Dell Chromebook 11 review: first look at the £159 laptop

23 Jan 2014

The Dell Chromebook 11 represents the company’s first foray into Google’s OS, and it’s being cautious: this isn’t a laptop aimed at the mass market but at schools, colleges and universities. That's why its debut show is the education technology show BETT, where we got our hands on it.

Even though it's being marketed as an education device, it will be on sale from Dell direct, and for an incredibly cheap £159 if the original press release is to be believed. (Just note that it's £159 plus VAT, this being an education-targeted machine.)

As an education-focused machine, Dell is making much of its “rugged” design. The company claims the chassis is based on its Latitude line of corporate laptops, built for life on the road. We’re pressing Dell for more details on this, because on first touch this isn’t too obvious. The lid feels more solid than some, but it’s still plastic, as is the chassis.

Compensation comes in the weight, which at 1.2kg is quite respectable, and with a promised battery life of ten hours it adds up to a very portable machine.

We have some doubts the screen will be clearly visible outside, as it isn’t the brightest affair. Nor does it have the best vertical viewing angles, which means you have to position it quite carefully to avoid a drop-off in contrast. And, just to hammer the Dell Chromebook 11 whilst it’s down, there’s some grain on show too.

How much this matters is a different question. In reality, we suspect most students will appreciate a slightly bigger screen than on offer elsewhere, even if the resolution is a budget-friendly 1,366 x 768.

The keyboard is similarly unexciting. There isn’t much feedback from the buttons, or travel, but we found it pleasant enough to type on if you’re forgiving about such things. It’s helped by being quite a wide chassis, so the keys are full-size with plenty of space between them.

But Dell believes the real power of this machine isn’t so much the hardware but the collaboration on offer – according to the rep we spoke to, up to 50 students can use the version of Google Apps shipped with the Chromebook 11. Plus, the forthcoming Dell Wyse PocketCloud app for Chrome OS will makes it easier to access content and apps sitting on your laptop, Mac or PC directly from the Chromebook.

In terms of specs, there are no great surprises. A dual-core 1.4GHz Intel Celeron 2955U processor provides the power and the graphics, and there are two configurations of memory: one with 1GB, one with 2GB. [Correction: one with 2GB, one with 4GB.] The bigger limitation is a mere 16GB flash drive for storage.

Expansion is available via an SD card slot on the right, plus two USB 3 slots on the right. The model we saw also included a SIM card slot, although we haven’t received confirmation that this will be available with UK models. Bog-standard 802.11abgn Wi-Fi completes the communications specs, unless you count the inclusion of a full-size HDMI port (there’s no D-SUB).

It feels far too early to give a verdict on this Chromebook. Clearly it’s designed to be affordable, and some corners have been cut, but we’ll need to get it into our Labs for a proper test to see how much that has affected quality and day-to-day performance. And we also want to see the laptop on sale for that price, because at £159 it does seem remarkably cheap.

UPDATE ON AVAILABILITY: Dell has told us the 2GB version will be available this month (but not exactly when this month), and that the 4GB version will be available during the first quarter of 2014.

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