Dell unveiled its first Chromebook at the BETT educational technology show back in January, raising considerable interest with a promised price of $379 for the 2GB model. That specification finally goes on sale on 26 June, but ahead of it comes a more expensive ($399) model with 4GB of installed RAM.
Aside from the memory provision, the two models are identical. For your money you get an 11.6in screen with a resolution of 1,366 x 768; a Haswell-class, dual-core 1.4GHz Intel Celeron 2955U CPU; and 16GB of flash storage. Connectivity is impressive for a laptop this cheap, and comprises a pair of USB 3 sockets, a full-sized HDMI output so you can hook it up to a monitor or HDTV, a 3.5mm headset jack and an SD card slot. Dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4 take care of networking; the only major missing item is the lack of a wired Ethernet port.
This specification enables the Dell Chromebook 11 to run Chrome OS seamlessly. The machine wakes up instantly from sleep, and boots in seven seconds from a completely powered-down state. In use, we never had to wait for tabs to appear and disappear, performance never flagged – even with a screen full of websites – and streaming HD video played perfectly smoothly. Our only reservation in this area concerns the slightly noisy fan, which kicks in as soon as the load on the CPU ramps up.
Battery life was also on a par with the C720. With the screen set to a brightness of 120cd/m2, wireless turned off, and a low-resolution YouTube video set to loop indefinitely, the Dell lasted 5hrs 54mins on a single charge. It’s a touch better than the Acer, but the gap is small at 18 minutes.
Where the Dell Chromebook 11 disappoints is the screen. Its glossy finish is highly reflective, yet looks dull and flat, vertical viewing angles aren’t great, and there’s a touch of grain. Measuring performance with our colorimeter revealed the panel’s maximum brightness to be a disappointing 208cd/m2, and the contrast only 360:1. Such figures aren’t uncommon on budget laptops, but they’re a long way short of the screens we’re seeing on sub-$400 tablets these days.
Perhaps more significantly, screen quality also falls well short of the HP Chromebook 11 – a machine previously withdrawn from sale temporarily due to problems with faulty power supplies, but now back at various shops for around $389.
Still, the Dell’s panel is similar to its closest rival, the Acer Aspire C720 – which is slightly brighter, but has worse contrast – and the rest of the package is superior to Acer’s offering. The Scrabble-tile keyboard has a crisper, more solid feel and the broad touchpad is responsive; although we’ve never liked integrated buttons, its heavy, positive click is just about acceptable to use.
As you’d hope from a product designed for the classroom, build quality is excellent. The lid is stiff, its glossy front protecting the LCD beneath from heavy-handed prodding. A rubberised coating surrounds the keyboard and completely covers the wristrest, which makes for a comfortable touch-typing platform. Beneath the laptop are two long strips of rubber, which do a fine job of preventing the laptop from slipping around on a desk or your lap. Despite the solid feel, this isn’t a heavy machine, weighing a mere 1.3kg and measuring 23mm thick.
With its strong performance, creditable ergonomics and low price, the Dell Chromebook 11 is a great option for any student looking for a budget workhorse – especially since, with the integration of the Quickoffice beta into the Chrome OS Files app, offline editing capabilities are now much stronger than they were before. At this cheaper end of the Chromebook market, we prefer it to the Acer Aspire C720.
Now that the HP Chromebook 11 is back on sale, however, it’s that model that remains our favourite Chromebook. Although it can’t compete with this Dell on performance or battery life, its display is vastly superior, and that makes a real difference.
Despite being a product for students, this, and other Chromebooks, remain excellent productivity machines and are well worth a close look.