First Look

24 hours with the Dell Chromebook 13: A taste of luxury with a price you can stomach

You say you want a midrange Chromebook? Dell's new device might just be the one.

Dell Chromebook 13

What's it take to make a Chromebook "midrange"?

The answer appears to be on a path of evolution. For years, our Chrome OS options fell into one of two extremes: On one end, we had the affordable lower-end systems with disappointing displays and lackluster build quality -- and on the other, the singular high-end (and high-priced) top-o'-the-line Chromebook Pixel.

Things have gotten a little less black and white lately, with good performance and decent displays starting to creep into the upper edge of the affordable Chromebook realm. Manufacturers like Toshiba and Acer have even started to offer systems with slightly elevated levels of construction. But sub-$1000 laptops that look, feel, and act like premium devices have been tough to come by -- and it seems like a true midrange laptop should be able to swing that, at least to a certain degree (and even if it ends up costing a little extra as a result).

Dell thinks it's up to the challenge. The company's new Chromebook 13, on sale now and shipping later this month, promises to be the classy and powerful midrange Chromebook we've been waiting to see. With a starting price of just $399, that'd be an impressive feat to accomplish.

So does Dell's latest laptop really deliver? I've spent the past day using it for all of my work. Here are some initial impressions.

Premium -- to a point

One thing's for sure: When it comes to materials and build quality, Dell's Chromebook 13 is definitely the nicest all-around Chromebook we've seen on this side of $1000. The laptop has a carbon-fiber cover and aluminum/magnesium body, and it looks sleek and stylish while still managing to feel seriously sturdy. It becomes clear within seconds of getting your hands on this thing that it's a tier above most current Chromebooks and their plastic-centric natures.

Dell Chromebook 13

The Dell Chromebook 13, on the rocks

But let's be clear: It's all relative. While some were quick to peg Dell's device as being a "Pixel you can afford," that's really a bit of a stretch. The Chromebook 13 is a noticeable step up from most other Chromebooks in the low- to midrange realm, but it doesn't take you anywhere near the level of quality, design, or attention to detail you'd get on the ultra-high end of things. A system like the Pixel costs what it does for a reason. Dell's Chromebook gives you a taste of that sky-high luxury within a decidedly earth-tethered package.

You can see the differences in areas like the sizable gap separating the Chromebook 13's hinge from its lower half -- and in the device's keyboard, which is fine but plasticky and really no different in feel than the keyboards on most entry-level Chromebooks (though it is backlit, which is a nice touch). The area surrounding the Dell's display is also plastic, as is the hinge itself.

Dell Chromebook 13 Keyboard

Mind the gap (fingerprint smudges courtesy yours truly)

But again: It's all relative. Being a midrange device means finding a delicate balance -- one that takes you above the entry-level play shed without flying all the way up to the pricey penthouse suite.

To that end, the Chromebook 13 has a matte 1080p IPS display that's pleasingly easy on the eyes. For the uninitiated, IPS is a higher-quality kind of display panel that puts the cheaper and more common TN-type displays to shame. It's bright, bold, and easy to see from any angle -- nothing like the dull and grainy yuckiness you get with lesser-equipped laptops.

And then there's the Chromebook 13's trackpad, which is made of glass and an absolute treat to use. Seriously: It may sound silly to say, but this thing feels amazing under your fingers. It's right up there with the best of 'em.

Powerful -- with options

On the performance front, Dell's new Chromebook has yet to disappoint. Even with my bordering-on-psychotic style of work -- with as many as 15 to 20 tabs open simultaneously most of the time -- the system has remained swift and speedy, with not a single sign of lag during my inaugural hours of use.

I should mention, though, that the laptop I'm using isn't that base $399 model. That model has an Intel Celeron processor (3205U) and 2GB of RAM. The version most people will want -- and the one I have in front of me -- is the next-step-up $429 model, which keeps the same processor but bumps up to 4GB of RAM. Four gigs of RAM is always where I suggest folks start with a Chrome OS system when possible; that extra bit of memory really does make a noticeable difference in a device's ability to keep up and handle multiple things at once.

If your wallet is feeling especially heavy, Dell is selling a few higher-priced variations of the Chromebook 13 as well: a $529 model that bumps you up to a Core i3 processor; a $629 model that doubles the local storage from 16GB to 32GB and adds a touch-capable display; and a $649 model that throws in an additional 4GB of RAM (for a total of 8GB) on top of all that other stuff. For most people, I don't think those upgrades will be worthwhile, but the options are there if you want 'em.

(All of the systems have microSD card slots for external storage expansion as well as two-year subscriptions for 100GB of cloud-based Google Drive storage.)

Comparisons count

So there's a quick tour for ya. I'll save the rest of my thoughts -- including those on the laptop's stamina, which looks extremely promising but is tough to fully evaluate after just one day of use -- for an upcoming review.

With a system like this, side-by-side comparisons are going to be crucial. Remember, Dell's $429 Chromebook 13 is practically equal to Toshiba's $329 second-gen Chromebook 2 in core areas like processing power and display quality. The question is how much of a difference its added niceties actually make in day-to-day use -- and for whom the extra premium might make sense.

I'll be spending ample time with both laptops, along with an upcoming Chromebook convertible from Acer, over the next few weeks (while simultaneously getting to know the Android 6.0 Marshmallow software and a couple of new Nexus phones -- yup, it's gonna be a busy October here at this hollowed-out tree where I whittle my words).

Keep an eye out for my fall Chromebook comparison later this month, and get ready for some delightfully difficult decisions in the weeks ahead.

UPDATE: Review: Dell Chromebook 13 vs. Toshiba Chromebook 2

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