Dell XPS 12 convertible Ultrabook

Dell's XPS 12 convertible can be used either as a laptop or as a tablet thanks to a clever hinge design

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Dell XPS 12 convertible Ultrabook
  • Dell XPS 12 convertible Ultrabook
  • Dell XPS 12 convertible Ultrabook
  • Dell XPS 12 convertible Ultrabook
  • Expert Rating

    3.75 / 5

Pros

  • Provides a great tablet experience
  • The screen
  • Build quality

Cons

  • Windows 8 wireless service problems
  • No SD card slot
  • Feels heavy for its size
  • VGA and Ethernet dongles not supplied

Bottom Line

The Dell XPS 12 convertible laptop is a great hardware solution for those of you who want both laptop and tablet functions in the same unit. It doesn't compromise when it comes to processing power, and the way it can be converted from laptop to tablet is very easy. However, we did experience some problems with the wireless service in Windows 8, as well as a few other niggles, which we hope are only present on our test model.

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If your dream has always been to own a laptop that can easily be converted into a top-notch, no-compromise slate device, then Dell's XPS 12 convertible Ultrabook will make it come true. It's one of the most impressive Windows 8-based machines we've seen so far in terms of hardware design, and we love the way that it can be turned from a conventional clamshell notebook into a sleek and highly-usable tablet. However, there are still some teething problems with Windows 8 on this unit, in particular with the wireless networking service, which, at the moment, can be very annoying.

A 12.5-inch form factor makes the Dell XPS 12 convertible notebook a little smaller than most of the Ultrabooks we've seen to date (which are 13.3 inches), and this smaller size is needed in order to make the unit as light and as comfortable as possible to use as a tablet. Because the base and the screen remain permanently attached, you don't want something too heavy to hold in tablet mode.

That said, at 1.5kg, the XPS 12 convertible is undoubtedly heavier than a stand-alone tablet in which the screen and processing power are all in the same unit, and it also feels heftier than a regular 13.3in Ultrabook. In the Dell XPS 12, the screen is separate to the processing power, which is located in the base, and it contains quite a lot of processing power for a tablet — after all, it is a no-holds-barred, fully-fledged Windows 8-based system that can be used for regular office work as well, so you have to take that into account when judging the weight.

Design and build quality

No doubt a lot of people will find this laptop to be too heavy for their liking, but those of you who like a solid-feeling device will rejoice. Dell has managed to create this versatile device through a metal frame and hinge design that allows the screen to flip around with the greatest of ease when the lid is upright at about 90 degrees — angles greater or less than that might cause the screen to hit something as it's rotating. It's so easy to rotate the screen, you might develop a new nervous tick as you sit there pushing the screen out of the frame, then back into the frame, ad infinitum, much like we did.

The XPS 12 in notebook mode.
The XPS 12 in notebook mode.

The XPS 12's screen in a state of transition.
The XPS 12's screen in a state of transition.

The XPS 12 in tablet mode.
The XPS 12 in tablet mode.

A combination of magnets and slots (into which the screen's locks fit) hold the screen in place in the frame until you give it a firm push so that it is released and able to flip 180 degrees. When you close the lid once the screen has been flipped, you've got yourself a tablet.

And it's a very good tablet at that, and much better than the previous Windows-based tablet-convertible notebooks that we've seen, which have been primarily aimed at business users rather than home users. You just need to bear in mind that the screen is not permanently fixed in position when you move the laptop around; you don't want to pick it up from the bottom half of the screen, for example, as the screen will move and you might lose your grip on the unit. The same goes for when you want to tilt the screen.

One of the spring locks on the screen.
One of the spring locks on the screen.

The locks on the screen fit into these slots on the metal frame.
The locks on the screen fit into these slots on the metal frame.

The panel has a native resolution of 1920x1080 pixels and it's a capacitive touchscreen that supports 10 simultaneous finger inputs. It's based on IPS (in-plane switching) technology, which means it looks great from all angles and it's very bright. You can easily see the screen's contents whether holding it upside-down or sideways, but like most glossy screens, you have to be weary of reflections from light sources behind you.

That said, the screen is bright enough to counter most reflections. The screen switches automatically, swiftly, and elegantly to the orientation that it detects, but there is a lock on the side of the chassis so that you can keep the orientation that you desire — perfect when handing the tablet around in a meeting, for example.

An ambient light sensor can control the brightness level of the screen automatically, but this can be disabled through the advanced settings of the power scheme that's in use (look for the adaptive brightness setting).

As long as you know what you're doing with Windows 8's Start screen, you'll get a lot of use out of this notebook-cum-tablet device and it can be a lot of fun to use, especially when running new-style Windows 8 apps that have been downloaded from the Windows store. The gestures that control Windows 8 are handled perfectly by the screen, and the on-screen keyboard is responsive and accurate to use when punching in login data on Web sites, for example. The screen felt smooth enough during our tests, supplying very little friction, but it did become noticeably tarnished by fingerprints and required regular cleaning whenever we used it as a regular laptop screen.

We think the way that the screen spins in order to turn the notebook into a tablet is very neat and convenient, and it proved to be practical. It was very easy to all of a sudden flip the screen and use the XPS 12 as a tablet in order to present Web sites, photos or videos to friends and family members, and we're sure that business users will equally impress clients in the same sort of scenario.

The Full HD screen can display a lot of info, especially in portrait mode, and this is perfect for basketball season.
The Full HD screen can display a lot of info, especially in portrait mode, and this is perfect for basketball season.

It's important to note that the keyboard and touchpad do not work once the screen is let loose in the frame and about to be flipped, but the touchscreen will work when the unit is used as a regular clamshell notebook with the screen locked in the frame. The touchpad is very smooth and large (100x61mm), and it supports Windows 8 gestures that allow you to swipe in from the sides to access Charms, the Switcher and context-sensitive menu bars. You also get regular multi-finger support, such as two-finger scrolling and three-finger flicking.

The keyboard on the XPS 12 feels very solid and the isolated keys provide decent resistance and travel considering the chassis of the machine is only about 12mm thick. The unit overall, with the screen closed, is about 21mm at its thickest point, which is within the specification limit for Ultrabooks of a convertible nature. But while the keyboard does feel very solid, you do have to get used to the slightly cramped nature of it before you can truly feel comfortable with it — at least, we did. We like the fact that it's a backlit keyboard and there are two intensity levels that can be chosen.

Just like the keyboard, the rest of the chassis feels extremely well built. Dell has used both carbon fibre and aluminium in the construction of the device, and Gorilla Glass is present on the front of the screen. Like most Ultrabooks, it has a sealed chassis that can only be opened with a tiny Torx screwdriver. A small panel can be popped open to reveal the unit's service tag and other pertinent information.

Cooling is by way of a single fan and there are air intake holes on the bottom, and extraction holes along the spine. An initial unit that we attempted to review had all sorts of thermal issues and the fan even hit the chassis whenever we moved the unit around. However, our replacement unit performed flawlessly and didn't run noticeably hot, either in tablet or regular notebook mode. That said, you have to be mindful of the vents and try not to rest the chassis on soft surfaces that might block them.

Around the edges of the chassis, you get two USB 3.0 ports (both on the right side), mini DisplayPort, and a combination headphone/microphone port. There is no SD card slot, which is inconvenient for those of us who quickly want to transfer photos after a day out shooting.

The right side.
The right side.

The left side.
The left side.

There are some dedicated buttons for when you use the notebook in tablet mode: an auto-rotate lock and a volume control. The power button is also on the side so that you can access it in tablet mode (it's a sliding switch rather than a button) and there is a battery indicator light as well, which adds a little to the fanciness of the unit. You also get dual-band wireless 802.11n networking in the form of an Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235 adapter, there is Bluetooth, a webcam and for security there is a Trusted Platform Module installed.

We're disappointed that the unit doesn't ship with video or network dongles as standard. There is a mini DisplayPort-to-VGA adapter available, as well as USB-to-Ethernet dongle (100Mbps), and each of these costs $29.01. We think they should be part of the package for a computer with a $1999 price tag.

Specifications and performance

A high-end configuration is present inside the chassis (relative to its thickness, of course), and it consists of an Intel Core i7-3517U ultra-low voltage CPU, which has two cores, Hyper-Threading, and a frequency of 1.9GHz. It's joined by 8GB of DDR3 SDRAM (1600MHz) and a 256GB solid state drive (SSD). Graphics are handled by the CPU (Intel HD 4000). All up, this configuration will provide ample speed for office applications, and also for multimedia tasks, including encoding and transcoding tasks. That said, it's not really designed to be a workhorse computer, but it can be used in a pinch.

In our Blender 3D rendering and iTunes MP3 encoding tests, times of 41sec and 48sec were recorded, respectively, which are excellent. Meanwhile, in our AutoGordianKnot DVD-to-Xvid file conversion test, a time of 57min was achieved. That time is not as good as what other laptops with the same CPU have achieved. For example, the Acer Aspire S7, running Windows 8, completed the same task in 47min.

Part of that can be attributed to the very fast solid state storage in the Acer. In the Dell, the 256GB SSD (a Crucial C400 RealSSD) recorded a CrystalDiskMark read time of 491 megabytes per second (MBps) and a write time of 263MBps. That's not quite as impressive as what the Acer S7 did, but it's by no means slow either. In our own file duplication tests, a rate of 117MBps was recorded, which is a little slower than we were expecting, especially considering the Dell XPS 13 that we reviewed at the start of the year did 163MBps in this test, while putting up similar numbers in CrystalDiskMark.

We used 3DMark06 to check out the unit's graphics performance and it produced a score of 4618 in this test. Again, it's not as fast a the Acer, but it's not too far off. You can use the XPS 12 convertible effectively for tablet gaming. We ran Adera, Agent P Strikes Back, Reckless Racing and a few other games from the Windows store without any problems, and, in fact, playing those games on the tablet was quite fun. However, the weight of the tablet means that platform and racing games with on-screen controls will be uncomfortable to play for long periods of time.

Regular games can also be run on the laptop, but how well they run will depend on the games you play and the settings you use. Don't buy this thinking it will run the latest graphics-intensive title without compromises being made to the resolution and graphics details. And even then it might not run them well enough.

Battery life

The battery life of the XPS 12 convertible is adequate, but perhaps not long enough for such a portable unit. Our typical rundown test, in which we disable power management, enable Wi-Fi, maximise screen brightness and loop an Xvid-encoded video lasted 3hr 34min. We're disappointed it didn't do more, but the screen is quite bright and the battery space in the chassis is quite limited, so it's understandable.

When we used the XPS 12 in more typical, mixed-use scenarios, with the brightness set to 50 per cent and with the Balanced power profile enabled, the laptop lasted four-and-a-half hours and five hours in those tests. In the second of those tests, we kept the unit strictly in tablet mode.

Our usage model consisted primarily of Web browsing, with some YouTube sessions, photo viewing, music listening and game playing (using the games from the Windows store) thrown in for good measure. It shows that you can get a decent time out of this unit for everyday tasks, but how much you get will vary depending on your workload.

The battery takes about three hours to fully charge using its very small, 45W adapter. After one hour, the battery life will be at around 30 per cent.

Annoyances

While we enjoyed using the XPS 12 convertible very much, mainly because the hardware and build quality is so nice, we did also experience a few annoyances that couldn't be fixed by using the Windows 8 'Refresh' feature. Primarily, we had a lot of problems with the wireless service in Windows 8, which refused to start properly when the laptop was resumed from sleep mode. In order to connect to our wireless network again, we had to start and then restart the WLAN Autoconfig service. We asked Dell about this and will update the review if we get a solution.

Getting Wi-Fi to work after waking up the laptop required us to manually restart the wireless service.
Getting Wi-Fi to work after waking up the laptop required us to manually restart the wireless service.

Update: Dell informed us that updating the driver to version A01 might help. Unfortunately, we don't have the unit anymore in order to test this.

Something else that bothered us was the fact that the laptop would leave the Windows 8 Start screen and automatically go to the Desktop a few seconds after booting. While some of you may be saying that's a great idea, it wasn't by design. We narrowed this down to the Amtel TouchScreen Control process. After disabling it, the laptop ceased going to the Desktop on its own. We flagged this with Dell and then noticed an update to the Amtel software posted on Dell's support site not long after, which fixed this problem.

We also experienced inconsistencies in the way the laptop came out of sleep. Sometimes the notebook would be ready to use the moment we lifted the lid (within 2sec), other times the keyboard backlight would come on but the system was delayed. We're hoping that it's just another teething problem with this system under Windows 8, much like the wireless problem.

Conclusion

There's no doubt some tweaks need to be made to the XPS 12 convertible's system in order to provide a smoother user experience under Windows 8, but the physical unit itself is great. It's a lot of fun to use, its screen is excellent, and it works very well as a tablet. The inclusion of a Core i7 CPU means it's one of the quickest tablet devices on the Australian market, too, and you can use it for serious work as a conventional notebook, in addition to tablet-centric tasks. Basically, you're getting a versatile system that's practical and well made, but it needs some software updates to iron out a few wrinkles before it will provide a completely pain-free user experience.

If you want to learn a bit about Windows 8 before purchasing a Windows 8-based convertible Ultrabook such as this one, check out our beginner's guide to Windows 8, which shows you how to get around the Start screen and much more.

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