to gray-white for battery life's sake). YouTube videos were a pleasure to watch and Chrome OS games were sunny and charming. The touch screen works perfectly for scrolling and pinch to zoom.
All-Day Computing and More
The NL61TX comes packed with a 1.6GHz (2.24GHz turbo) quad-core Intel Celeron CPU with integrated graphics, 4GB of RAM, and 32GB of eMMC flash storage—ample hardware for a chromebook, designed to work with Google Docs, Office Online, and other documents kept in the cloud. (Like its peers, the system is eligible for a free 100GB of Google Drive space for two years.)
Chromebooks can't run our usual array of Windows benchmark tests, but the CTL and its Celeron CPU and 4GB of memory provided a more than satisfactory performance platform in subjective use, starting up and loading browser tabs swiftly and multitasking with a dozen tabs open without a hitch. In the one test that chromebooks do share with Windows laptops, our video-playback battery rundown, the CTL lasted for an impressive 12 hours and 30 minutes—more than three and a half hours longer than the Samsung Chromebook Plus and two hours longer than the Editors' Choice Asus Chromebook Flip.
The system also lasted through both our standing on the lid and a dozen knocks and drops from an altitude of a couple of feet, or lap height, onto a carpeted floor. Unfortunately, like the Lenovo Flex 11 Chromebook, it earns only partial credit for its claim of surviving liquid spills—when we splashed a glass of water onto and towel-dried the NL61TX, it kept running (and Google Docs' "email this document" function salvaged this review), but it wouldn't launch the Files app or complete two downloads. Turning the system off and giving it a couple of hours to dry restored it to health.
You shouldn't deliberately tempt fate or try to crush or drown the CTL as we did, but it's worth noting that the NL61TX comes with a year's warranty against accidental damage. (It's a mail-in or depot warranty; various extra-cost options let you extend the warranty to two or three years or have CTL pay for shipping.)
Built for Abuse
Should you (or your school district, if you're a volume buyer) pursue the NL61TX? It's easy to say yes: Unless you're looking for a larger-screened or convertible chromebook, the CTL is not only rugged, but capable and unique. If you're looking for more performance and less durability, and don't mind spending another $200, the Asus Chromebook Flip is our top pick.
Other Computer Technology Link Corporation (CTL) Laptops & Notebooks
By Eric Grevstad Contributing Editor
Formerly editor-in-chief of Home Office Computing, Eric Grevstad is a contributing editor for PCMag and Computer Shopper, where he earlier served as lead laptop analyst and executive editor, respectively. A tech journalist since the TRS-80 and Apple II days, Grevstad specializes in lightweight laptops, all-in-one desktops, and productivity software, all of which he uses when commuting and telecommuting between PC Labs and a cat-filled home office in Old Greenwich, CT. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @EricGrevstad…. More »
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