Dell XPS 12 Hybrid Ultrabook Review

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In theory, the Dell XPS 12 is the best of both worlds: a well-built ultrabook and a full-on Windows 8 tablet. Its unique, swiveling, touchscreen display switches between those modes with a quick flip. It is very well-adapted to Windows 8, but it also makes Windows 8′s flaws glaringly obvious. When it is a laptop, it is made awkward by Windows 8′s tablet UI, and when it is a tablet, it is weighed down by the size and bulk of a laptop.

If you like Windows 8, you will love the Dell XPS 12. It is a very good Windows 8 laptop. If you aren’t sold on Windows 8′s multiple personalities, the XPS 12 won’t make you fall in love.

Price and features

The XPS 12 is a touch over $1,300 on Amazon, which is pricey for an ultrabook. Most fall somewhere around $1,000. Of course, most ultrabooks do not transform into tablets, so the XPS 12 has a big advantage, there.

As for specs, the XPS 12 is just fine. It has a 1.7 GHz processor, 4 GB of RAM, and a 128 GB solid-state hard drive. Just like every other ultrabook. Port selection is pretty spare. You get two USB ports and a mini DisplayPort, and that’s it. You’ll have to connect anything else with dongles. But it’s the flippy screen that explains the extra cost, not the spec sheet.sa

The central feature of the XPS 12 is its display, a metal frame surrounding a carbon-fiber-backed screen. It can flip 180 degrees around its horizontal axis. If you flip the screen and close the lid, it’s a tablet. Flip it back and open the lid, it’s a lightweight laptop. In theory, that makes it the best of both Windows 8 worlds.

Hardware and design

Although a flipping screen seems like it would be flimsy, the screen on the XPS 12 feels surprisingly solid. The metal frame is extremely rigid, and the screen within it flips smoothly. (It is quite addictive, in fact.) The hinges and latches feel like they would take some abuse, but I don’t think it will take anything like the abuse a solid laptop lid could handle. Abusive laptop owners (like me) beware.

The XPS 12 has the same aluminum and carbon fiber construction that I liked so much on the XPS 13, and it works just as well here. In fact, I think the XPS ultrabooks are the best-looking ultrabooks on the market. The main difference here is the carbon fiber on the back of the flippy part of the lid, which I don’t love. I prefer the smooth aluminum lid of the XPS 13 for its cleaner look, but you can form your own opinion on the aesthetics.

The screen itself though, is darn impressive. Viewing angles are key on a tablet, and this does not disappoint. The colors don’t wash out at any angle, so you will have no trouble using it in any orientation. It is an extremely high-resolution screen, too, especially for a 12″ screen. In fact, I found it to be almost too high resolution. For its Retina displays, Apple uses pixel doubling, which keeps things on the screen the same size, but increases their fidelity. The display on the XPS 12 does not to anything of the sort, which means that while the pixels are nice and tiny, so are the things they portray. I had to crank up the font size while writing this post, just so I could see what I was writing.

It does work better for Windows 8 apps, but the pixels are just too find for most desktop apps. While I like high-resolution displays, in general, this one isn’t quite right. It ought to be a little lower-resolution or, like Apple’s Retina displays, much higher resolution with pixel doubling.

The keyboard, on the other hand, is excellent. I love the keyboards on Dell’s XPS line of laptops and ultrabooks. I prefer the more-rounded keys on the XPS 13, but the keyboard on the XPS 12 is still in the top tier of laptop keyboards. The keys have a nice, positive feel, and give great feedback while typing.

Like most Windows laptops, the trackpad is mediocre. (Related observation: Why does Windows still not have trackpad settings in the Control Panel — it’s been years since trackpads became standard on laptops, and Windows still refuses to acknowledge they exist. ) I was able to get work done, but not without some effort. It would regularly move the cursor or highlight some text when I wasn’t expecting it, and right-clicking was more or less a crap shoot.

Software

Windows 8, fortunately, is much less friendly to crapware than its predecessors. The XPS 12 does come with a few unnecessary apps, but they are pretty unobtrusive. I just removed them from the Start screen, and didn’t think about them any more. That makes the extra pre-installed software pretty much irrelevant, which was a pleasant surprise.

That means the big news is, of course, Windows 8, and specifically how well-adapted it is to a convertible laptop/tablet hybrid. The fact is, my most-common expression while using Windows 8 is “crap.” Some of that is due to Windows 8, and some of it is due to the design of the XPS 12.

There are two user-interface paradigms in Windows 8. You can use the trackpad as usual, or you can reach out and touch the screen. The new Windows 8 apps train you to expect one kind of behavior, and the old Windows desktop does it differently. In the IE app, you enter URLs at the bottom of the screen and switch “tabs” (although there are no tabs) by swiping down from the top of the screen. In the IE desktop software, you enter URLs at the top of the window and switch tabs at the top of the screen. Even after you get used to Windows 8, you constantly have to think about the operating system — what kind of app you are in, whether you are using the screen or the keyboard, and so on. Unlike Windows 7 or OS X, Windows 8 is constantly getting in your way.

The XPS 12 highlights these differences by mixing up the hardware configurations in which you are supposed to encounter the different interfaces. Ordinarily, if you were using a regular laptop, you would probably do most of your work in the desktop, and you wouldn’t have to deal with the touch interface, for which your laptop is not well-suited. And vice-versa on a tablet. But on the XPS 12, you have the option to switch back and forth. You cannot get too comfy using tablet apps, because you won’t want to use them when you flip the screen over and go back to using it as a laptop.

Of course, I get the impression this is more or less the kind of hardware Microsoft designed Windows 8 for. One minute it is begging you to touch the screen; the next it is punishing you for it. So you need to be able to flip it over and work the way Windows wants you to. But that’s a pain to interact with. The fact that Windows 8 requires hardware that can physically alter its form should be an indication of how awkward it is to use in day-to-day work.

Performance

The first thing you will notice on booting up the XPS 12 is how ridiculously quick it gets to the Start screen. It is insanely quick. It boots in less time than it takes my ThinkPad to wake from sleep and reconnect to wi-fi.

Strangely, its own wake times aren’t so impressive. The XPS 12 actually takes longer to wake from sleep than it does to boot up in the first place. It’s not awful, just not awesome. And a bit strange. If it can get up and running that quickly, it’s hard to understand why it cannot wake up in the same amount of time, or less.

Battery life is not particularly impressive. It tops out at about 5.5 hours. It does a great job of preserving power while sleeping, though. After leaving the XPS 12 sitting, suspended, for a few days, the power meter had barely moved. It may not have great battery life, but it does make the most of it.

Who should buy the Dell XPS 12?

If you like Windows 8, and want a hybrid laptop that gives you a good experience in both of Windows 8′s modes — desktop and tablet — the Dell XPS 12 is an excellent option.

Summary

Dell XPS 12

Reviewed by Sam Glover on .

Summary: The Dell XPS 12 is a hybrid laptop-tablet for Windows 8. It is well-built, and sturdier than it looks, but it shows Windows 8′s flaws.

Breakdown:

  • Price and features: 4
  • Hardware and design: 4
  • Included software: 3
  • Performance: 4

Overall score: 4 (out of 5)

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