Dell’s Chromebook 13 brings a very 21st Century aesthetic to the often maligned Chromebook. Rather than marginal and underpowered or shiny and tiny, the Chromebook 13 offers a great screen and keyboard, enough memory for working offline effectively, and adequate ports and connectivity for attaching several peripherals (and for connecting the Chromebook to networks).
The machine reviewed is no slacker. Its Intel Core i5 fuels very snappy performance for an OS designed with minimalist hardware in mind.
The Chromebook 13 isn’t a perfect implementation. As Dell proves with the XPS 13, it could be smaller, include the latest ports and a higher resolution display, but for where the Chromebook market is today, the Dell device is not only adequate but far superior to most of its peers.
$529 to $899
What Dell got right
The science fiction-looking carbon fiber hood and polished metal base projects a sophisticated profile.
Dell got almost everything right. The simple backlit keyboard offers great spacing and feel. Pure pleasure for touch typists, even in the dark. The bright and crisp 1080p screen (which can be set to 2400×1350 for those with good eyesight) makes for hours of strainless viewing whether watching videos or creating Google docs.
Like the keyboard, the uncomplicated touchpad just does its job. Not too big, not too small. Just right.
The available i5 CPU drives spunky performance. No lag, Video, and graphics-intensive websites still need some CPU to load reasonably, and that’s why better Chromebooks provide heftier processors. Chromebooks are never going be used for game design, 3D modeling, or other CPU/GPU intensive tasks that still require big memory and top-line processors for the best local processing experiences, but for those who spend their life working on the web, which is the Chromebook’s audience, they still deserve enough power to make their day productive.
AC WiFi complements the Intel CPU with fast wireless, an absolute necessity for the Chromebook’s Internet biased connectivity profile. Wireless peripherals easily attach via Bluetooth 4.0.
Available 8GB of RAM also helps keep multitasking running at a good clip. Up to 32GB of storage provides enough local storage to companion to Google Drive. For those who want to sort or edit media or own a hard drive full of video, the USB port easily accommodates additional storage.
Additional storage can also be loaded into the diminutive microSD that feels design forward rather than cheap. As standard SD cards start to go the way of CompactFlash, every notebook computer should adopt microSD as the standard. Dell also gets the hardware option right with a spring-loaded slot that absorbs the card completely, leaving the left edge unmarred when sporting extra memory.
Bottom facing speakers often make for muddled sound, but the curved edges of the Chromebook 13 create space between surface and device that provides room to unleash the audio. That approach doesn’t work as well when the computer is nuzzled in an actual lap.
Video output comes via a full-sized HDMI port, which means no issues with adapters when connecting to monitors (but it does add a bit of bulk).
Finally, the battery lasts incredibly long, up to 12 hours according to the specifications. In actual practice, the battery never emptied beyond the next charge. There may be situations that require extremely long battery life, but they are few and far between. Power management conserves juice when the Chromebook’s takes a break.
All in all, Dell did far more right than it did wrong.
What Dell got wrong
The Dell Chromebook 13’s wrongs come not from poor design choices, but from choices of omission.
The first omission is that of size. Dell chose not to emulate the leading edge design choices of its flagship XPS 13 Windows 10 ultrabook. The Chromebook, while sporting roughly the same screen size (13.3″ FHD IPS display with optional scratch-resistant Corning® Gorilla® Glass NBT™ touch display), does so in a much larger frame. No Infinity Display with its tight bezel for the Chromebook, the primary driver for the larger size.
Of course, even as an expensive Chromebook, the Dell Chromebook 13 only approaches about half the cost of the high-end XPS 13 model. Google designed the recently retired Pixel 2 premier Chromebook as a thought leadership stake in the ground. Most people won’t consider a Chromebook that pricy unless they need a device to ostentatiously place in the back seat of their Tesla S.
The Dell Chromebook, however, offers a balance that may be at the end of the line for the Chromebook notebook form factor. With the arrival of Android apps and the popularity of convertibles, a Chrome device that isn’t also a tablet may not be viable much longer. The same isn’t true of Windows devices, given the inability to pack the highest end components into a comfortable tablet profile. For ChromeOS, though, even the most powerful of the basic CPUs capable of driving good performance already fit into tablet-sized devices, making the path toward convertibles all but inevitable. Look at the Pixel C for potential design hints for future Chromebook convertibles.
The second omission, which should have gone hand-and-hand with the MicroSD slot, is a USB-C port. The pair of USB ports (one 2.0, one 3.0) prove functional, but they take up space and limit connectivity speeds. As much as the full-sized HDMI ports make for convenient video connectivity, the USB-C connector would help shrink the device and make for an ultimately smaller profile and more flexible design. For the Chromebook, the charging features of USB-C could also eliminate the dedicated power port. With great battery life, the conflict between power and peripherals should prove a near non-issue.
The third issue. There is no third issue. This well-designed Chromebook succeeds on most levels, and of these two omissions, only the screen size really matters because it affects the overall size and weight of the Chromebook 13.
Dell Chromebook 13 Review: Bottomline
With Chrome OS about to gain access to the Android library, Dell brings punch and grace to a market that often appears designed for a Toys ‘R Us display rather than a big boy desk on Wall Street. The Chromebook 13 will not embarrass anyone. An available touch screen will keep the Chromebook 13 competitive for those who want a snappy device that leverages the bevy of touch-enabled Android apps.
Unlike the Dell XPS 13, however, which pushes design choices near the edge of what can and should be done, the Chromebook 13 leaves room for smaller and faster, which will probably not mean cheaper.
The Dell Chromebook 13 makes it clear Google’s take on computers as portals to services make viable work and play companions—and they work pretty well. The maturing operating system offers enough offline features to keep people productive even when disconnected. The investment in keyboard, materials, and design makes even the entry-level model an attractive option, though one without the processing power for hesitant-free computing of its bigger siblings. Those who choose configurations higher on the specification list will find their extra dollars result in few regrets.
The future of chrome
Chromebooks have become viable alternatives as basic productivity devices, but they lack the standalone application architecture of Windows or macOS machines. The Google Chrome productivity apps, of course, work well, as do web versions of Microsoft Office 365 and Apple iCloud apps. Unfortunately, high-end apps like Adobe Photoshop or Premiere don’t offer web equivalents yet, so even the best Chromebooks function only as sophisticated web-fueled devices that compete more with tablets with keyboards and low-end notebooks than with higher-end, business notebook computers.
There will be a point soon, however, where cloud services will be able to provide equivalent functionality to standalone PC apps, and then the Chromebook will appear prescient. The simplicity of the architecture also makes Chromebooks easier to adopt and maintain than those loaded with Windows or macOS. With security built into the design, Chromebooks deliver more protection from malware and viruses, though they remain susceptible to social engineering attacks.
The Google move to add Android apps to ChromeOS will increase ChromeOS capabilities, and the subsequent move to eliminate apps from other platforms will position Chromebooks and ChromeOS as true competitors to Apple and Microsoft-based devices. The power of high-end devices like the Dell Chromebook 13 will prepare owners for the new world of ChromeOS to come.