This review was originally published in May 2017.
Update: We added a durability and drop test section (see below) with results from our Chromebook drop test.
Educators often like to use Chromebooks in the classroom, because laptops with Google's operating system are easy to use and hard to infect with malware. To meet students' needs, a number of laptop makers have built durable, low-cost Chromebooks that can take a beating and handle elementary school curricula without breaking the bank. Starting at $229 ($259 as tested), Dell's 11-inch Chromebook 3180 is a solid but unremarkable choice for schools, combining all-day battery life, a tough design and a set of LED lights on the back of the lid that students can use to virtually raise their hands in class.
The Dell Chromebook 3180's design is very basic. The outside is a muted black with the Dell logo in the center of the cover and a Chrome logo in one corner. Another corner has a narrow white bar, which is actually a three-color light (red, yellow and green) that can be used in a classroom to notify the teacher that child has a question or needs help (like raising a hand). The corners are rounded, and the surface of this Chromebook feels slightly rough. There is a rubber-like ring around the outside of the bottom of the computer to help absorb shocks.
Inside, there is an 11.6-inch wide-screen display with the Dell logo below and a webcam above. The keyboard is island-style, and the deck has the same look and feel as the outside of the computer.
Dell placed most of the Chromebook 3180's ports and slots along its left side. There, you'll find two USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI port, a mini-SD card reader and the AC power jack. On the right are a combination headphone/microphone jack, a Noble Wedge Lock slot and a charging-status light.
At 11.9 x 8.1 x 0.8 inches and 2.8 pounds, the Chromebook 3180 is just slightly thinner and wider than some other student Chromebooks, such as the Asus Chromebook C202 (11.5 x 7.9 x 0.9 inches, 2.6 pounds) and the Acer Chromebook 11 N7 C731T (11.7 x 8.3 x 0.9 inches, 2.8 pounds). It is very close in size to the Lenovo N22 Touch Chromebook (11.8 x 8.4 x 0.9 inches, 2.6 pounds).
Durability and drop test
You wouldn't want to hand a fifth-grader a laptop that can't survive a few bumps and bruises. Dell says the Chromebook 3180 has passed 15 different MIL-STD tests, including those for shocks, extreme temperatures and drops from 30 inches. The 3180's keyboard is sealed and spill-resistant, while the screen is made from scratch-resistant Corning Gorilla Glass.
The Chromebook 3180 proved its durability in our Chromebook drop test, scoring a 7 out of 10 and ranking fourth among popular Chrome OS laptops. The laptop dented and the plastic hinge and bottom panel separated when we dropped the laptop from 2.5 feet and 4.5 feet onto carpet and concrete, but we were able to snap everything back into place. The only permanent damage the Chromebook 3180 sustained was to the touchpad after we dropped the laptop from 4.5 feet onto its side.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The Chromebook 3180's keyboard has snappy keys with solid feedback, good placement and none of the flex we find on many low-cost laptops. After using the computer for about 6 hours, I typed 75 words per minute on 10fastfingers.com, with a 2 percent error rate, which is very similar to my typical 77 wpm and 1 percent error rate. However, this is an 11-inch laptop, so adults with large hands or long fingernails may have to be more deliberate; my typing definitely improved after I cut my nails.
The buttonless touchpad had the right amount of sensitivity while I performed two-finger scrolling and three-finger swiping. I didn't have to tap very hard to get a response, and I didn't have any false clicks.
Considering its relatively low resolution, the Chromebook 3180's 11.6-inch, 1366 x 768 display shows a lot of detail. However, it isn't very colorful or bright. When I watched Avatar on YouTube at 720p, the picture looked crisp, but the colors were muted in what should have been a vibrant landscape.
The Chromebook 3180 reproduced a modest 72.8 percent of the sRGB color gamut, which is far below the ultraportable-laptop category average of 99.4 percent, but similar to the scores from the Chromebook N7 (72 percent) and the N22 Touch Chromebook (71 percent). The Asus Chromebook C202 was significantly less vibrant.
The laptop's Delta-E color accuracy score of 0.3 is excellent (0 is ideal), and better than the category average of 2.3. It is also better than the scores for the Chromebook N7 (1.5), Chromebook C202 (2.8) and N22 Touch Chromebook (1.3).
While it's bright enough for most uses, we definitely wouldn't use the Chromebook 3180's screen outdoors or near a window on a sunny day. The display had a brightness of just 210 nits, compared to 235 nits for the Chromebook N7, 250 nits for the Chromebook C202 and 254 nits for the N22 Touch Chromebook. All of these results are well below the category average of 303.5.
Viewing angles were decent for individual use, but forget about gathering a group around the screen. Colors started to fade as we moved more than 45 degrees to the left or right.
Kids can watch educational videos, or even movies, on the Chromebook 3180, but don't even think about using it as a stereo. When I listened to "Bohemian Rhapsody," the highs were tinny, and the vocals became distorted at only 75 percent volume. Even at full volume, the sound wasn't loud enough to fill a room.
Equipped with an Intel Celeron N3060 processor and 4GB of RAM, our configuration of the Dell Chromebook 3180 was good enough for web browsing and light video viewing but not intense multitasking. When I streamed Netflix in HD in one tab and scrolled through Facebook in another, I didn't notice any issues. Running Netflix in HD and having four other tabs open gave me some lag in typing or scrolling, but all of the tabs were still usable.
On the WebGL Aquarium graphics test, which measures 3D graphics prowess by showing a tank with 2,000 fish swimming, the 3180 achieved a rate of 26 frames per second, which was similar to the frame rates from the Chromebook 11 N7 (25 fps) and the Chromebook C202 (27 fps) but noticeably ahead of the N22 Touch Chromebook (15 fps). The category average (239.4) was much higher, but the group includes more powerful laptops.
Chrome OS and Software
If you're familiar with Chrome OS, the Chromebook 3180's interface won't look any different from what you're used to. The operating system revolves primarily around the Chrome browser, and most of the apps in the menu are actually just web tools that open in the browser window. As on Windows, there's a taskbar at the bottom of the screen that shows your open applications, along with a system tray that displays the time, battery and Wi-Fi status.
Most of the apps require you to be online, but you can use Gmail Offline, the camera, the photo editor, and some other apps when you're not connected to Wi-Fi. Schools will have to guide students to the appropriate education sites and web apps, because there aren't any preloaded shortcuts that point to academic resources.
Chrome OS is slowly getting the ability to run Android apps, but because it lacks a touch screen, Dell's laptop isn't a good choice if you want to use programs from Google's mobile OS.
The Dell Chromebook 3180 has just enough power to get a student through the school day and an extracurricular activity. When we ran our battery test (continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi), the 3180 lasted 8 hours and 55 minutes. That's better than the 8:10 average and the Chromebook C202's runtime of 8:23. However, the N22 Touch Chromebook and the N7 Chromebook lasted much longer, at 10:26 and 10:38, respectively.
The Chromebook 3180 stayed pleasantly cool throughout our tests. After we streamed video for 15 minutes, the touchpad measured 78 degrees Fahrenheit, while the keyboard and underside hit just 88 and 94 degrees, respectively. All of those temperatures are below our 95-degree comfort threshold.
I wouldn't recommend using the Chromebook 3180's 720p webcam for videoconferencing. My selfie was very grainy and dark, even though I was in a bright room. Colors were accurate, but detail was not there. However, students might enjoy the different built-in filters. For example, there are filters involving color, such as sepia and grayscale; filters that make different parts of your face bulge; and one that leaves image trails when you move, for a ghostly effect.
Configurations and Warranty
I reviewed the Chromebook 3180 in its $259 top-of-the-line configuration: an Intel Celeron N3060 processor, 4GB of RAM and 32GB of eMMC memory. The $219 base model is $40 cheaper and halves the RAM and memory.
Schools and parents who are looking for a durable Chromebook with solid performance, strong battery life and a comfortable keyboard will find a lot to like in the Dell Chromebook 3180.
On the other hand, for under $200, you can get an Asus Chromebook C202, which has an even better keyboard, a more attractive design and the ability to survive 4-foot drops. If a touch panel is important to you, you should take a look at the Lenovo N22 Touch Chromebook, which has not only a touch screen and similar performance to the 3180's, but also longer battery life and a slightly cheaper price of $230.
However, if you want a rugged Chromebook that can last through a full school day, the Dell Chromebook 3180 is a strong choice.
Image Credit: Laptop Mag