Review: Dell Chromebook 13 - a cloud computer for business class

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Chromebooks never caught on in business. Dell's new 13 model is an attempt to redress that

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Google’s Chromebooks are a wonderful invention. There can’t be many people who’ve used one and aren’t delighted by their functional simplicity, reliable operation and inherent security. They are also cheap, usually in a perfectly acceptable way. They are the computers that low-end Windows machines always tried to be but never were, the PC reimagined as an intuitive cloud appliance for the masses.

The US ‘K-12’ education sector jumped on Chromebooks in a big way after the platform’s 2011 launch, followed to some extent by home users worn out by the confusing Windows upgrade cycle. The missing link has always been businesses.

After Google’s pricey but delightful Pixels, Dell’s new Chromebook 13 is the first serious attempt to meet the needs of this untapped market with a design built to satisfy a more demanding spec list.

What they’ve come up with is a surprisingly expensive range of eight models running from the Broadwell-based 1.5GHz Intel 3205U processor at one end to the 2.9GHz Core i5-5300U at the other, all with either 4GB or 8GB of RAM and built around a full FHD 13.3 inch 1920x1080 screen covered in gorilla glass.

The end result is as if the designers simply imagined every feature that could possibly be offered on a Chromebook and then made these available in at least one model.

Dell Chromebook 13: build

The 1.47kg chassis (1.62kg for touch) is high-end magnesium alloy with a thin layer of what Dells says is carbon fibre covering the lid. There are none of the gaps you sometimes get on cheaper Chromebooks and PCs, or the flex that comes from making a computer out of plastics. The Chromebook 13 is extremely well put together across all models and should last well. Cooling is passive through a single vent on the underside of the machine, at right angles to the two speaker slits.

We also liked the appearance of a backlit chiclet keyboard although in complete darkness it was a bit subtle perhaps. The trackpad was good and the keyboard, surprisingly, was identical to the one fitted to the smaller Dell Chromebook 11 in both layout and size (note both lack the convenient delete key found on older Chromebooks).

Other specifications include an HDMI port, a single USB 3.0 port and one USB 2.0 port, a tethering connection, a headphone/microphone combination jack, a non-removable 6-cell battery pack, a 16GB or 32GB SSD and the option to have either a non-touch or touch screen depending on preference. The webcam is a pretty average 720p affair. Dell offers a microSD card slot instead of a third USB port, which is probably a fair trade-off. Wi-Fi connectivity is through Intel’s Dual Wireless-AC 7260 802.11ac.

Dell Chromebook 13: performance

This will depend on which processor option is chosen. We were sent the Core i5 with 8GB of RAM, which seems like overkill for mainstream Chromebook use that will work just as well with a more modest processor and 4GB of RAM. Still, it flew through web browsing running numerous tabs without lag. Battery life with the screen at a higher brightness cleared 8 hours for the Core i5 model although we suspect that the cheaper 3205U model with less RAM would easily beat 10 hours under the same conditions.

Dell Chromebook 13: conclusion

Dell’s Chromebook 13 is the best all-round Chromebook design yet made with no obvious weaknesses and lots of plus points. The company set out to build a business-class Chromebook and they have succeeded. The major caveat we have is that the top-of-the-range models are over-powered for anyone other than developers not to mention that they cost as much as a Google Pixel. We’d recommend the lower-specced machines.

Quibbling perhaps but if 13.3 inches is the new 15.4 inches then perhaps 11.6 inches is the new 13.3 inches, a way of suggesting that some business users might welcome a smaller, lighter machine.

The nagging worry is Google’s long-term commitment to the platform. In October reports emerged that the company has been thinking of merging the Chrome OS that runs Chromebooks with Android by 2017. This isn't a new suggestion, nor is it clear how such a fusion might work given that the two platforms are fundamentally different from one another. For the moment, the idea remains a rumour although, oddly, Google made no effort to stop the suggestion in its tracks. Something is clearly up but nobody knows what, perhaps including Google itself.

Will this put off business buyers who work on three-year equipment timescales? Perhaps, although Chromebooks will surely live on in some form so the risks are easy to exaggerate. It still seems incongrous to review the first business-class Chromebook and have to raise such doubts. Until Google snaps out of its introversion and explains itself more convincingly, anxiety will remain. 

Business: anyone business buying one of these Dell Chromebooks is partly looking for the business support of the sort not available on consumer machines.

The Dell Chromebook 13 7310 with 4GB RAM and 16GB of flash storage running a 1.5GHz Intel 3205U costs from £484 (excluding VAT) while the Core i5-5300U and 8GB RAM and 32GB SSD costs £913 (excluding VAT); shipping must also be added.

Specification as reviewed: Dell Chromebook 13 7310, 13.3 inch 1920x1080 FDH touchscreen, Intel Core i5-5300U 2.93GHz processor, 8GB RAM, 32GB SSD, 802.11ac WiFi with backlit keyboard and magnesium alloy chassis

Pro: Rugged design, good screen and keyboard, as much processor and RAM as anyone running the Chrome OS could ever need, business support on tap

Con: Expensive, touchscreen version adds weight

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