Dell XPS 12 review

A Windows 8 PC that can be used in a tablet mode? Those will come a dime a dozen this fall. But what's fascinating is how each PC maker has approached the challenge of mixing a touchscreen with a more traditional mouse-and-keyboard setup. For some OEMs, this means going the hybrid route, with 10- or 11-inch tablets that slot neatly into an optional keyboard dock. For others, it means a full-fledged PC with a slide-out touchscreen. And for a few, it means a laptop whose screen can fold down, leaving you with what can only be described as an oversized slate.

That's how we would describe the Dell XPS 12, a 12.5-inch notebook whose screen flips inside its hinge, allowing you to use the machine in tablet mode or, if you prefer, with the screen facing away from the keys. (Yes, Dell is giving this form factor a second try.) It starts at a relatively steep $1,200 but then again, this is a fairly premium machine we're talking about: it combines all the ingredients of an Ultrabook (lightweight build, Ivy Bridge processor and a solid-state drive) with a 400-nit, 1080p, Gorilla Glass touchscreen. So what's it like to use this form factor? And how does it fare as a regular ol' Windows 8 PC? Let's see.

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Dell XPS 12

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Dell

Dell XPS 12

Pros

  • Lovely design, solid build quality
  • 400-nit, 1080p display
  • 12-second boot-up
  • Comfortable keyboard

Cons

  • Finicky trackpad
  • Relatively short battery life
  • No SD slot
Summary

Even if you never use it in tablet mode, this 12.5-inch convertible is a solid Ultrabook in its own right.

Look and feel

If you thought Dell's other XPS Ultrabooks were pretty, you're going to like the XPS 12; it has the same overarching design as the XPS 13 and 14, save, of course, for that touchscreen and easel-like hinge. Once again, Dell decked the lid out in a lovely carbon fiber weave -- a design flourish that lets you know this is indeed a premium system. The palm rest and bottom side, meanwhile, have a pleasing, soft-touch finish that does a good job of repelling scratches and fingerprints. Underneath that soft, touchable layer is a magnesium alloy frame, which makes the entire machine feel rigid -- you won't notice any bending or flexing as you type on the keyboard or hold the PC in one hand.

Dell also makes use of some tasteful metal accents, including a band of aluminum around the keyboard deck. As with the other XPS Ultrabooks, there's even a metal door on the bottom side, hiding the Windows product key and any FCC certifications. The frame housing the display is also made of metal and feels reassuringly sturdy. What's more, the display snaps in and out of position with a comforting clicking sound, which should also inspire confidence in the build quality. To push the display out, you'll need to nudge it from either side, using your fingers. Presumably you don't mind fingerprints, otherwise you wouldn't be considering a touchscreen PC in the first place.

Dell XPS 12 review with the launch of Windows 8, 'convertible PC' takes on a new meaning

At 3.35 pounds, this feels heavy for a 12.5-inch laptop -- a common tradeoff with touchscreen machines. When it comes to carrying the machine around in your bag or around the house, that weight won't be an issue, though we did find that it's inconvenient to use in tablet mode for long stretches -- it's just too large and unwieldy. If you do use it as a tablet, you might appreciate it most when you're hanging out on the couch, and can rest the device against your legs. Ultimately, we'd say we were more likely to use the touchscreen in clamshell mode -- touching Live Tiles and other finger-friendly elements instead of using the trackpad.

Given all this, you might wonder why a complicated hinge design like this is even necessary. And yet, we can think of at least one benefit. Unlike, say, the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga, the XPS 12 doesn't leave the keys exposed while you're in tablet mode. That means if you're cradling it like a slate, you won't feel the keys against your fingers on the back side. (If you do choose the Yoga instead, there's an optional sleeve that covers the keyboard portion of the laptop, though this seems like a less elegant solution.)

Poke around the edges and you'll find a modest collection of ports: two USB 3.0 sockets (one with support for PowerShare and Windows debugging), a Mini DisplayPort, a 3.5mm headphone jack and dual speakers -- one on each side. There's a volume rocker for when you're using this thing as a tablet, though there are also dedicated volume and mute keys on the keyboard. Unfortunately, Dell omitted an SD card reader, as it did on the XPS 13. It's not that we would have wanted to augment the system's storage; it just would have been nice to offload photos and video from a memory card.

Keyboard and trackpad

Dell XPS 12 review

As you'd expect, the keyboard, too, is basically the same as on the XPS 13, just a touch smaller. Even in this slightly more cramped chassis, the keys are still well-spaced and easy to find by feel. Like we've been saying all along, the buttons have a spring-loaded feel, giving plenty of tactile feedback. Particularly compared to other ultraportables, most of which have shallow, lifeless keys, these are a pleasure to type on. Also worth a mention: the keyboard has a backlight underneath, which you can turn on and off using the F5 button.

The XPS 12's Cypress trackpad has something of a split personality: smooth and reliable in the Modern UI, stubborn and mercurial in the traditional desktop. We had no problem using two fingers to scroll horizontally through our Live Tiles. The touchpad supports other Windows 8 gestures, too, like swiping in from the right side of the pad to expose the Charm Bar, or swiping from the left to toggle between apps. The pad excels at all of these things; these maneuvers are intuitive and easy to replicate.

Where we ran into trouble was with simple cursor navigation, of all things. While using desktop apps like Explorer, we found that it sometimes took multiple tries to get the cursor to go exactly where we wanted it to. Other times, the cursor would stop short on screen before we got to whatever it was we were trying to click. Even in the Modern UI, single-finger navigation could feel a bit belabored. On the plus side, the trackpad's built-in touch button is easy to press, and thankfully doesn't do that thing where it mistakes left clicks for right ones -- something we frequently complain about when we test buttonless touchpads. In any case, a Dell rep told us the company is still fine-tuning its drivers, so perhaps these kinks will soon be a moot point.

Display and sound

Dell XPS 12 review

Even on larger 14- and 15-inch machines, we're used to screens with 1,366 x 768 resolution, so it's always a surprise when we see small systems like the XPS 12 or Zenbook Prime UX21A, which cram 1,920 x 1,080 pixels into an 11- or 12-inch panel. In the case of the XPS 12's 12.5-inch screen, that 1080p resolution translates to a density of 176 pixels per inch (compared with 118 ppi on the XPS 13). As you'd expect, it's quite crisp in person. We'd be lying if we said we could notice that big of a difference when watching certain movies on Netflix, but with content that was natively shot in 1080p, it's golden. Those extra pixels also make a difference in desktop apps, where everything looks just a little tighter, and items on screen look noticeably smaller. Additionally, that 400-nit brightness level means you probably won't lack for suitable viewing angles. Even with the brightness at a median level, you should enjoy good vertical viewing angles while resting the machine on your lap. This bodes well for plane travel, or any kind of on-the-go conditions, really.

Thanks to the Gorilla Glass coating, too, it should also be durable enough to use in tablet mode. As a touchscreen, too, it responds quickly to swipes and pinch-to-zoom, while certain Windows 8 apps like Photos and IE 10 do a good job of quickly resizing content. Our only caveat would be that the screen brightness is clearly a drain on battery life; with a 400-nit rating, it's about on par with other laptops, even when the dimmer's at a moderate setting.

Like so many other ultraportable laptops, the XPS 12 has some real limitations in the audio department. The only surprise is how loud this thing gets, and how minimal the distortion is at top volume. Otherwise, this is a story you've heard before: bass notes tend to get drowned out, so much so that you might find yourself boosting the volume to compensate. On the plus side, things like piano and acoustic guitar sound quite pleasant.

Performance and battery life

Dell XPS 12 review with the launch of Windows 8, 'convertible' takes on a new meaning

We're at a point where PCs are really, really fast; it's not uncommon for an Ultrabook with 4GB of RAM and a solid-state drive to boot up in less than 20 seconds. That said, we still did a double-take when we logged the XPS 12's start-up time. It takes just 12 seconds to reach the log-in screen, and another two to load the Start Menu after you've entered your credentials. Its Samsung-made SSD shows promise too: in the disk benchmark ATTO it reached top read speeds of 516 MB/s, putting it in the same league as our favorite ultraportables, including the 13-inch MacBook Air and the 13-inch Samsung Series 9. Write speeds were strong, too, topping out at 263 MB/s. In real-world use, this performance allowed us to switch between apps with ease, and not have to keep track of how many programs we had running at a given time. As for graphics, it managed 4,520 in 3DMark06, which is on par with, or slightly better than, other Ivy Bridge Ultrabooks we've tested.

In PCMark 7, the XPS 12 notched a score of 4,673, but we admittedly can't make much of that score right now, as we only recently started transitioning from PCMark Vantage to PCMark 7 (only the latter runs on Windows 8 -- hence, the switch in testing methodology). As we review more Windows 8 systems using PCMark 7 as a general performance benchmark, it'll be easier for us to put such scores in context.

Battery Life
Dell XPS 12 5:30
Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, 2012) 7:29
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 7:19
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2012) 7:02
MacBook Air (13-inch, 2012) 6:34 (OS X) / 4:28 (Windows)
Dell XPS 14 6:18
HP Folio 13 6:08
HP Envy Sleekbook 6z 5:51
Toshiba Portege Z835 5:49
Sony VAIO T13 5:39
MacBook Air (13-inch, 2011) 5:32 (OS X) / 4:12 (Windows)
HP Envy 14 Spectre 5:30
Toshiba Satellite U845W 5:13
Toshiba Satellite U845 5:12
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 5:11
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon 5:07
Samsung Series 5 Ultrabook (14-inch, 2012) 5:06
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5 5:05
Dell XPS 13 4:58
Lenovo IdeaPad U310 4:57
Acer Aspire S5 4:35
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2011) 4:20
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX21A 4:19
Acer Aspire S3 4:11
Vizio Thin + Light (14-inch) 3:57

After running our standard battery test numerous times, five and a half hours was the longest the XPS 12 could muster. As you can see, that's not particularly impressive, given that other Ultrabooks can manage six hours or better. Interestingly, though, it's in line with the Toshiba Satellite U925t, another 12.5-inch touchscreen Ultrabook. We're still in the process of testing that one, but preliminarily we're finding it lasts even less time on a charge: about five hours and ten minutes.

Software

It would be wrong to say that Windows 8 spells the end of crapware, but if there is any unwanted software on your new system, it's at least likely to be more discreet. In general with Win 8 systems, you won't find random shortcuts littering the desktop when you first boot up the machine, and PC makers also seem to have abandoned their efforts to customize Windows with add-ons like Dell Dock and VAIO Gate. On the Start Menu, OEMs are given a specific place where they're allowed to place their own apps. In the case of the Dell XPS 12, that cluster of pre-installed programs is relatively small. On tap, you've got Amazon's Kindle app, Skype, Photo Gallery, Movie Maker, Microsoft Office, Dell Shop, Dell Support Center and Amazon Store (not a browser link, but a bona fide app.) All told, this stuff takes up little more than a column on the Start Menu, which seems reasonable.

Configuration options and the competition

Dell XPS 12 review with the launch of Windows 8, 'convertible PC' takes on a new meaning

The XPS 12 is a compelling option if you're in the market for a high-end, touch-enabled Ultrabook.

Our entry-level $1,200 model comes with a 1.7GHz Core i5-3317U processor, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. For $1,400, you can get essentially the same configuration, but with eight gigs of RAM. For an extra hundred bucks (we're at $1,500 now), you get that Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory and a 256GB SSD. Last up, the cream of the crop: a $1,700 unit with all the above specs, but with a Core i7-3517U processor. Regardless of which configuration you choose, Intel HD 4000 graphics are standard, as is that 1080p, 400-nit, Gorilla Glass display.

For the purposes of whittling down a potentially long list of Windows 8 options, we're going to assume that if you're considering the XPS 12, that means you like the idea of a powerful, full-fledged laptop that can also be used in tablet mode from time to time. If you don't mind, we'll just skip over most of those laptop / tablet hybrids we mentioned, as most of them run on Atom processors -- get one of those and you'll have to adjust your expectations in terms of performance (the battery life on those will be longer, at least).

As we mentioned earlier, one of the XPS 12's closest competitors is the 13-inch Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga, whose screen folds all the way back so that if you're using it in tablet mode, the keyboard remains exposed on the back side. We already mentioned that the exposed keys seem like a potential inconvenience, but you can remedy that using an optional sleeve. The Yoga also has a slightly less dense screen: though it's larger, it also has a slightly lower resolution (1,600 x 900 vs. 1080p). Still, it weighs about the same as the XPS 12, despite having a larger footprint, and it also claims longer battery life. (We've yet to test it ourselves.) The Yoga also offers some things the XPS 12 doesn't -- namely, an HDMI port and memory card reader. Another plus: it starts at $1,100 -- a hundred bucks less than Dell's offering. If you do consider the Yoga, keep in mind that the 11-inch Yoga is a very different beast: it has an ARM processor and runs Windows RT, which does not support legacy Windows apps.

We're also excited about the Toshiba Satellite U925t, another 12.5-inch Ultrabook, this one with a slider form factor. Though we've yet to put it through a full review, we've had some hands-on time with the device, and came away impressed with its generous keyboard layout and IPS touchscreen. That starts at $1,150, putting it in roughly the same ballpark as the XPS 12 being reviewed here.

If we've convinced you that a 12-inch laptop with a touchscreen isn't very comfortable to use as a tablet substitute, perhaps you'd be happier with a traditional clamshell laptop that has a touchscreen. (After all, the XPS 12 is a pleasure to use in that mode.) Though we haven't yet had a chance to review any of the following options, we'll at least toss them out for your consideration. Some notable contenders: the Acer Aspire S7 Ultrabook ($1,200 and up), the Samsung Series 5 Ultra Touch ($799 and up), the ASUS Zenbook Prime with touch (price TBA) and the Sony VAIO T13 with an optional touchscreen ($770-plus).

Wrap-up

Dell XPS 12 review

Though the XPS 12's size and weight make it a bit unwieldy as a substitute tablet, it's still a compelling option if you're in the market for a high-end, touch-enabled Ultrabook. The XPS 12 is almost as light as other Ultrabooks, with a premium industrial design, comfortable keyboard, gorgeous 1080p screen and a super-fast boot-up time. The biggest drawbacks seem to be the flaky trackpad and the relatively short battery life, which doesn't improve much when you dim that 400-nit display. We'll be curious to see how other touchscreen Ultrabooks fare, particularly those with similarly versatile designs. In the meantime, though, the XPS 12 represents a solid start for this new wave of Windows 8 shape-shifters.

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