Dell and the Business Case for Chromebooks

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  December 9, 2015

When Chromebooks were originally introduced by Google back in May 2011, the concept of low cost, lightly-powered, quick-booting laptops with good battery life, minimal onboard storage, cloud dependencies and no packaged applications seemed either hopelessly radical or helplessly out of touch. In the real world of 2011 IT, traditional laptops were growing ever more powerful and capacious, software still came in boxes and the threat potential of mobile smart phones and tablets wasn’t yet at full boil.

Half a decade later, Google’s strategy looks increasingly spot-on as PC vendors (with the help of Intel and other component manufacturers) imbue laptops with Chromebook-style attributes, including fast booting, Flash-based storage and continually enhanced battery life. But despite delivering these popular innovations well before they became the norm, Chromebooks still largely occupy niche markets. Why is that the case?

Partly due to vendors, themselves, who have mainly viewed Chromebooks as low cost/low performance alternatives to traditional Wintel laptops. As a result, Chromebooks have mainly seen success in cost-conscious markets, such as education where sturdy if often uninspired design tends to be the rule. Google has tried to counter this argument with its premium Chromebook Pixel, but its $1,000 to $1,300 price tag puts it out of contention for any but the most die-hard Chrome fanatics.

Beyond the demand for Chromebooks in education, vendors, including Acer, ASUS, Dell, Haier, Hisense, HP, Samsung and Toshiba have delivered solutions for consumer use cases. What is rarer are Chromebooks compellingly designed from the ground up for the needs of workers and businesses. At least, that was the case until the recent release of Dell’s new Chromebook 13. Dell was kind enough to provide me a review unit which I’ve been working with for the past few weeks, so let’s consider what Dell aimed for and got right in the Chromebook 13.

Workplace requirements

First, what do businesses want in the way of computing endpoints for employees? Functionality and durability are important, so systems must be sturdy and able to support monitors and other business peripherals. Access to solid productivity tools (word processing, spreadsheet, presentation software and so-on) is usually a key requirement, as is support for other business applications. Ease of use is also key, especially for companies that have paid painful premiums for training employees to use redesigned and even reimagined core applications (here’s looking at you, Windows Vista).

But utility isn’t everything. Aesthetics are also important, especially for managers and executives who are often judged by the IT tools they use. Plus, with more and more employees taking work home or on the road, a business Chromebook should be light yet durable, comfortable to use and capable of supporting common wireless and other protocols. Plus, like any true road warrior device, it should, nay, must have excellent battery life.

Dell’s Chromebook 13

So how does Dell’s newest Chromebook 13 fit the profile I just described? Pretty darned well, overall. On the practical side, the unit is well designed and solid with a build quality that recalls professional-grade laptops, especially in the excellent keyboard and trackpad. That sets the Dell solution well above most other Chromebooks, but it also reflects the company’s ability to leverage its supply chain and economies of scale to benefit Chromebook users.

What do I mean by that? Over the past few years, Dell has increasingly used magnesium alloys and carbon fiber composites in its business Latitude and premium XPS laptop lines. While most vendors regard those materials as luxury items reserved for high-quality/priced products, Dell buys and uses them in volumes that make them affordably commonplace. As a result, the Chromebook 13 is notably lighter, as well as having a better look and feel than most competing products.

Like other Chromebooks, Dell’s supports the full range of Google Apps, including Docs, Sheets and Slides (the equivalents of Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint). But Chromebooks are also compatible with Microsoft’s Office Online along with numerous other online-enabled applications. Plus, there are scores of business apps available at the Chrome Web Store among its tens of thousands of other titles.

So far as peripheral support goes, the Chromebook 13 sports an HDMI port, USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 ports, a headphone/mic jack, a microSD card slot and a Noble lock slot. Wireless connectivity is provided by an Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260 802.11AC Wi-Fi + BT 4.0 LE Wireless Card. Last but certainly not least, battery life is, in a word, superb. My own experience was in line with traditional tests that placed the Chromebook 13’s battery life at 12+ to 13+ hours.

This all sounds great but does the Chromebook 13 have any problems or issues that should concern business customers? A few. For example, while the Chromebook 13 display options are full high def (FHD), they are not quite as bright as some competing Chromebook solutions, a point that might affect some purchases. A larger issue is that Dell’s new solution is more expensive than most other Chromebooks. For example, HP’s Chromebook 14 G3 starts at $299.99 and Toshiba’s Chromebook 2 (13”) at $319.00. But while that could well be an issue in traditional Chromebook markets and use cases, I would argue that Dell is after different purchasers—those who appreciate the design quality and added value packed into the Chromebook 13.

Final analysis

Also worth considering are the configurations Dell is offering for the Chromebook 13. Yes, you can get two budget models starting at $399.00 with an Intel Celeron CPU, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of SSD storage. But five higher end products (from $529 to $899) include Intel Core i3 or i5 CPUs, up to 8GB of RAM and up to 32GB of SSD storage. Plus, the top end model includes a touch screen display.

The point being that this variety reflects Dell’s understanding that since business needs regularly smash “one size fits all” expectations, true business solutions must be designed to accommodate a range of customer requirements.

This may be the key to Chromebooks finally being accepted by enterprises and other organizations. As I noted before, when the devices first arrived they bore scarce resemblance to conventional business endpoints. But as the market has come to value those features favored early on by Google, few Chromebook vendors stepped up to truly business class devices. With the Chromebook 13, Dell has done just that.

By taking the core value proposition and solutions provided in Google’s Chrome ecosystem and leveraging its own considerable design and engineering skills and supply chain capabilities, Dell has created a business Chromebook portfolio unlike any other. Organizations might choose to stick with their conventional PCs and laptops, or may never even seriously consider Chrome-based solutions at all. But with the Chromebook 13, Dell has eliminated any claims and all excuses that these devices are simply not ready for business prime time.

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