Dell XPS 12 review

Pros

  • Resurrects the flip-and-fold display
  • Fast Core i7-3517U processor
  • Large 256GB solid-state drive
  • Impressive battery life

Cons

  • A better laptop than a tablet
  • Limited port selection

Dell’s latest XPS effort is a Windows 8 powered hybrid ultrabook which transforms from laptop to tablet, and back again, with ease. As a convertible ultrabook, the Dell XPS 12 utilises the same flip-and-fold design – the display can be flipped around, and then folded flat to the base – as last seen on the Dell Inspiron Duo. Dell has dropped the Duo name, which is actually now used by Sony for its own convertible ultrabook, the Sony Vaio Duo 11.

The name change is understandable, as the XPS 12 has little in common with the Dell Inspiron Duo, save for the screen which flips around within a securely framed lid. Looking at the specifications, it's clear that the XPS 12 is in a different category to the Dell Inspiron Duo, with our top-end (£1,299) review model boasting an ultrabook-class Intel Core i7-3517U processor instead of a netbook-class Atom, and a 256GB solid-state drive offering significant performance gains over the slower hard drives used in netbooks.

Design

Weighing 1.5kg and measuring 317 x 218 x 24mm (WxDxH), the XPS 12 meets Intel's standard for convertible ultrabooks, although it is just a bit on the heavy side among ultrabooks (convertible or otherwise) that we've seen.

It also has a design more aligned with laptop sensibilities than tablet, with a slightly tapered chassis. This works well on a notebook, but with a tablet the lack of uniform thickness is a little awkward. Unlike the Sony Duo 11, however, it is comfortable to hold, with rounded edges and soft-touch panels across the underside. When using it as a tablet for watching movies or browsing the web, it's comfortable enough, but you'll probably keep it in landscape mode, as the wedge profile puts the screen at a slant when in portrait mode.

The display also has more to offer than just a nifty backflip. The 12.5in screen boasts a full HD 1920 x 1080 resolution, along with 400-nits of brightness and automatic ambient light sensing – and it's also a touchscreen, tracking ten touch points at once. Covered with Gorilla Glass, it should resist scratching even when kept with the screen out. The audio – which gets some software enhancement with Waves Maxx Audio 4.0 – is solid, but not great, producing a slightly muddied sound.

The physical keyboard is superb. The chiclet keys have the same soft-touch, matte-finish coating used on the rest of the palmrest. There's also more spring to them than is usually found on ultrabooks, and the result is an excellent typing feel. The onscreen keyboard is no better or worse than those on other tablets, but you'll definitely benefit from having the physical keyboard should you want to write anything longer than a tweet. The touchpad also features the soft-touch coating, making it fairly comfortable to use. It's a clickpad, with right and left buttons integrated into the surface of the pad.

Features

Dell has included a rather limited selection of ports and connectivity options with the XPS 12. On the right edge of the tablet are two USB 3.0 ports (one with Sleep and Charge), a power connector, and a button that lets you check the battery power level on an adjacent indicator. On the left, you'll find a headset jack, volume up and down buttons, a screen rotation lock button, and a sliding power switch.

Notably absent, however, is an Ethernet port, meaning that the 802.11n WLAN connection is your only option for getting online, and Bluetooth 3.0 adding wireless pairing for peripherals. You'll also be missing a memory card slot, and any ports for video output. Without any sort of VGA or HDMI output, the only way to pipe content through to a TV is via either a mini DisplayPort (which requires an adapter for HDMI) or via Wi-Di, which will require either a Wi-Di equipped TV or an adapter. This model is aimed at consumers, but an enterprise-focused configuration will be available with Windows 8 Professional, and it will include BitLocker Encryption with Trusted-Platform Module (TPM).

The top-end XPS 12 is also outfitted with a 256GB solid-state drive (SSD). As of now, 256GB is probably the highest capacity SSD you'll see offered in consumer systems, so it's hard to complain about that. Spinning hard drives offer a larger capacity, but are prone to damage when dealing with vibration and movement, both of which are abundant when using a tablet. The XPS 12 has no optical drive, but in this form-factor, it won't be missed.

Along with the inclusion of Windows 8, and the accompanying default tiles found on the Start Screen, Dell has added a few of its own, such as Amazon's Kindle app, a preview of Microsoft Office 2013, Microsoft Live Essentials 2012 (Photo Gallery & Movie Maker), and the new Windows 8 Skype app.

Dell also includes some resources for users, like the "Getting Started with Windows 8" app, Dell Shop, My Dell Support Centre, and Dell Backup & Recovery. Anti-virus protection comes in two forms: The default, Microsoft's Security Essentials, as well as a 30-day trial of McAfee's Windows 8 security app. Dell covers the XPS 12 with a one year warranty.

Performance

Unlike the Inspiron Duo, which was an Atom-powered netbook, Dell has outfitted the XPS 12 just as it would any other ultrabook, equipping it with an Intel Core i7-3517U (1.9GHz) processor, and pairing it with 8GB of RAM. It's an ultra-low voltage processor, designed for efficient power usage, but it still offers more than enough capability for all of your web surfing and media consumption needs.

More importantly, for anyone wanting to get some work done and take advantage of the keyboard and touchpad option, productivity is also alive and well. In PCMark 7, our productivity benchmark, the XPS 12 scored 4,638 points, similar to the Sony Vaio Duo 11 which hit 4,648 points. In our processor speed test, Cinebench R11.5, the XPS 12 scored 2.19 points, just slightly behind the Sony Duo 11’s 2.40 result.

That processing capability also means you can do some multimedia work with the XPS 12, as seen in our Handbrake and Photoshop CS6 benchmark tests. The XPS 12 completed these in 1 minute and 26 seconds, and 6 minutes and 31 seconds respectively. It's a bit slow for bigger projects, but you can certainly trim your YouTube videos and do some minor photo edits without having to leave the couch.

Gaming, however, is a different matter. While the integrated Intel graphics processing provides all of the needed eye candy for video and graphics-heavy web browsing, it falls short of 3D gaming support, returning unplayable scores in both Heaven and Aliens vs. Predators. Casual games – including those offered through the Windows Store – will still work just fine, so you can enjoy your Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja without fear.

The Dell XPS 12 lasted 5 hours and 9 minutes in our video battery rundown test, putting it a full two hours ahead of the Sony Vaio Duo 11 which spluttered in at 3 hours and 9 minutes. For a device that's all about portability, that long battery life is essential – you lose a lot of the flexibility and convenience of a tablet when you're tethered to a plug socket.

Verdict

Where the Sony Vaio Duo 11 left us nervous about the future of the hybrid ultrabook, the Dell XPS 12 puts us back on solid ground. While the design is a better laptop than a tablet, the XPS 12 is a solid performer, thanks to ultrabook-grade specs, an impressive battery life, and a design that prioritises comfort and usability. Note that you can pick up the lowest spec XPS 12 for £999, which bumps the processor down to a Core i5 (with turbo to 2.6GHz), and halves the memory and SSD to 4GB and 128GB respectively.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Product

Dell XPS 12

Graphics Card

Intel HD Graphics 4000

Screen Size

12.5in

RAM

8GB

Screen Size Type

Widescreen

Graphics Memory

512MB

Networking Options

802.11n

Operating System

Microsoft Windows 8

Processor Speed

1.9GHz (with turbo to 3GHz)

Primary Optical Drive

External

Type

General Purpose, Hybrid, Tablet, Ultrabook

Storage Capacity (as Tested)

256GB