Hands on: Dell Chromebook 13 review

Dell means business

What is a hands on review?
TODO alt text

Our Early Verdict

Designed for business users, Dell brings its enterprise software and tools to Chrome OS so you can use the Chromebook 13 without missing Windows. However, at $399, it's still more expensive than some networks.

For

  • Responsive keyboard
  • Solid metal construction
  • Enterprise support
  • Highly configurable

Against

  • No 1080+ screen option
  • Limited screen tilt
  • No option for built-in 4G
  • Expensive high-end configuration

Unlike rivals, like HP and Acer, that target the mass consumer audience with their Chromebooks, Dell is taking a more niche approach. Dell's Chromebook 11, for example, was aimed at the education market, and this year Dell is back with a larger, more premium Chromebook 13 targeted at enterprise users.

Constructed using premium materials, the Chromebook 13 ($399, £255, AU$542) competes in the same space as the metal-clad Google Chromebook Pixel and Asus' stunning Chromebook Flip. But unlike these consumer-grade offerings, Dell packs its Chromebook 13 with enterprise-grade VPN software, mobile management and deployment tools, virtual desktop software, and powerful specs, said Neil Raggio, Chrome Marketing Director, in an interview ahead of the device's launch.

Design

Not only does the Chromebook 13 come with enterprise-ready software, it also looks the part for the job. The device itself looks like a mashup of Dell's existing products, borrowing the best features from Dell's XPS 13, Latitude 12 7000 Series (E7250) and Inspiron 7000 Series.

Dell uses a woven carbon fiber design on the Chromebook 13's lid, a feature that looks like it was taken directly from the XPS 13 and Latitude to help reinforce and protect the screen. Opening up the lid, you'll find a metal keyboard deck constructed from magnesium alloy with chiclet-style backlit keys. A large glass trackpad is centered with the keyboard.

Keyboard

On the left hand side, you'll find a single USB port, HDMI, headphone and microphone combo jack, SD card reader, and power port. A single USB port and a locking port is found on the right-hand side.

Chromebook 13

To continue its metal build, a sheet of aluminum wraps the undercarriage of the notebook, where you'll also find a set of bottom-firing speakers.

"There is a chasm between the Pixel and cheap, plastic Chromebooks," Raggio said. After examining the market, Dell said that it is applying the same strategy it applied with its education-focused Chromebook 11 to the enterprise market. In executing this strategy, it will give enterprise users the features and specs they demand at an affordable price.

Chromebook 13

The Chromebook's hinge is built into the body, in a design that's very similar to the hinge on a MacBook Pro. Concealed behind the hinge are vents for cooling the laptop. The fan fired up in the hour or so that I tested the Chromebook 13, juggling 10 Chrome browser tabs while running a virtualized Citrix desktop in the background. The fan was very quiet, and I didn't notice it unless I was actively listening for it.

Performance

The Dell Chromebook 13 comes in a few different configurations. Users can choose between an Intel Celeron processor or an Intel Broadwell Core i3 or i5 processor. The Chromebook 13 can be outfitted with 2, 4 or 8GB RAM. You can also choose either a 16GB or 32GB solid state drive, and storage can be augmented with an SD memory card.

Chromebook 13

Even with the power packed in, heat was not a problem in my early testing of the Chromebook 13. The aluminum undercarriage is cool to the touch in my hour-long hands-on testing of the system.

At the highest configuration with an Intel Core i5 processor, 32GB storage and 8GB RAM, the Chromebook 13 is priced at $899, which is just $100 shy of the $999 asked by Google for the Chromebook Pixel. That extra $100 buys you more ports and a higher resolution display.

Dell states that the 6-cell battery will last you 12 hours on a single charge, but we weren't able to verify Dell's claims in our hands-on time with the unit.

Unfortunately, the Chromebook 13 doesn't come with any options to add a 4G LTE modem for wireless connectivity when you're away from a Wi-Fi access point. Dell informed me that this decision was made by Google.

Rajen Sheth, Senior Director of Product Management, Android and Chrome for Business and Education, explained that adding a 4G modem would only increase the cost. Because so many people already have a smartphone with them, Sheth said that users can tether, which would eliminate the need for a separate data plan.

In addition to tethering, Android smartphone owners can also rely on their phones to automatically unlock their Chromebooks when the phone is within close proximity of a Chrome OS device.

Display

The Chromebook 13 comes with two display options. We looked at the 13.3-inch anti-glare non-touchscreen version with a full HD 1080p resolution screen, but Dell will also offer a touchscreen option with the same FHD resolution. The touchscreen option will use Gorilla Glass to protect it from scratches.

In my hands-on time with the Dell Chromebook 13, I found the anti-glare option nice. Under general overhead office lighting, the screen is very comfortable to see, and compared to the touchscreen variant, there is no glare or reflection.

Display

Dell uses an IPS screen on both models, providing for wide viewing angles. This helps to make up for the limited screen recline. Unlike the lay-flat 180-degree hinge on the Chromebook 11, the display doesn't tilt as far back as I'd like on the Chromebook 13, which is unfortunate given that the Asus Chromebook Flip comes with a 360-degree hinge that allows the device to convert into tablet mode.

This only comes into play if you're using the Chromebook 13 on your lap, since the screen doesn't open out wide enough for a comfortable viewing angle. However, you should be fine if you're using the Chromebook 13 on a desk.

Even though the screen's resolution can't compete with the Pixel's high resolution 2,560 x 1,700 display, I didn't have any problems with it. It's sharper than the 720p HD screens found on competing Chromebooks.

The thing I miss from the Chromebook Pixel is the 3:2 aspect ratio of the display, which means I didn't have to scroll as much when viewing longer webpages or Google Sheets spreadsheets. The 16:9 screen on the Dell Chromebook 13 is better for watching videos as there is no letter-boxing at the top and bottom of the display.

Bottom

For watching videos and movies, I found that even though the downward-firing speakers sound clear, retaining good audio fidelity, they weren't particularly loud. You'll definitely want to connect external speakers if you prefer louder volumes when listening to music, podcasts or audiobooks.

Keyboard

Dell says that the Chromebook 13 comes with a full-sized backlit keyboard. Individual keys, however, appear slightly smaller than the keys on my MacBook Pro. In fact, the reduced key size reminds me of the keyboard on the Latitude 12 7000 Series (E7250).

Unlike the Latitude 12 7000 Series, key travel on the Chromebook 13 is a little more shallow. I had initially expected a less ergonomic typing experience with keys that would bottom-out quickly when typing, but thankfully this isn't the case. Dell did a good job with creating clicky, responsive keys that feels comfortable, despite being marginally smaller and with shallow key travel.

Keyboard

One of the features that users of the Chromebook 11 will miss on the Chromebook 13 is that the keyboard is no longer spill-resistant. This is an odd omission for Dell considering that many enterprise notebooks come with a spill-resistant keyboard.

The feature was included on the Chromebook 11 because students are a lot tougher on their devices, said Kirk Schell‎, Vice President and General Manager of Commercial Client Solutions at Dell. Schell expects that enterprise customers will be less harsh on their devices.

To get around not having a sealed keyboard and trackpad, Dell will offer customers the optional ProSupport Plus extended warranty package, which comes with accidental damage protection.

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.