It's a desktop! It's a tablet! Dell XPS 18 vs. Sony Vaio Tap 20

We look at two all-in-one computers that also act like large-form tablets. How well do they work?

Not too long ago, computers were computers and tablets were tablets. However, some vendors are experimenting with hybrid All-in-One (AIO) computers that combine the best of both worlds.

Dell's XPS 18 and Sony's Vaio Tap 20 Mobile Desktop can be set up as regular AIO Windows 8 desktop systems, including large, adjustable touch displays that contain reasonably powerful computers, wireless keyboards and mice. However, because they run on battery power, the displays can also be picked up and carried anywhere.

Well -- almost anywhere. While the typical laptop or tablet is small enough to be dropped into a briefcase, these hybrid desktops are bulkier and heavier, weighing between 5 lbs. and 11.5 lbs., and taking up as much as 12.4 x 19.8 x 1.6 in. They are more suited for a journey from cubicle to conference room than from home to office.

To test these portable desktops, I used them every day for two weeks, moving them from the office to the basement to the porch. I spent time playing games, writing emails, watching online movies, editing images and visiting a variety of websites.

Along the way I found unexpected uses for them. My favorite was temporarily setting one up in front of my stationary bicycle to watch the morning news on CNN.com while exercising.

What you choose to use them for depends on how mobile you want to be.

Dell XPS 18

Despite looking like a traditional all-in-one PC, on closer look it becomes clear that Dell's XPS 18 is meant to be carried around.

The Dell XPS comes in four models. The basic model comes with a 1.8GHz Intel Pentium processor, 4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive ($900); the next offers a 1.9GHz Intel Core i3 processor and a 500GB hard drive ($1,000).

Dell XPS 18
Dell XPS 18

The review unit is based on Intel's Core i5 3337U dual-core processor that runs at 1.8GHz and uses TurboBoost technology to sprint at up to 2.7GHz. It comes with 8GB of RAM and a two-stage storage system that combines a 500GB hard drive with a 32GB SSD. The flash portion caches the most frequently used data and programming code to speed start-ups and raise overall performance. Prices for this model start at $1,350.

Finally, the highest-end model comes with an Intel Core i7-3537U processor with up to 3.1GHz; it starts at $1,450.

At 18.1 x 11.2 x 0.6 in., the 5.1-lb. XPS 18 is not only significantly smaller than Sony's Vaio Tap 20, but weighs less than half as much. Dell's 18.4-in. display has an all-black bezel with strategically placed soft rubber grips, but lacks a carrying handle. If you want to take it outside of the home or office, Dell sells a $30 soft sleeve for the system.

The XPS 18's 18.4-in. display is 1.6 inches smaller than the Tap 20's, but can show full HD 1920 x 1080 resolution. I found that the screen reliably responded to 10 individual touch inputs and accepted gestures, like pinching or spreading my fingers to zoom in or out. I also used it with a Wacom Bamboo Solo stylus without a problem.

Minimalist to a fault, the display has a pair of USB 3.0 ports, an audio jack and an SD card slot. Unlike the Tap 20, the XPS 18 doesn't have an Ethernet port; it depends on 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

There's a prominent Windows Home button under the screen as well as a power button on the right edge and volume controls on the left. There are two speakers, one on each side; I found the sound to be reasonably rich and natural, but without the Tap 20's impressive volume.

As with the Tap 20, the system comes with a matching wireless mouse and keyboard.

A handy charging stand

While you can use the XPS 18's fold-out feet to set it up like a traditional all-in-one, I preferred the cantilevered charging stand that comes with the $1,350 and $1,450 models (it's available as a $100 option for the $900 and $1,000 models). The stand looks like a piece of modern sculpture and provides power to the system (although it would have been nice if it also offered some additional data connections).

The stand allows the screen to tilt from a vertical display position 3.5-in. above the tabletop to 10 degrees short of horizontal orientation. This provides the flexibility to easily use the display for standard desktop computing or tilt it to a flat angle for use as a touchscreen.

The higher-end models of the Dell XPS 18 all-in-one system come with a charging stand that lets you tilt the screen from a vertical to a horizontal position; you can also just use the display's fold-out feet.

There's no physical latch; the screen is held in place with a magnetic strip, making it perfect for grab and go maneuvers. (As a result, though, it wobbles somewhat when you swipe or tap the surface.) I like the ability to remove the screen, but the XPS 18 is tedious to hold on your lap for more than a few minutes at a time. In other words, look for a table to lay it down on.

Like the Tap 20, the XPS 18 offers WiDi hardware and software to wirelessly connect to a display. I used it with a WiDi-ready Netgear NeoTV Max Streaming Player connected to an LG 47LH40 TV; the system stayed connected up to 25 feet away.

On the other hand, the XPS 18 lacks the Tap 20's Near Field Communications (NFC) capability that can ease the setting up of wireless accessories.

Performance testing

Despite its thin profile, the XPS 18 I tested is a powerful computer; it scored a 1,623.6 on PassMark's PerformanceTest 8.0. On the other hand, its Cinebench results were a mixed bag with the XPS 18 scoring 15.37 frames per second on the OpenGL graphics and 2.44 on the processor portion of the benchmark.

In tests, the XPS 18's 4,200mAh battery lasted for 4 hours and 16 minutes on a charge while running constant videos, more than twice as long as the Tap 20's battery. On the downside, like so many tablets on the market, the system's battery can't be removed.

The system comes with a one-year warranty that can be extended to three years for $200, FingerTapps Instruments software that lets you play up to four different "instruments" at one time and a 30-day subscription to McAfee's SecurityCenter.

Bottom line

Dell's higher-end XPS 18 models might seem a bit expensive, but it's a small price to pay for an innovative and well-designed system that can assume several different computing profiles.

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