Chrome OS

Hands on: Dell's Chromebook 11 deserves your attention

Ah, the one that got away.

Dell Chromebook 11

Dell's Chromebook 11 has technically been around for a while. The device launched with a narrow focus on the education market, though -- heck, you can't even buy it anywhere except for a buried page on Dell's own website* -- and consequently, it slipped in under the radar for a lot of us.

But despite its low profile, the Dell Chromebook 11 is a gem -- so much that, after using it for the past several weeks, it's officially taken the spot as my favorite (non-Pixel) Chromebook available right now.

Plain and simple, the Dell Chromebook 11 gets a lot of things right. And with a price of $279 for a 2GB model or 20 bucks more for a 4GB version, it's a tough all-around package to beat.

Some more specific thoughts:

• Dell's Chromebook 11 feels solid and well-constructed. Unlike most Chromebooks in its price range, it doesn't come across as cheap or poorly assembled; the device may not be a premium laptop, but it also doesn't feel like a low-end budget product -- none of the rough seams or flimsy materials we've seen on devices like Acer's C720 model. Dell clearly put some thought into build quality here, and its efforts are apparent.

Dell Chromebook 11

• The Dell Chromebook's exterior is a soft matte plastic that makes for an understated but classy look. At 2.9 lbs, the Chromebook is a bit on the heavy side but still perfectly comfortable to carry around and hold on your lap. It doesn't ever seem to get warm during use, either, which is nice for those of us who like to avoid pink thighs.

• Trivial as it may sound, the area around the Chromebook's keyboard is probably the flourish I like most about the device. Dell used a soft rubberized plastic there that's really a treat for the hands. Considering you'll be resting your palms on that surface for many-an-hour while using the product, that seemingly small touch makes a big difference.

• The keyboard itself is also one of the nicer ones I've used on an entry-level Chromebook. The keys are well spaced-out and responsive -- and though plastic, they don't feel cheap or overly clicky as the keys on some low-end Chromebooks do.

• The trackpad, meanwhile, is fine but unremarkable. Plastic. Responsive. Works well enough, but nothing special.

Dell Chromebook 11

• The device's display is the standard 11.6-in. 1366-x-768 TN screen we're used to seeing on most Chromebooks these days. It's nothing to write home about: We're still talking fairly low resolution and a non-IPS panel, which means clarity isn't exceptional and viewing angles leave something to be desired. Within the confines of those parameters, though, it's one of the better screens I've seen on a Chromebook of this caliber. I can actually use it for extended periods of time without having my eyes hurt, which is more than I can say for most devices in this class.

• The Dell Chromebook's dual speakers -- located on either side of the device's bottom panel, where the edges starts to slope upward -- are loud and actually quite decent.

• The device has two USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI out-port, and a Kensington lock slot. There's also an SD card reader to supplement the 16GB of onboard (SSD) storage.

Dell Chromebook 11

• With a Haswell-based Intel 2955U processor and either 2 or 4GB of RAM, the Dell Chromebook 11 has the exact same level of performance we've observed in other devices with those internals. In short, aside from the pricey Pixel, it's about the best performance you can get in a Chromebook today. The system is snappy and responsive, even with a moderate amount of multitasking and open tabs, and it should provide more than enough horsepower for the majority of users' needs.

For a difference of 20 bucks, I'd suggest springing for the full 4GB of RAM; that'll give you a little more punch when it comes to multitasking-heavy use.

• Last but not least, battery life: Dell's Chromebook promises 10 hours of use per charge, and it doesn't disappoint. I've consistently averaged right around that time.

Bottom line

Aside from the Pixel, Chromebooks today generally require some level of compromise -- and the Dell is no exception. It's certainly not a perfect computer. But it's also a sub-$300 computer -- and all considered, it balances out to provide a great overall user experience no other system (Pixel notwithstanding) quite matches.

Sure, you could get similar performance for less cash with the Acer C720 (if you can actually track down a 4GB model anywhere, that is), but you'd be sacrificing a lot in terms of build quality and user experience -- and giving up a couple hours of battery life as well.

You could get good build quality and a larger, higher-res display with the 13.3-in. Samsung Chromebook 2, but that screen has its downsides -- and you'd be stepping down significantly in terms of performance, too, thanks to Samsung's decision to go with an ARM-based chip in its device.

The newer Bay Trail-based Chromebooks set to launch this summer, meanwhile, should be in the same ballpark as the Dell in terms of battery life -- but while the Bay Trail chip is great for stamina, it's generally considered to be at a level lower of performance than the Haswell-based chip that the Dell employs.

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So for now, the Dell Chromebook strikes me as the best all-around option for someone looking to get a good general-purpose Chromebook without breaking the bank. From form to performance, it's just a really nice system to use -- and that's what counts the most.

Let's see if this summer's remaining launches do anything to change that recommendation.

*Note: As of the time of this writing, Dell's website lists the Chromebook 11 as being out of stock. Dell assures me that's a short-term issue related to "strong demand"; the company says it's still selling the Chromebook via its education channels and expects to have the device available once again for consumer purchase within the coming weeks.

[Chromebook overload! A simple guide to all the new stuff ahead]

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