Dell XPS 12 review: Does it succeed as both an ultrabook and a tablet?

Dell's new Windows 8 system is one of the first convertibles, which try to be two devices in one. However, this may not be a winning combination.

The Dell XPS 12 is one of the first of the new Windows 8 convertibles (doing double duty as an ultrabook and a tablet) to hit the market. It sports a beautiful 12.5-in. screen, suitable power under the hood and a number of clever design touches. If you have a need for this type of a double-duty device, you'll find it will do well -- with some caveats.

The XPS features standard hardware for an ultrabook. The unit I tested has an Intel Core i5-3427 running at 1.7GHz and has 4GB of RAM, along with a 128GB SSD; it lists at the Dell site for $1,199.99. Other configurations are available with 8GB RAM, a Core i7 processor and/or a 256GB SSD hard disk. The top-of-the-line model, which has all these features, sells for $1,699.99.

Flipping the frame

What sets the XPS 12 apart from other ultrabooks is its "convertible" feature -- the ability to work both as a tablet and as a traditional notebook. It accomplishes this with a very clever and well-executed design. The screen is set in a frame and flips 180 degrees on a hinge so that it can face away from the keyboard. Fold the screen down onto the body of the keyboard, and you're left with a tablet. The design is simple, clean, and downright nifty.

Dell XPS 12
Dell XPS 12

The screen itself is a real standout and may be the best part of the XPS 12. Protected by Gorilla Glass, it sports a 1920 x 1080 resolution and is exceptionally bright and vivid, excelling both as a traditional screen and a touchscreen.

Performance was snappy, and I experienced no delays launching and running apps, watching videos and playing music. The speakers are adequate, with plenty of volume.

The system comes with basic connections: two USB 3.0 ports (one with PowerShare, which lets you charge USB-connected devices even when the XPS is powered off or sleeping), a Mini DisplayPort for connecting to an external display and a headphone jack. There's no Ethernet jack nor is there a slot for an SD card.

For those who want to check the battery power reserves, there's a nice feature: Press a small button on the right side of the system, and a series of tiny lights illuminates letting you know how much power is left.

As an ultrabook, though, the XPS is heavy at 3.35 lb. A MacBook Air with a 13.3-in. screen, for example, weighs nearly a half a pound less at 2.96 lb., and the 13.3-in. Asus Zenbook UX31A Touch weighs in at 3.08 lb., despite its larger screen size.

Keyboard and trackpad

When you use the XPS12 as a notebook, you'll spend plenty of time with its keyboard and trackpad, and you'll find them a mixed bag. The keyboard feels slightly cramped, and those with large hands may take some time getting used to it. But the keys spring back as you touch them, making the keyboard easy to type on. The keys are backlit, so it's easy to use in low light. All in all, it's a solid keyboard for an ultrabook.

I ran into problems with the trackpad, though. When when I used it to scroll sideways, the cursor tended to cause herky-jerky motions. I also sometimes had problems getting the Windows 8 Charms bar to appear when I moved the cursor to the upper-right corner of the screen. And several times, the Charms bar appeared when I moved the mouse cursor to the center of the Start screen -- for no apparent reason. I also initially found that I had to double-tap harder than expected for it to register with the device; once I got used to that, though, things improved.

The trackpad worked better when using multitouch Windows 8 gestures. Zooming in and out was smooth, and most Windows 8 swiping gestures worked similarly well.

XPS 12 as a tablet

With a big 12.5-in. screen, vivid display, quick response to touches and swipes, and smooth scrolling and zooming, the XPS seems perfectly suited for tablet tasks -- or at least it does for a minute or two. Then reality sets in.

At 3.35 lb., the XPS very quickly becomes far too heavy to be useful -- when I tried just holding it and working, or watching a video, I soon felt tired and uncomfortable. And when I put it in my lap, it got hot relatively quickly.

Then there's the question of whether there's any real need to have a device do double duty as a tablet and PC. Your mileage may vary, but I can't think of many instances when it's important to have a single device do both. I'd instead opt for a Microsoft Surface tablet with one of its nice keyboard covers, because with that you get tablet portability and a reasonable keyboard as well.

Based on my experience with the XPS 12, I suspect that convertible devices have been built merely because Windows 8 features a double duty operating system designed both for tablets and PCs, not because there's a real need for them. Time will tell, but my guess is that convertibles won't become a significant market niche.

Bottom line

What you think about the XPS 12 will depend upon what you think about needing a single device to do double-duty as a tablet and a traditional PC. If you need that type of device, and can put up with using an extremely heavy tablet, then you'll find the XPS 12 to be a well-designed, solid bet, aside from some annoying trackpad problems.

However, if you're on the fence about needing a convertible, you'll want to shop around a bit more. As a tablet, it's too heavy to be of much use. And as an ultrabook, it's heavy as well, outweighing competing ultrabooks.

The upshot? Despite Dell's best intentions, the XPS 12 underlines the limitations of a Windows 8 convertible device. Based on my use of this one, I'm not convinced this form factor has a future.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

See more by Preston Gralla on Computerworld.com.

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