Reviewed: Dell Chromebook 13 strikes fine balance between price and power

A great second laptop for those who don't want to bring their primary rig on the road, and who don't mind using Chrome OS.

dell chromebook 13 screen keyboard detail
Melissa Riofrio

What is the best notebook to take on the road? In my opinion, it’s not the one you use everyday, which might have all of your important business docs stored securely on a hard drive or your daughter’s senior picts you just off-loaded from a professional photographer. There’s the laptop you use at work, and then the laptop you carry to the airport terminal.

The Dell Chromebook 13 fits in that second category, and I mean that in the best way possible. It’s similar in almost every way to the recently updated Google Chromebook PIxel, which costs $999, except with one important distinction: the Dell Chromebook 13 costs just $429 for the version I tested with 4GB of RAM. (Dell also makes a model with 2GB of RAM for $399 and touchscreen models at higher prices.)

The Dell Chromebook 13 uses an attractive enclosure that has a carbon-fiber coating. It feels rugged and durable, not as low-end as some of the competing Chromebooks from Acer and others. The keys feel remarkably similar to the Pixel if just a tad less springy. There are few extra frills here. With a Chromebook, you are accepting the limitations of the OS, which is essentially the Google Chrome browser running full-screen on a laptop. There’s some fairly limited file storage options on a 16GB SSD, but the Chrome OS is intended to get you onto the Web quickly and easily.

I used one for two weeks while traveling and found few “gotchas” that would make me not want to bring it along on another trip. At a Starbucks, I connected to a Google Fiber wireless signal at 100Mbps and never had any trouble with Wi-Fi interference on the 802.11ac chipset. The laptop easily lasted all day. The 13.3-inch screen is not one you’d want to use for watching the latest Avengers movie (the screen is a bit too small and the colors don’t pop as much as a high-end laptop), but Dell makes no claims about this being an entertainment machine. It’s purely for staying productive.

I liked it, and I’m already a big fan of the Chromebook Pixel. You just have to realize you won't be running any "real" apps. The model I tested for $429 does not use a touchscreen, and I’d have a hard time upgrading to the version that does, which costs $629. I’d prefer to see the model for $429 as a secondary machine for road trips. Because my primary purpose in using this laptop was about productivity, I tested Google Docs, checked email, and did quite a bit of social networking and never had any slowdowns.

Essentially, you buy the Dell Chromebook 13 for the keyboard, the reasonable weight (it’s 3.23 pounds for the non-touchscreen model), the fast OS with a quick boot-up (just seconds for me), and to buckle down and get work done. It’s worth noting that the model I tested as an HDMI port, so if I wanted to connect up to my HDTV at home and watch a movie, that’s possible. There’s also a MicroSD slot of loading photos.

I recommend the Dell Chromebook 13 because of the price and the simplicity. If you need a second laptop that you use mostly for work on the Web, this one is a good bet. It’s not quite as well-made as the Pixel, but definitely a step up from other Chromebooks.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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