Chromebooks have been carving out a niche in education — Google recently said that schools bought one million in the second quarter of this year.
Price is clearly a key consideration. Kids can be tough on hardware, so a Chromebook that's dropped, lost or used as a goalpost or a cricket bat is much less expensive than a standard notebook. Dell's Chromebook 11 comes in two models differing only in the amount of memory: a 2GB model at £179; and the 4GB at £199 (ex. VAT). But although Dell markets the Chromebook 11 as 'for education', we think this system is far too good to be left to the kids.
Even closed, the Chromebook 11 is a stylish package. The Dell logo is understated, and the Chrome badge provides a splash of colour against the lid's 'Foggy Night' shade of matte grey. And while the chassis of the Dell Chromebook 11 is plastic with no hint of 'chrome', the designers have certainly taken the 'book' bit to heart — the curve of the lid down towards the hinge could be a gesture towards the spine of a novel, while the rounded edges evoke a well-thumbed text. The matte plastic helps the Chromebook 11 retain its smart look, saving it from becoming a fingerprint magnet.
Open it up and the system's high-quality, thoughtful design continues. Around the inside edge of the lid is a slightly raised border, which provides a snug fit that should keep dust and dirt from getting inside when it's closed. The lower-case characters on the island-style Scrabble-piece keyboard give it a relaxed look.
It's also a keyboard built for the internet. A custom Google search button replaces Caps Lock, while a set of web-centric keys — back, forward, refresh and full-screen — replace the standard function keys. The touchpad is responsive and consistent — although, for me, the keyboard could have done with a bit more travel.
The most obvious compromise is the Chromebook 11's 11.6-inch screen, which has a native resolution of 1,366 by 768 pixels (135ppi). The bezel is sizeable at around 2cm, and the viewing angles are limited. I also found it hard to distinguish darker colours. On the plus side, audio quality is good, the speakers producing loud, clear output when necessary. The only thing that's too loud, on occasion, is the fan. Build quality is good though — perhaps with that education market in mind. This is a solidly built device.
The Chromebook 11 is powered by Intel's 1.4GHz dual-core Celeron 2955U processor with integrated Intel HD Graphics and, as noted above, either 2GB or 4GB of RAM. There's 16GB of internal storage and an SD card slot, plus two USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI connector and an audio jack. There's no wired Ethernet port. For wireless connectivity there's dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n wi-fi and Bluetooth 4.0.
The 4GB Chromebook boots very quickly (less than ten seconds) and wakes up in just a couple of seconds. But more than, say, a Windows notebook or a MacBook, you are tied into the Google ecosystem from the off as you are prompted to sign into your Google account to get the full benefits (although you can browse as a guest). Whether you find this reassuring or slightly claustrophobic will depend on your attitude towards the search giant.
There's no doubt this is a device built with the assumption of constant connectivity. Switch off the wi-fi and there's a limited amount you can do with it, unless you've planned ahead.
But that's a bit like saying you can't do much with a smartphone without a mobile signal — Chromebooks are designed to be connected, and they assume that you'll be living in the browser. And if that's what you do, you'll see little to complain about. Enterprise users requiring a specific piece of desktop software (or an installed version of Office and a traditional desktop) will be out of luck.
The 1.4GHz Celeron processor keeps everything moving along nicely — perhaps the secret of Chromebooks is that, unlike some budget laptops, the modest hardware isn't overwhelmed by the weight of the operating system. Chrome doesn't put too much pressure on modest hardware, which means Chromebooks can be cheap but not compromised — at least when it comes to web-based applications. That also helps with battery life — Dell claims ten hours, and we found that it performed pretty well (see below).
As far as battery life is concerned, our tests using a multimeter to measure power consumption under different screen brightness/workload conditions produced estimates between 10.3 hours (25% brightness, system idling) and 3.5 hours (100% percent brightness, running a demanding workload) for the system's three-cell 51Wh battery. On this basis, you can expect the Chromebook 11 to last for around seven hours on average — almost a full working day.
Dell's Chromebook 11 offers sturdy but stylish design, reasonable performance and good battery life. Screen quality is the only significant drawback, unless you must have an Ethernet port. If you're comfortable living entirely online in the browser, it's an excellent option — especially at $179 or £199 (ex. VAT). If you're looking for more in the way of traditional desktop processing power (for photo editing and other demanding workloads for example), you'll need a notebook running Windows or Mac OS X. But even these users could consider a Chromebook as a lightweight secondary device at this price.
• Price: £199 for this quality is remarkable
• Elegant design
• Good battery life
• Screen quality is underwhelming
• Requires buy-in to the Google ecosystem
Dimensions and weight 29.46cm x 2.46cm x 20.07cm, 1.3kg
Processor Intel Celeron 2955U (dual core, 1.4GHz)
Operating System Chrome OS
Memory 4GB DDR3L
Display 11.6-inch LCD (1,366x768 pixels)
Storage 16GB SSD, SD card reader
Battery three-cell (51 WHr)
Wireless connectivity 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0
Other details Two USB 3.0 ports, HDMI port, Kensington lock slot, stereo headphone/microphone combo jack, 720p HD webcam
Price and availability £179 (ex. VAT) 2GB version available 11 August; £199 (ex. VAT) 4GB model available 15 August