Dell Chromebook 13 Review – A True Mid-Tier Chromebook

If Toshiba’s 2015 update to their Chromebook 2 represents the upper boundary of the budget Chromebook category, then the Dell Chromebook 13 ably represents the first true mid-level Chromebook.

Available with a wide range of processor, RAM, and screen combinations, the Dell Chromebook 13 is a well-made, professional class machine that does an unexpectedly good job justifying its own existence, carving out a unique place in the increasing catalog of available Chromebooks.

In this article, I’ll give you a breakdown on the Dell Chromebook 13’s specs, explain which version I recommend, and review its build quality and performance.

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Specs

Unlike most Chromebooks, the Dell Chromebook 13 has a variety of customization options that go far beyond what you’ll find elsewhere in the marketplace.

As of this writing the following options are available:

3205U Broadwell Celeron Models

  • $399 – 2 GB RAM, 16 GB SSD
  • $429 – 4 GB RAM, 16 GB SSD *

5005U Broadwell Core i3 Models

  • $529 – 4 GB RAM, 16 GB SSD
  • $629 – 4 GB RAM, 32 GB SSD, Touch-enabled Display
  • $649 – 8 GB RAM, 32 GB SSD

5300U Broadwell Core i5 Models

  • $799 – 8 GB RAM, 32 GB SSD
  • $899 – 8 GB RAM, 32 GB SSD, Touch-enabled Display

Of the available models, I’ve marked the one that strikes me as the best selection for most consumers with a “*” above, and this is the model that I’ve tested personally. Note that all of these models come with the following standard features:

  • Matte IPS 1080p Display
  • 2 USB Ports – one 3.0, one 2.0
  • Full-size HDMI out
  • Micro SD Card slot
  • Kensington Lock slot
  • 802.11ac Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 4.0

Both the Celeron and Core i3 models run $100 more than Toshiba’s comparably equipped Chromebook 2 2015 update, though the Toshiba packs Skullcandy-tuned speakers and a glossy display, rather than the mate anti-glare panel on the Dell.

Given that Chrome OS runs so quickly when powered by the 3205U processor, for most users there is little reason to move beyond the $429 model, though adding a core i3 processor and 8 GB of RAM may make sense for those who want to future-proof it, or who engage in particularly heavy lifting online.

Note that you can upgrade the SSD on this device, should you wish to do so.

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Build Quality and Design

Where most Chromebooks get a pass on their build quality and design to some degree based on their budget-level price points, the Dell 13 has positioned itself as a mid-range laptop, which makes it one of the more expensive Chromebook options on the market even at its lowest spec levels. Comparing the Dell 13 to the Toshiba Chromebook 2 2015 (reviewed here), or Acer’s recent models like the Chromebook 15 (reviewed here), the Dell is most definitely on a higher tier in terms of quality of construction and design.

Taken as a whole, the Dell Chromebook 13 looks like a modern, business-appropriate device, and in the hand it feels solidly built, with just the right amount of heft to it. The cool touch of the metal bottom in your hand is definitely a step ahead of the usual plastic one finds on a Chromebook.

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Opening up this Chromebook, the higher level of fit and finish are immediately apparent in the backlit keyboard and glass track pad with a Magnesium alloy palm test. These are materials that one normally finds on mid-range to premium laptops, and they really make the Dell 13 feel different than other Chromebooks on the market.

The keyboard is a joy to use. The keys have nice travel and the caps have an excellent tactile feel to them. This is probably the second-best keyboard you can get on Chrome OS, eclipsed only by the Chromebook Pixel, and honestly there isn’t even much of a drop-off there. I felt immediately at home typing on this keyboard.

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While all trackpads I’ve ever used on the Chrome OS platform have been responsive, they haven’t all felt equally pleasant to use. Here again, the Dell has one of the best in the category in terms of premium feel.

Finally, there’s the screen itself, which is a matte-coated anti-glare 1080p IPS display. While it isn’t as vivid as the glossy Toshiba Chromebook 2, or have the ridiculous high-resolution of the Pixel, it is nevertheless an excellent display. I recently had the chance to use the Asus UX305LA, which is a Windows 10 ultrabook with an MSRP of $849.99, and it has a similar matte 1080p IPS display that is not of the same caliber as the Dell 13. This panel is crisp and bright, with the typical wide viewing angles one expects from an IPS display. I generally dislike matte displays, but this is actually one I was comfortable using.

The only issue of note here is that I did experience some light bleed in the bottom right corner. This is not atypical of IPS displays, though it is more present on some models than on others. I only noticed it with the screen brightness close to maximum against a black background.

Even the footpads on the bottom of the device remind one of the Pixel, and speak to the type of intelligent design choices you’ll find on this Chromebook.

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A category where I believe this device actually surpasses the Pixel is the performance and quality of the speakers. I had low expectations, but found that for watching streaming video content, watching movies, and even for some moderate-volume music, they’re quite good for a laptop. The Toshiba’s are better, and the Acer 15’s large up-facing speakers are louder, but compared to the extremely quiet speakers of the Asus C201 and Chromebook Flip, or even the somewhat disappointing Pixel 2015’s speakers, these are pretty impressive.

From the keyboard, to the trackpad, to the display, and even the speakers, the Dell 13 meets or exceeds expectations in terms of its build quality and design.

Performance

Hopefully I’ve established for you that this is a well-made device, but just as important is the question of performance. Fortunately, Dell has made the right choices with their Chromebook 13.

The base-level Celeron model with 2 GB of RAM probably shouldn’t exist, and in fact I suspect it is offered simply so Dell’s marketing can say “Starting at $399!”

Don’t buy this model.

That said, I am as impressed with the performance of the Intel 3205U processor now as I was back in the early spring, when I first reviewed the Acer C740. Combined with 4 GB of RAM and an SSD, the Dell 13 feels considerably faster than it has any right to, booting in 5-6 seconds, and capably running a dozen or more Chrome tabs without breaking a sweat.

No matter which websites I threw at the Dell 13, it renders them quickly and ably. This includes sites like CNN.com, The Verge, Google Drive, and Google Play Music, all sites that have a tendency to bog down on lower-end systems. Streaming 1080p video works with no stuttering or lagging.

Octane scores on this system are similar to the similarly equipped Acer Chromebook 15 and Acer C740, ranging in the 14,000’s. While this is impressive, it does actually lag behind the Toshiba Chromebook 2 2015, which has an upgraded 3215U packing a higher base clock speed. Having said that, in normal use I can’t say that I felt the Toshiba was any faster than the Dell.

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One difference between this Chromebook and the Toshiba, is that despite throwing a ton of tabs at the Dell, I couldn’t get the fan to spin on until I hit a ludicrous amount of activity, whereas on the Toshiba, it has a tendency to kick in somewhat routinely when streaming video and then working in a few other tabs at the same time.

Finally, the battery life of the Dell Chromebook 13 is exceptional. With mixed use and 70% screen brightness I would expect a solid ten hours of battery, which is fantastic and exceeds the capacity of the Toshiba, as well as most other Chromebooks in this performance category.

Crouton

As with the other Chromebooks packing the Broadwell Celeron processor, there are conflicts with the Intel HD Graphics drivers that cause graphical glitches in Crouton. I provide instructions to resolve this in my article, here, but in brief, the steps are as follows:

  • Select your Chrome channel (if you want to move off Stable)
  • Set your Chromebook to “Developer” mode
  • Download Crouton from github
  • Run the install script – I strongly advise selecting Trusty and XFCE with the Crouton Extension
  • During the install process, your keyboard will likely stop working, so you will need a USB keyboard to create your username and password
  • Once you’ve completed entry of your username and password, reset your Chromebook, and the device keyboard will work normally
  • Log into your chroot, and immediately follow the instructions to update the graphics drivers via the terminal
  • Then proceed as normal, and your graphical issues should be gone

As of October 2015 I can confirm this works to resolve any issues on the Dell Chromebook 13 with the Broadwell Celeron processor, in Ubuntu 14.04 Trusty XFCE with the Crouton Extension enabled.

Again note that you can also upgrade the SSD, which is ideal if you’re planning to go that route, as otherwise you’ll have very limited free space to work in either Chrome OS or Ubuntu.

Conclusion

The best way I can summarize the feeling of using the Dell Chromebook 13, and the experience in general, is to say that in terms of web browsing, this $429 laptop feels almost as good to use, and performs almost as quickly, as a $999 MacBook Air 13.

Obviously this comparison isn’t entirely fair, as the MacBook Air has a significantly larger selection of local applications, but regardless, I’m quite impressed with how easy it is to love this Dell Chromebook even if you’re used to higher-end devices like MacBooks, Pixels, and Surface Pros. You’ll feel right at home doing your web browsing on the Dell 13 even if you’re coming from flagship or high-end products.

Having recently reviewed the Toshiba Chromebook 2 2015, I still believe that is likely the best choice for most consumers looking to buy a Chromebook. It has a decent design and aesthetic, excellent performance for the price, and an incredibly good 1080p IPS screen paired with loud speakers, making it perfect for general web browsing and video consumption. It is an ideal second computer for doing homework using Google Docs and Sheets, streaming music, all types of web browsing, and watching Netflix.

This Dell Chromebook is a different animal entirely. It feels like it is meant for serious students and business professionals. It is built with premium materials to withstand travel, and to offer a consistently comfortable and high-quality experience. It isn’t as premium as a MacBook, Pixel, or Surface, but it is right at home with any of the devices that sit just below that tier of premium products.

I’m not sure how many people actually sit in that category – people wanting a Chromebook mid-tier Chromebook who are willing to spend $429 on a device running Chrome OS and powered by a Celeron processor – but if you’re in that niche, go and order this Chromebook right away.

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Appendix

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9 thoughts on “Dell Chromebook 13 Review – A True Mid-Tier Chromebook”

  1. You mentioned a few times that the ssd is upgradable. Do you know what type of ssd and connectors are used? Did you find this out by upgrading it yourself, or is it in the documentation?

    Thanks!

    1. I confirmed through a few sources that it is an M.2 42mm msata that can be removed and replaced, but I did not do so myself.

      1. Thanks! based on your comment I got an i3, and upgraded the ssd to 128gb in under 15 minutes. Everything is running great and the extra space is great for crouton.

  2. For someone wanting to run linux via crouton would you say that the Celeron cpu has enough power to not lag, or would you suggest upgrading to the i3? I’m really considering this chromebook but I dont know if I should opt for the i3 or not since I’ll probably run linux too.

    1. Also is any of the two usb ports active when the chromebook is turned off or in sleep mode like in the toshiba chromebook 2? You know, for charging other devices.

  3. Has anyone else with this computer noticed occasional, very short, multi-color screen glitches across portions of the display? Thinking that I may have received a bad unit. Alternatively, I guess it could be chrome os.

  4. Thanks for your reply. Fortunately, I’m within the 30 day return window, so I suppose an exchange should be very straightforward. Otherwise, I love this device. I originally went with a Toshiba 2 2015, but found that despite having a slightly better screen and speakers, the excessive fan noise and mediocre build quality of the Toshiba put me off. The dell presents a better set of trade-offs for me.

    One question: I’m thinking about installing (on a replacement Dell) crouton by following your instructions. This computer has the 3205U processor. Creation of a backup for chrome os is by means of the Chrome recovery app. Many people have complained about the app not working on their chromebook. Do you have any direct experience using that app on the Dell (ideally with the 3205U processor)?

    Thanks again.

    BTW, great site! Very informative.

    1. The Dell is an incredibly well-built machine, I don’t blame you for making that change.

      As far as creating recovery media, I always give that suggestion because in the off-chance that someone bricked their system and had no way of creating recovery media, I’d feel terrible. That said, I have also had issues getting the recovery media tool to work successfully and honestly I no longer bother. I’ve installed Crouton 20+ times and never had it corrupt my operating system, nor have I had to restore when transitioning to Developer Mode. I think you’re probably fine to skip that step if you’d like.

      And, thanks!

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