Dell XPS 12 convertible Ultrabook (2013 model)
Dell's XPS 12 convertible Ultrabook uses a fourth-generation Intel Core i7 CPU and can last almost all day when running on its battery
- Well built
- Fast Wi-Fi
- Good quality Full HD touchscreen
- Battery life
- Poor touchpad
- Limited ports and slots
- Can feel heavy at times
- Had trouble waking from deep sleep
Dell's XPS 12 is a dual-purpose Ultrabook that performs very well as a tablet (albeit a heavy one). It build on last year's model by adding a fourth-generation Intel Core i7 CPU, and this has improved its battery life dramatically. However, it has a few issues that need sorting out before it can be considered one of the best convertible Ultrabooks on the market.
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Dell has added a fourth-generation Intel Core i7 CPU to its versatile little XPS 12 convertible Ultrabook, which gives it much improved battery life and better performance when it comes to processing 3D graphics. However, Dell hasn’t done much to change the rest of the unit, and just like the original model that we reviewed last November, this 2013 model has a couple of niggling issues.
A flipping tablet
As far as the build quality of the XPS 12 is concerned, the carbon fibre in the chassis makes it feel solid. There aren’t any hints of bending when it’s held with one hand from the corners, and the screen’s frame mechanism also feels tough and reliable considering the job it has to undertake. The frame mechanism not only has the job of tilting the 12.5in screen, it also has to allow it to flip around so that you can use the XPS 12 as a tablet. Spring-loaded clips hold the screen firmly in the frame (there are also magnets to attract the screen to the frame), and it takes a fair bit of pressure to pop the screen and flip it.
Compared to the XPS 12 that we reviewed last year, the spring-loaded clips feel tougher to manipulate. Even with last year’s model, though, we never had an issue of the screen popping out of the frame on its own. One danger still remains, and that is the danger of forgetting that you are using a screen with a flip-capable screen and trying to pick up the Ultrabook by holding it from the bottom of the screen — it will surely pop out in this instance. We do like the flip mechanism very much, though, and think it’s one of our favourite methods for converting a notebook into a tablet.
Dell’s design is neat. You won’t see any cables or moving bits as you flip the screen around. It’s held in the centre of the frame by two swivel joints and it’s within these two bits that the connections for the screen reside. All of the processing power is in the base of the unit, so the screen works just like any other laptop screen rather than as a self-contained tablet screen. The screen stays on as it flips around, but as soon as you pop it out of the frame, the touchpad and the keyboard stop working. At this point the screen is the only interface to the system.
We had lots of fun using the XPS 12 as a tablet. It was responsive, its viewing angles were wide, and it was bright enough to thwart most reflections. It’s a Full HD screen as well, so there is plenty of space to view Web pages, especially in portrait orientation. Like all Windows 8 tablets and convertible devices we’ve reviewed so far, we got most use out of the touchscreen when using the Modern UI rather than the Desktop. It can be too cumbersome to use your fingers to navigate around Desktop windows and applications, unless you use a magnification level greater than 100 per cent to make everything look bigger and easier to hit.
The drawback of the XPS 12 as a tablet is its weight. It’s a unit that tipped our digital scale at 1.49kg, which means it can feel quite tiring unless you rest it on something while you use it. Put it this way: if you’re sitting cross-legged and resting the tablet on your thigh, it will be a cinch to use. If you’re sitting upright and holding the tablet in mid-air, you’ll probably get sick of it in a short amount of time.
When used as a tablet, the layout of the control buttons doesn’t get in the way. There are physical volume buttons and a screen rotation button on the left, and the power switch is a slider, rather than a button, which means it can’t be inadvertently pressed (a criticism we’ve levelled at other Windows 8-based tablets is that they can be too easy to switch off by accident).
You can find a couple of USB 3.0 ports on the right side, along with a mini DisplayPort facility, and there is a headset port on the left side just near the volume buttons. We’re disappointed that an SD card slot has been omitted again, and we would have liked HDMI instead of DisplayPort in order to more easily connect it to TVs and external monitors, though DisplayPort can come in handy if you have a monitor with a better-than-Full HD resolution.
Battery life extended thanks to 4th gen Core
All-day usage while running on battery power is possible with the XPS 12, but it will depend on what you’re running and what sort of power scheme you’ve enabled. We were able to run the XPS 12 almost for an entire work day before having to plug in the power pack (which is a small 45W power brick), but we only used it for light Web browsing and some typing in Google Docs, and we put it to sleep when we knew it would go through extended periods of idle time. We also used low screen brightness and switched off the keyboard backlight.
In our rundown test, in which we disable power management, enable Wi-Fi, maximise screen brightness and loop an Xvid-encoded video, the XPS 12’s 50 Watt-hour (6-cell) sealed battery lasted 5hr 51min. This is a gain of 2hr 41min over the original XPS 12, which recorded 3hr 10min in the same test. It’s an excellent result that shows off the benefit of moving to the fourth-generation Intel Core CPU.
The configuration consists of an Intel Core i7-4500U CPU, which has a standard clock speed of 1.8GHz, two cores and Hyper-Threading, and it’s joined by 8GB of DDR3 SDRAM and a 256GB mSATA-based solid state drive (SSD). It’s a high-end configuration that commands a price of $1999 ($2699 in New Zealand), and this places it firmly in the category of ‘luxury item’, especially if you’re a home user. Graphics are handled by the CPU, which has Intel HD 4400 processing built in.
Because the overall speed of the CPU is a little slower than the 1.9GHz third-generation that was in last year’s XPS 12, the fourth-generation CPU in this year’s XPS 12 didn’t supply improved performance in our CPU benchmarks. Blender 3D took 43sec to finish our test render, and iTunes took 50sec to convert our WAV files to 192Kbps MP3s. The previous XPS 12 got 41sec in Blender and 48sec in iTunes. It’s a negligible difference. For all intents and purposes, the performance of the XPS 12 is zippy and responsive when it comes to everyday Web and office tasks, and multitasking. You can also use it for tougher tasks such as transcoding video, and its time of 19min 52sec in our HandBrake test clearly shows this.
The 256GB solid state drive in this year’s XPS 12 model is a faster one compared to last year’s model. It recorded a read rate of 498.8 megabytes per second (MBps) in CrystalDiskMark, along with a write rate of 396.5MBps. Last year’s model got a slightly lower read rate of 491MBps, and a much slower write rate of 263MBps. It’s definitely one of the components that helps give the XPS 12 its responsive feel, and it allows it to boot up cold in a very fast 6sec — this is the time it took to reach the Windows 8 login screen during our tests.
In the latest 3DMark, the XPS 12 recorded 36720 in Ice Storm, 4594 in Cloud gate and 645 in Fire Strike. The Acer Aspire S7, by comparison, which is a 13.3in Ultrabook with the same CPU and graphics processing ability, recorded slightly lower results of 34034, 4401 and 615 in the same tests. (The overall processing power of that Ultrabook was also a little slower than the Dell in our tests, but it was much faster in the storage tests). In the older 3DMark06, the Dell XPS 12 recorded 6025, which, again, is a very good mark for an Ultrabook. It will do well with basic games and some older titles, but perhaps not at the native Full HD resolution of the screen.
It’s all good for the XPS 12 as far as performance and responsiveness are concerned, but there are some niggling problems with this Ultrabook, which suggest that Dell still needs to work on some of the software. In particular, the touchpad on this Ultrabook is awful. It’s a jumpy touchpad, and this is most noticeable when you use the two-finger gesture for scrolling. You can be scrolling down the page smoothly, but then all of a sudden the page will jump and you’ll end up at the bottom. When scrolling upwards, you might find that the page starts going down instead of up, then up again from the spot you started scrolling. It’s a frustrating touchpad and it’s disappointing that Dell did not install a better one, even after reported problems with the touchpad in the original XPS 12. We updated the driver from Dell’s Web site for our tests, which made it perform a little better, but there was still a lot of skipping while we scrolled.
The other issue we experienced was non-responsiveness when trying to use the laptop again after it had been in a deep sleep. Waking up from short periods of sleep was fine, but many times when we woke up the laptop after being away for a few hours, the keyboard backlight would illuminate, but the laptop would not turn on. We ended up having to switch it off and then on again. It was an annoying problem that contributed towards a poor overall user experience and we couldn’t find a fix for it on Dell’s support site at the time of publication.
The wireless adapter in this Ultrabook is an impressive one. It’s an Intel AC 7260 model that can support 802.11ac speeds up to 867 megabits per second (Mbps). When using it in our regular test environment with a Linksys router capable of 450Mbps in the 5GHz band, the laptop could transfer data at a rate over 21MBps from a few metres away. However, things weren’t always good with the adapter. Straight out of the box, it had problems connecting to our wireless network — it sometimes worked, but it sometimes couldn’t find any networks. We had to download the latest drivers for this adapter from Intel’s Web site, after which it worked without a hitch.
The keyboard is decent overall and provides a relatively comfortable typing experience, especially considering the 12.5in form factor of the notebook. Its backlight can be controlled manually and it looks good when it’s enabled at night. We found the keys to be well spaced, there was ample room for resting our palms, and the keys themselves felt responsive and had a satisfying amount of travel. Basically, it’s a good keyboard for a typist.
Dell has installed NFC in this Ultrabook, which is of limited usefulness at the moment. We were able to use it with our Samsung phones to receive URLs and photos from the laptop, but only when using Modern UI apps such as Internet Explorer and the Photos app. To use it, you have to enable NFC on the laptop and on your phone, swipe in from the right side and select ‘Devices’, then select ‘Tap and send’, and then tap the back of your phone to the right palm rest. It could be quicker to just email yourself a URL instead.
We like the textured finish of the XPS 12, which means it can’t easily slip out of your hands while you’re carrying it, and we like how easy it is to turn it into a tablet, though you do need to have some space around it to allow the screen to move freely.
It’s a laptop that won’t make too much noise while it’s being used for non-CPU intensive tasks. The fan only becomes noticeable once the processing level increases, and we don’t think it was unreasonably loud in our tests. You have to keep in mind the vents at the bottom, which are easy to block when using the Ultrabook on your lap.
Speakers are located on either side of the chassis, and they were surprisingly decent for watching YouTube videos and listening to a few choice tracks while we worked.
There are many good points about the Dell XPS 12, including the screen, build quality, performance, battery life, and the keyboard, but our overall take on this convertible Ultrabook is that it needs work. The touchpad is no good, we had issues waking the Ultrabooks up from deep sleep, and the wireless adapter required an update before it performed properly. We think that if Dell can fix these issues, it will potentially have the best convertible Windows 8 Ultrabooks on the market. Until then, be aware that you might find it frustrating to use.
Related Windows 8 laptop reviews:
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• Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon with touchscreen
• Sony VAIO Fit 15E touchscreen notebook
• Acer Aspire S7-392 Ultrabook
• Apple MacBook Air (2013)
• LG Z360 Full HD Ultrabook
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Alternative Windows tablet product reviews
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