- Review Date: 10/24/2012
- Bottom line: The Dell XPS 12 hybrid ultrabook/tablet features a flip-and-fold display, providing ultrabook specs and performance with tablet functionality.
- Pros: Resurrects the flip-and-fold display. Intel Core i7-3517U processor. 256GB Solid-state drive. Long battery life. Comfortable keyboard and touchpad.
- Cons: A better laptop than a tablet. Limited port selection.
The Windows 8 hybrid ultrabooks are here, transforming from laptop to tablet, and back again, with ease. The second of these shape-shifting laptops to come into PC Labs is the Dell XPS 12. As a convertible ultrabook, the Dell XPS 12 works as both a laptop and a tablet, utilizing the same flip-and-fold design last seen on the Dell Inspiron Duo (Black). Dell has dropped the Duo name, which is actually now used by Sony for its own convertible ultrabook, the Sony VAIO Duo 11 (D11213CX).
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. The external styling bears a strong resemblance to the Dell Inspiron 13z, with a soft-touch exterior and metal frame. Looking at the specifications, it's clear that the XPS 12 is in a different category than the Dell Inspiron Duo, with 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.
Weighing 3.3 pounds and measuring 0.95 by 12.5 by 8.6 inches (HWD), the XPS 12 meets Intel's standard for convertible ultrabooks, and it's just a bit on the heavy size among ultrabooks (convertible or otherwise) we've seen, similar to the 3.2-pound Asus Zenbook Prime UX32VD-DB71. It also has a design more in aligned with laptop sensibilities than tablet, with a slightly tapered chassis. This works well on a laptop, as seen on the laptop-only Inspiron 13z, 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 12.5 inch display boasts 1920-by-1080 resolution, along with 400-nits of brightness and automatic ambient light sensing—and it's also a touch screen, 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 good, but not great, producing 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 are 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 the touchpad fairly comfortable. It's a clickpad, with right and left buttons integrated into the surface of the pad.
Despite the limitations imposed by the narrow confines of the convertible ultrabook form-factor, Dell has included a fair selection of ports and connectivity options into 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 any ports for video output. Without any sort of VGA or HDMI output, the only ways to get your content onto a TV is through either a mini DisplayPort (which requires an adapter for HDMI) or via Wi-Di, which will require either a Wi-Di equipped TV or adapter, like the Netgear Push2TV. This model is aimed at consumers, but an enterprise-focused configuration will be available with Windows 8 Professional and will include BitLocker Encryption with Trusted-Platform Module (TPM).
The 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. Spinning hard drives offer 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 a direct link to the Amazon Store, 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 Center, 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, which includes parts and labor, accidental damage service, and a year of premium telephone support.
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 the same Intel Core i5-3517U (1.9GHz) processor found in the Asus Zenbook Prime UX32VD-DB71, 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 score 4,638 points, similar to the Sony VAIO Duo 11 (4,648 points) and ahead of the Asus UX32VD-DB71 (2,523 points), largely due to the solid-state drive used in the XPS 12. In our processor speed test, Cinebench R11.5, the XPS 12 scored 2.19 points, a fraction of a point behind the Sony Duo 11 and Dell Inspiron 13z (2.40 and 2.39 points, respectively).
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, which the XPS 12 completed in 1 minute 26 seconds and 6:31, respectively. It's a bit slow for bigger projects, but it means you can 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 enjoy your Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja without fear.
The Dell XPS 12 lasted 5 hours 9 minutes in our video battery rundown test, putting it a full two hours ahead of the Sony VAIO Duo 11 (3:09). 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 wall outlet.
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, long battery life, and a design than prioritizes comfort and usability. It's a bit early to be picking favorites, but the Dell XPS 12 is a front runner in the nascent hybrid category.
Compare the Dell XPS 12 with several other laptops side by side.
This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.