Finally, a solid mid-range Chromebook here to save us from a seemingly endless line of cheap choices.
The quick take
For anyone who wants to use a Chromebook on a regular basis, and values getting extra performance and hardware quality at an added price, Dell has made the Chromebook for you.
It offers solid performance and a high-resolution display, while also incorporating the creature comforts like a metal chassis, glass trackpad and backlit keyboard. It's still a bit on the heavy side for a 13-inch laptop, but I'm willing to look past that for all of the other upside. At its sub-$550 price configurations it's a great buy, and likely the best non-Pixel Chromebook available today.
- Great screen
- Glass trackpad, backlit keyboard
- Full-day battery life
- Lots of spec choices
- A little heavy
- Mediocre speakers
- Higher models can get pricey
- Boring design
The best one out there right now
Dell Chromebook 13 Full Review
For every Chromebook fan out there, the desire to have a high-quality but reasonably-priced Chromebook option available is strong. If you're choosing to carry around a Chromebook — be it for a primary, secondary or travel machine — chances are you want something nicer than the usual crop of $250 models out there, but at the same time can't justify spending $1000 on a Chromebook Pixel.
Enter Dell, which after making its own set of rather middling Chromebooks has answered the call of a solid mid-range option in the new Chromebook 13. Though at its base model the Chromebook 13's specs don't jump off the page, the fact that you can spec it up with up to 8GB of RAM, a Core i5 processor and touchscreen (or anything in between) give it real horsepower potential above anything else out there.
But no matter what model you choose, it's all about the creature comforts on offer here that you don't find anywhere else under $1000 — a nice 1080p IPS display, a backlit keyboard and a big glass trackpad. All with a starting price of $399, which is definitely a step above the rest of the low-end Chromebooks — but that's just what Chromebook fans have been asking for. Does it deliver on the promise of being a solid mid-range choice? Read our full review to find out.
About this review
I (Andrew Martonik) am writing this review after two weeks using a Dell Chromebook 13 model with a Celeron 3205U processor, 4GB of RAM and 16GB of storage. The laptop was running on Chrome OS stable channel through the duration of the review, and software was kept up to date.
There are several other versions of the Chromebook 13 with different specs and prices, which I will go into detail about below, and will aim to point out differences between them where applicable.
Uninspired, but it's built well and feels right
Dell Chromebook 13 Hardware
Finally, a sub-$1000 Chromebook that doesn't feel like it's going to fall apart when you touch it. Aside from the ASUS Chromebook Flip announced earlier this year, this is actually the first Chromebook I've used that feels properly manufactured and put together. The higher starting price demands a higher quality build, and Dell is delivering that here.
This thing doesn't twist into a pretzel like your standard cheap Chromebook does
The Dell Chromebook 13 is built on a magnesium frame, but you won't actually feel much metal on account of the soft touch coating on the entire lid and surrounding the keyboard. You can feel the metal on the bottom of the laptop, though, and can instantly tell how rigid it is when you try and flex it in your hands — this thing doesn't twist into a pretzel like your standard cheap Chromebook does.
That soft touch material doesn't detract from the experience, though, it actually adds to it. On the inside of the laptop, it's comfortable as a palm rest when you're typing and doesn't get scratched up like metal can. The material on the lid is quite a bit softer, actually, and adorned in a carbon fiber weave pattern — it looks slick, and helps you grip the laptop when carrying it around, but it picks up a lot of smudges in the process.
The design as a whole is rather simple, almost business-like, and doesn't call much attention to itself. That's just fine for me, but some people may be looking for a bit more of a striking design when they drop extra coin on a higher-end Chromebook. It's basically the same thickness all the way through, doesn't have any flashy design elements, and the combination of greys and blacks don't stand out from any other laptop in the coffee shop.
Even with all of its improvements over the competition, the Dell Chromebook 13 can't break away from the standard layout of Chromebook ports. A power plug, HDMI, USB 3.0, headphone/mic jack and MicroSD card slot align on the left edge, while a lock slot and USB 2.0 (c'mon, really, in 2015?) port are found on the right. With a rather thick and heavy frame I could've gone for another USB port or a full-sized SD card slot, but it seems no Chromebook manufacturer can break away from the mold there.
It's a rather uninspired design, and it's unfortunately well over 3 pounds
The other main downside of the Chromebook 13 is its overall size and weight. It isn't particularly thin, especially when you consider there isn't a whole lot going on inside there, and at 3.23 pounds it's actually about the same weight as a Chromebook Pixel. (If you opt for a touch-enabled model, it's actually 3.56 pounds.) That's also heavier than I think you want for a 13-inch laptop that you plan to carry around a lot — I usually draw that line at three pounds, where the industry has definitely been capable of delivering for some time now.
Evaluating how the Chromebook 13's hardware stands up to its price is actually rather tough considering the wide range of configuration options. At the starting level of $399 this hardware is really solid, but if you spec it out up toward $750 you start to expect a bit more — and in fact, you can get nicer hardware at those higher prices with Windows machines. The uninspired design and somewhat hefty weight is also acceptable at $399, but you start to expect the inches and pounds to shed when you spend more.
Lots of internal choices
Dell Chromebook 13 Specs
One of the biggest things that sets the Chromebook 13 lineup apart is the availability of several different models with a variety of internal spec combinations. The base model comes in with an Intel Celeron 3205U processor, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, and there are six more models above that with various combinations of specs. You can move up to a Core i3 (5005U) or Core i5 (5300U) processor, 4GB or 8GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and even option in a touchscreen.
Outside of those different combinations, the rest of the specs line up the same on every model. You'll get a 13.3-inch 1920x1080 LCD to look at, along with the same keyboard, trackpad, ports and battery as well.
|Display||13.3-inch 1920x1080 IPS LCD
Non-touch and Touch models
|Processor||Intel Celeron 3205U or Intel i3-5005U or Intel i5-5300U|
|Memory||2GB or 4GB or 8GB RAM|
|Storage||16GB or 32GB solid state drive|
|Connectivity||802.11ac Wifi, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Ports||1x USB 3.0, 1x USB 2.0, HDMI 1.4, MicroSD
Noble lock slot
stereo headphone and microphone combo jack
|Battery||67Whr, 6 Cell Battery
12 hours quoted usage
|Charger||19.5V / 3.34A wall charger
|Dimensions||0.72 x 12.93 x 9.03 inches
18.4 x 323.4 x 225.8 mm
3.56lbs (1.62kg) with touch
Wonderful display, poor speakers
Dell Chromebook 13 Display and speakers
Much like the hardware story, the Dell Chromebook 13 is also one of the few Chromebooks out there that boasts a really good display. No matter what model you choose you're getting a 1920x1080 resolution IPS display to look at, and it's a fantastic panel. It gets plenty bright, is super crisp, and has really good viewing angles — just what you'd expect in a higher-end device, but unfortunately a display this good isn't a given in Chromebooks today.
It's a great display, and Chrome OS has finally figured out how to scale to high resolutions
Unfortunately Chrome OS still hasn't figured out how to perfectly handle higher-resolution displays (aside from the custom handling of the Pixel), but I'm happy to report things have dramatically improved. You no longer have to use experimental ://flags to chance the interface scaling or set a default page zoom level — you can simply head into the settings and choose a lower resolution, which now properly scales the interface too. When you drop things down to 1536x864 the entire interface is perfectly readable, and it no longer exhibits the previously-annoying issues of jagged text and oddly-shaped assets. Everything — well, 99 percent of everything — scales properly now.
Now that may sound like a downside, not making the most of the 1080p display, but trust me — this is the way to go. You aren't missing out anything by dropping the resolution in the settings — this is how Chrome OS handles interface scaling right now, and it's way better than anything in prior versions.
I'm reviewing a non-touch model of the Chromebook 13 here, but if you opt to go for one of the higher-end versions you're likely to end up with a touchscreen instead. That touchscreen offers the same IPS panel and resolution, but added protection from the world of bumps and scratches thanks to a Gorilla Glass NBT coating — that's the same stuff Dell and other manufacturers have been using on their touchscreen Windows laptops.
When it comes to speakers, you shouldn't have too high of expectations. The pair of stereo speakers are ported downward under the palm rests, and that means they get severely blocked whenever the laptop is on your lap or a softer surface like a couch or blanket. The speakers get pretty loud otherwise, but the sound isn't very deep or satisfying. It's good for casual video watching and some background music, but chances are you'll want to plug in some headphones — which work just fine and take wired mics as well — to get a better experience.
Great to touch
Dell Chromebook 13 Keyboard and trackpad
Dell has leveraged its years of making solid laptops to provide the Chromebook 13 with a really good keyboard. It has full sized keys, plenty of travel and the key switches don't feel too mushy. It has all of the features you want out of a laptop keyboard, including adjustable backlighting, which we just don't see on Chromebooks often. You can adjust the brightness of the keys between five different levels — just hold the "alt" key and press the brightness keys in the function row (which honestly wasn't immediately apparent at first).
There's also a trackpad on the Chromebook 13 that lives up to the keyboard. It's a large, glass-covered pad that's appropriately sized for a 13-inch laptop, and after a few days it wears in nicely to have a good amount of drag while also being smooth. Multi-fingered gestures and two-finger scrolling works great, as does normal single-finger pointing. As is the case on a few other recent Chromebooks I feel like Chrome OS has really stepped up its trackpad software, and I never found myself reaching for a mouse.
All you need to run Chrome OS
Dell Chromebook 13 Performance and real-world use
Even with a 1080p display, the Chromebook 13 performed admirably with my lower-end model powered by a new Celeron processor and 4GB of RAM. Even with my standard workload of 10+ tabs and three other apps running everything was snappy and I never had issues of reloaded tabs or sluggish performance.
No performance issues to speak of, even on the lower-end Celeron model
I could easily snap a streaming HD video from the likes of NBC, ESPN or Fox Sports in a window to the side of the screen and continue to work with all of my usual tabs and apps without a noticeable drop-off in performance, and could even Google Cast full tabs to my TV with a minimal hit in speed.
I did notice some odd (and not reproducible) audio clipping when streaming from Google Play Music or Pocket Casts while doing other things, but those instances were few and far between. I suspect a runaway tab using up RAM was the culprit (not uncommon on Chrome OS or Chrome on another operating system, to be fair), as a quick reboot fixed the issue.
Presumably things would be even quicker if you opted for a higher-end model that had a Core i3 or Core i5 processor inside, but considering how quick the Chromebook 13 was with the Celeron I'm not sure you can justify those models without a specific need. I would absolutely recommend skipping the base model to at least get 4GB of RAM on board. But it's also a tough sell to jump all the way to the $649 model to get 8GB of RAM — though you'll be futureproof if you do so.
A full day away from the outlet
Dell Chromebook 13 Battery life
Part of the reason behind the Chromebook 13's overall weight has to be the battery, which is rather large at 67Whr. Dell claims that leads to "best in class" battery life of 12 hours, and I have to say that's ambitious but doable depending on what you're using the Chromebook 13 for.
You can reach the 12 hours of quoted use in some cases, but expect about 10 on average
If you're just browsing around with a handful of tabs and doing some online messaging you can easily see 12 hours of total battery life, but if you are doing any sort of media watching, music streaming or heavier tasks, expect that to drop down to more like 10 hours. That's still incredibly impressive, and I easily saw nine to 10 hours of use out of the Chromebook 13 over my time using it.
I never once left the house with the power cord, even when I had forgotten to charge it the past couple of days and sat at 50 percent battery. I knew that was going to give me four or five hours of use no matter what — or even six hours if I took it easy — and that's very liberating. Chrome OS is a pretty simple operating system and long battery life isn't unheard of on Chromebooks, but this is especially good.
I really didn't want to carry the charger around for another reason, though — it's a pretty lackluster design. It's a big black hard plastic brick with a thick cord coming out one end and an oddly tangle-prone cord out the other that truncates in a barrel connector. With a Chromebook that doesn't draw too much power I would've greatly preferred something more compact and potentially sporting only one cable with a direct wall socket — particularly since you can easily spend $550 or more on certain configurations of this machine.
The one to get
Dell Chromebook 13 Bottom line
Leaving out the absurdly-priced Pixel lineup, Dell has made the best all-around Chromebook to date with the Chromebook 13. It offers solid performance, long battery life and build quality that should hold up over time, while also offering several different configurations between $400 and $850 to fit people's needs for performance and price. While the different options let you choose processor, memory and touchscreen capabilities, you're getting the same great backlit keyboard, glass trackpad and 1080p IPS display, which are the really important parts of the experience.
Of course the Dell Chromebook 13 is a bit on the heavy side and isn't going to fill your friends with envy when they see the design, but those two small downsides take a back seat to a Chromebook that offers a great overall experience and goes a step above the cheap Chromebooks out there today.
Should you buy it? Absolutely
Assuming that you've already made up your mind to spend a bit of extra money to get a better Chromebook experience, you should absolutely consider the Dell Chromebook 13 over the rest of the field out there. Unless a smaller screen and lighter weight are the highest priorities for you, you can't do better than the Chromebook 13 at the $400 to $650 price level.
The real question is which Chromebook 13 model you should choose. Dell doesn't have complete build-to-order configuration here but does offer plenty of different models, and I recommend you consider one of the first three. At minimum you'll want the Celeron model with 4GB of RAM (retailing for about $429), and optionally you could go for a higher model with a Core i3, 32GB of storage and a touchscreen for $629. Anything above that and it starts to be less of a great value, so be sure to weigh the features against the price before you buy.