T here are times when good looks and sleek design must take second place to practicality – situations when tough is more important than pretty. So it is with the 2015 edition of the Dell Chromebook 11. It may not be stylish, but it’s unfussy and practical, and for the target market – the education sector – that’s exactly what’s needed.
That’s not to say that Dell has skimped on design. The manufacturer says the laptop has passed US Military Standard testing, and while you’re unlikely to need to use it under enemy fire, that sturdiness means it’s more than equal to the knocks of student life. It’s covered in solid-feeling matte-black plastic that hides any smudges or scratches, and encircled by rubber bumpers that protect against drops. Open it up and you’ll find a lid that can be swung back a full 180 degrees, with reinforced hinges that help to prevent any damage caused by excessive rough handling.
One distinctive feature aimed specifically at classroom use is the Chromebook’s “activity light”. Set into the corner of the lid, facing outwards, this light bar can be illuminated in three colours, allowing students to discreetly attract attention if they have an issue or want to ask a question. It’s a smart addition that’s aimed at helping teachers to encourage less confident students to contribute in class.
The sensible theme continues with the keyboard. The keys feel springy and responsive, and the layout is good too. However, we can’t say the same for the touchpad: the integrated buttons are annoying to use when cutting, pasting, dragging and dropping between multiple windows.
As for ports, there’s HDMI 1.4 out, one USB 3 and one USB 2, plus you get an SD slot and 3.5mm headset jack. There’s also a 720p webcam, dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4 for a pretty comprehensive wireless-connectivity setup in this machine.
As with last year’s Chromebook 11, the weakest part of the package is the screen. The 1,366 x 768 TN panel is dull: it suffers from poor vertical viewing angles and a low maximum brightness of 239cd/m2 – which could make it hard to read in a sunny classroom – and a drab contrast ratio of only 306:1.
Still, the nature of Chrome OS and the fairly low-power, browser-based tasks that run on it mean this isn’t a huge problem, and it feels responsive and smooth in day-to-day use. The laptop starts up in seconds, and even with 15 tabs open, we experienced very little slowdown.
The Chromebook 11 performed well in our battery testing, lasting 7hrs 35mins with a constant video loop and screen brightness of 120cd/m2 – more than enough to get through a school day.
The speakers are good too: there’s some distortion when you push the volume over 80%, but overall the sound is surprisingly loud, and clear enough to fill a classroom.
Overall, the Dell Chromebook 11 remains an excellent device for those who need a well-priced, practical laptop. It’s light enough to carry around and rugged enough to handle a beating, and the price remains reasonable, at $479 for the non-touch version with 2GB of RAM or alternatively $599 for the 4GB touchscreen version.
If you’re looking for a more stylish laptop, the similarly priced Toshiba Chromebook 2 or the HP Chromebook 11 make good alternatives. But neither combines toughness and practicality like Dell’s rubber-encased Chromebook 11.