Review: Dell Chromebook 3189 11.6″ 2-in-1

So what do you use for your day-to-day computing? For a long time I used a self-built tower PC but over the past few years I’ve been relying on my laptop more and more. With the advent of home servers and the cloud it’s much easier to work on a laptop with limited storage. If you need processing power it’s simple to remote desktop into your Virtual Machine running on your NAS. It’s really possible to do a lot without having the latest CPU and 1 TB SSD.

That’s the philosophy behind Chromebooks. You should be able to do most tasks online, or at least remotely. They are, generally, based on low power components and priced accordingly. More people are realising that a Chromebook offers great value, with students being top of this list. IDC recently estimated that Chromebook sales were even outpacing Mac sales in the US.

Dell has updated their 11” Chromebook for 2017 and it’s clearly built with students in mind. This is a sturdy little unit edged in shock absorbing rubber and boasting a ten-hour battery life. There’s even Gorilla glass covering the display and it’s been tested to the military MIL-STD 810G for shock resistance. You can buy them in bulk orders but individual units sell for $350.

If you’re not convinced by the Chromebook philosophy, Dell will also sell you this laptop with Windows installed – it’s called the Latitude 3189 and comes with a bigger SSD and costs $200 more. Both the Latitude and the Chromebook version can have the other OS installed, so you can change your mind later.

Specifications

This semi-rugged Chromebook comes with a 1.6GHz Intel Celeron N3060 dual-core processor that’s backed up with 4GB DDR3 RAM and a 32GB eMMC for local storage. There’s a microSD card slot if you need to expand your storage. The screen is a 16:9 ratio 1366×768 pixel IPS LCD that has a touchscreen overlay and sits under Gorilla glass. Wireless-AC (867Mbps) and Bluetooth 4.2 are handled by an Intel 7265 adapter. Ports consist of two USB 3.0 ports, headphone jack, and an HDMI port. Power is supplied from a 42Whr battery that’s charged with a 65W adapter through a barrel connector. Unfortunately, there’s no USB C port or regular SD card slot.

Design

The Dell Chromebook 3189 comes in a standard Dell carton that does little more than protect the laptop during shipping. When you open the box you’ll find the laptop, a power supply and a quick start guide – there’s no superfluous accessories here.

When you first pick up the Chromebook it immediately feels solid. The plastics used are strong but flexible enough to withstand a few drops. This is a ‘chuckable’ laptop and it weighs in at just under 1.5kg. Edging the plastic frame is a rim of shock absorbing rubber that adds to the durability.

The lid of the Chromebook is a glossy panel featuring Dell and Chrome logos, as well as an indicator LED. The glossy panel looks smart, but it doesn’t feel as durable as the rest of the laptop – the demo unit I have already had a scratch on it.

Opening the lid reveals the screen and keyboard. If you keep pushing the screen can fold all the way over, converting the Chromebook into a tablet. The hinge is sturdy and works well at any angle, holding the laptop firmly in place.

The keyboard is a chiclet style full sized keyboard with the ‘F’ keys replaced with a row of Chromebook specific keys that trigger browser controls and full-screen mode. As with other Chromebooks, you lose the Caps Lock key that’s replaced with a dedicated search key.

The trackpad is quite small and made from a different textured plastic. It is also slightly sunken so you know when you’ve reached the edge. Both the keyboard and trackpad are isolated from the internal components to provide a degree of spill protection.

The screen is glossy, sitting under a sheet of rugged Gorilla glass. There’s a large bezel here that’s great for protection, but it’s a world away from the ‘borderless’ screen on the Dell XPS 13. There’s also a camera for Hangouts or Skype as well as a microphone next to it.

On the left side are the main ports. At the back, there’s the power connector followed by the microSD slot, HDMI, and two USB ports.

On the opposite side, there’s a Nobel wedge-lock slot, charging indicator and headphone socket. There’s also buttons for volume and power – these replicate those on they keyboard but are really useful when in tablet mode.

The underside is fairly plain, with two long rubber feet and two small speaker grilles.

Overall the design feels utilitarian, but there’s obviously been a lot of thought go into it. One example is the small ridge of rubber that surrounds the Gorilla glass – giving the screen added protection when put screen-down on a flat surface. The Dell Chromebook features several of these small but useful design elements.

Getting to Know the Dell Chromebook 3189

The joy of a Chromebook is that there’s little to set up or maintain. You just power on and input your Google account details then you are good to go. I’m not going to cover the Chrome OS in this review, but it works as it should on the Dell Chromebook 11.

The biggest recent change to Chrome OS is the addition of Android Apps. I’m happy to write that this Chromebook should support them and runs most apps fine. To enable this feature you’ll have to change the Chrome OS ‘Channel’ to the unstable ‘dev’ channel, but I ran it for two weeks without encountering any major problems. The one issue I found was that the touchscreen would sometimes stop working, requiring a power cycle to fix. However, this problem disappeared when I switched back to the beta channel.

Unfortunately, a recent update to the ‘dev’ channel disabled all the apps and Play Store support! Reading around the web it appears others have had this problem too.

While I could, I managed to run most of my staple Android apps without any problems. I found it quite strange to be using Microsoft Word on a Chromebook for the first time! I was even more surprised to find that Skype worked well, supporting the microphone and camera perfectly. One app that I did encounter problems with was Sonos, I just couldn’t get it to recognise my speakers at all.

Android apps are a real bonus for Chrome OS, I’ve been tempted to switch to a Chromebook before but it didn’t do everything I wanted. With them I can happily use MS Office, Skype, 1Password and Photoshop on Chrome OS. Hopefully, Google will bring them back to the Dell Chromebook 11 soon.

Even without Android Apps, the Dell Chromebook 11 offers a great deal. The flexible design works perfectly as a laptop, and it’s almost as good as a tablet. Between these two you have the completely flat position or the more useful inverted-V that provides stability for desktop-tablet use.

Whether it’s in laptop or tablet mode, the screen is a big part of your experience – even when it’s only 11.6” diagonal. On the Chromebook 11 the screen has a relatively low resolution, and it shows in day to day use. Text is slightly pixelated when at my usual typing distance. Viewing angles are okay, but the brightness fades quite quickly if you are viewing things from an angle. The backlight keeps the screen bright when indoors, but it suffers when outdoors even with the antireflective coating. When in tablet mode the Chromebook has an orientation sensor to automatically switch between landscape and portrait displays. Overall the screen is passable but not the best out there.

Similarly, the typing and touchpad experience are good, but not great. The keyboard has good travel, but the plastics feel cheap and typing isn’t a pleasure. The trackpad is also okay, but it’s a far cry from glass trackpads on the Surface Pro 4 or Apple MacBook. For me, the main problem is that the click isn’t particularly responsive and it feels a bit mushy. The experience is entirely usable and I managed to write this review on the Dell Chromebook 11 without any problems. It works well as a functional and sturdy workhorse but lacks the refinement of more expensive laptops.

Throughout testing the battery life has been great. It’s easily lasted a full work day and recharges quickly. In general, I got 8-10 hours of use per charge. This is no doubt helped by the Chromebooks lack of any fan and the low screen resolution.

The final feature worth noting is the Dell indicator light, found on the top corner of the lid. This is a multicoloured LED that you control using a Chrome addon. The idea behind it is that you can discreetly send signals using the different colors. This may be useful in a classroom setting, but it isn’t that useful unless everyone has this particular Chromebook.

Performance

Measuring the performance of a Chromebook isn’t particularly easy. You can’t run the bevy of performance benchmarks that we’re used to. Because of this, I’ve taken a two-pronged approach to documenting the performance. Firstly is the Octane 2.0 benchmark that assesses browser JavaScript performance. This is a well-recognised benchmark that performs 17 tests to assess browser performance. Secondly is the subjective assessment of overall performance compared to other computers.

Octane 2.0 performed reasonably giving an overall score of 7,459. This puts performance at the lower end of this years Chromebooks, and a long way off the Chromebook Pixel’s score of 25,500.

Nevertheless, subjective performance was really good. Switching windows, watching video, moving files all happened without a pause. Even when I launched ten separate Chrome tabs plus two Android apps I rarely saw any lag. If I opened up more Android apps then there was a slight change in pace, but nothing that prevented me from working. I certainly never became frustrated with any delays.

Summary

The Dell Chromebook 3189 is a sturdy little Chromebook that’s sure to find a dedicated following. This isn’t going to appeal to those looking for a MacBook replacement, but it offers a semi-rugged design, all-day battery life, and great value.

Chrome OS has come a long way and when Android apps become officially supported this laptop will run them well. The 2-in-1 design lends itself well to the touch interface of these apps.

The keyboard, trackpad, and screen could all be improved, but Dell has balanced these against the durability and price. If you’re looking for a Chromebook that can survive the schoolbag then you’ve found it.

 

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