Los Angeles, CA (FOX11) - I was in love with the original Chromebook Pixel from the first moment I got my hands on it. It was the model of form and function, a harbinger of the awesomeness to come from ChromeOS, and more mature “apps” for that ecosystem. But, other than that, not much has excited me in that market segment until now. The Chromebook 13 from Dell will feel familiar if you’ve also had the chance to get your hands on the XPS 13. It’s a Chromebook squarely aimed at professionals, with a premium feel, a great looking screen and the horsepower options to keep things speedy.
You can check out our video review below. Full specs are in the text review.
When you unbox Dell’s new Chromebook 13, you’re immediately greeted by something that not only looks premium, but feels that way. A bright, vibrant Chrome logo set against an ebony lid with a carbon fiber weave gives the 13 a textured look that is- at the same time- both understated professional kit, and a standout. In the field of Chromebooks with mostly low resolution screens, the other thing that stands out about Dell’s latest offering hits you once you power the device on. The unit I’m reviewing has a 13.3” anti-glare (THANK YOU!) display with a 1920X1080 resolution and it doesn’t disappoint. Dell also has a model with touch and Gorilla Glass on offer, if you want to spend a little extra.
The good looking display is powered by Intel’s HD Graphics GT1 in my review unit. It’s equipped with the ultra low-voltage entry-level, Celeron 3205U, based on the Broadwell architecture and running two cores at 1.50 GHz. There are options for a 2 GHZ Core i3 and 2.90 GHz Core i5 as well and while no one would argue that having the most processing power you can at your fingertips is never a bad thing, the Celeron powered unit I’ve been working with for the last 30 days has taken everything I’ve thrown at it and handled each task with aplomb. Speaking of “aplomb,” any pictures you may take, or videos you capture will be stored on the 16GB solid state drive which is only a small amount of space unless you consider that when using the laptop to process photos you can have it set to automatically upload all of your photos to Google Photos in the background. You’ll have the horsepower to handle that, at speed, with dual band 802.11AC Wi-Fi built in. Rounding out the wireless array is Bluetooth 4.0 low energy. In my use in multiple locations, the Wi-Fi performed as expected and never slowed.
The Chromebook 13 comes with a few ports to help you access external media and accessories but the amount of ports, or lack thereof, is the compromise you make for size. You get one USB 3.0, one USB 2.0 and one HDMI 1.4 port. For adding media you also get a microSD slot, and rounding out the ports, a stereo headphone/microphone combo jack. My only complaint beyond not having more ports (though, admittedly, I don’t think they’re necessary) is the use of a microSD slot instead of a full-size SD slot. I really hope this doesn’t become a trend among manufacturers.
The chassis of the Chromebook 13 is magnesium alloy and adds to the robust feel the laptop has. Marketing the unit to business professionals means putting out a device that is going to last, stand up to some serious road warrior abuse and come back asking for more. There’s no creak or flex to the laptop when fully closed, or open and though it is seriously light kit, it doesn’t feel cheap or flimsy at all. That’s a boon to a device that is being released in a market where many of its competitors feel “plasticky” with a bit of flex or creak. Matter of fact, that’s the primary complaint I’ve heard from users of Chromebooks, plasticky.
One of the questions Chromebook owners who have a bit of tech savvy often ask is, "Can I replace the solid state drive (SSD) in this Chromebook?" The answer is, "yes." The current SSD is an M.2 module (those are readily available in the marketplace) and while Dell doesn't consider it "end user serviceable" you should be able to update to a larger drive just fine. As always, caveat emptor, whatever you put in there won't be supported by Dell.
Dell's Chromebook Experience
I’ve had the opportunity to sample various Chromebooks over the last few years, even purchasing one for my own children. For me, they’ve always been a compromise of price over quality and power. I mean, sure they’re powerful enough for what they’re generally tasked to accomplish and I’ve not had to spend one iota of time wiping my sons’ c720 clean from viruses or other malware. The man hours I've saved on that exercise alone are worth it. That said, other tasks like connecting it to my TV and streaming HD content from websites have caused me to have to either disable all my extensions, or create another profile with a bare Chrome browser so I don’t have to take the time to disable/re-enable my extensions. With a Chromecast and ChromeBOX both connected to that tv, that is much less a concern. If I did however want to connect the Chromebook 13 to my TV and stream HD content, this chrome OS device is more than capable. I connected both over wire and via Chromecast and was able to watch HD content without stutter or artifact. While this is something is rarely have to do at home, being that this laptop is squarely aimed at business users, one might find themselves on the road and wanting to stream content to a TV back in your hotel room, or for a multimedia presentation.
But if it's entertainment you're after, the HD display is lovely to look at, with solid viewing angles. Speaking of angles, if you’re wondering how far back you can tilt the monitor, you’re only going to get about 70 degrees of backward tilt (or 110 degrees if you consider the closed laptop 0 degrees). The only downside in this entertainment equation is that the speakers fire downward. Sure, they get loud enough and they’re very slightly angled to the side, but the volume of sound will be greatly affected by the surface you have the laptop on. No worries though. If it is quality sound you're truly after, most of the time you're not relying on laptop speakers anyway. You'll plug up a pair of decent headphones or quality in-ears and enjoy your media that way. In which case you're good to go as the sound produced is plenty robust enough for general content consumption.
If you find yourself on the road with the Chromebook 13, you'll be thankful for its stamina! Everyone's use is different so useful battery life is a hard thing to gauge but in my admittedly unscientific youtube playlist test, it took me 10 hours of nonstop streaming to whittle the battery down to 7% with the screen at about 60% brightness. That was with approximately 2 hours of working while it was still streaming in the background. When I looted at that 7% mark, the laptop was showing it still had 57 minutes left. All of this battery life is due in part to the ULV (ultra low voltage) Celeron processor which draws a maximum 15 watts of power, mated to a 67Whr 6 cell battery.
Getting work done on the Chromebook is a joy. The backlit chiclet keys are well spaced and though I'd like a bit more travel out of the keys for those marathon writing sessions, the amount of travel they do have is pretty comfortable and will be more than sufficient for day-to-day use. Especially comfortable with the addition of the soft touch magnesium alloy deck. It never got warm enough to be noticeable but was always pleasant when in contact with my wrists. Using the trackpad was equally enjoyable, for the most part. The glass trackpad is responsive but not overly sensitive, and it is spacious for a laptop this size. The only nitpicky complaint I have is that it creaks a bit as you tap or click. It doesn't appear that the one on the unit I have is seated or fitted poorly. To be clear, it isn't loud or obtrusive, but I noticed it and you may as well, though it is far from a deal breaker or anything to be seriously concerned about in my opinion.
The Wrap Up
This laptop is gorgeous! That isn’t something I can say about many of the other offerings from various manufacturers. Dell has designed a product that will be equally at home in the boardroom or the dorm room and has the horsepower options on tap to keep up with whichever environment you find yourself in. If you’re heavy into entertainment use, just know that the speakers won’t win any prizes, though a good pair of headphones will meet your need for solid sound. Most importantly though, if you know what you’re getting into with ChromeOS, you won’t be disappointed with Dell’s new Chromebook 13. It has the battery life to keep you going through hours of boardroom meetings, classroom note taking, or weekend binge watching without the need to be hyper aware of where the nearest outlet is. You can pick one up from dell.com starting at $429.00
Disclosure: Dell provided me with a demo unit of the Chromebook 13 for the purpose of this review.