PCs learn new tricks, but can tablet/notebook hybrids rescue Windows 8?

Summary:What does a PC maker do when the PC market is shrinking and demand for tablets is exploding? One option is to design hybrid PCs, which can switch from conventional PC to tablet and back again. In this post, I look at clever hybrid devices from Samsung, Dell, and HP.

Dell XPS 12

Dell’s entry into the hybrid PC category takes a surprisingly different approach from the two other machines I looked at. Instead of detaching completely from the keyboard, the 12.5-inch Gorilla Glass display of the XPS 12 swivels 180 degrees inside a rigid aluminum frame. With the display in its normal position, the XPS 12 is a full-sized Ultrabook. When you flip the screen on its hinge and press it flat against the keyboard, the XPS 12 becomes a big, heavy tablet.

The flip hinge sounds like a fragile and finicky design, but once you see and, more importantly, feel it in action, any doubts vanish. (Dell says they’ve tested it to 20,000 cycles, and I believe it.)

The display pops loose with a firm but gentle push along the top. The screen feels solid and sturdy as it rotates, and the catches at top and bottom make a satisfyingly precise sound when they snap into position. It’s not unlike the feeling of solid engineering that Microsoft achieved with the distinctive click of the Surface Touch and Type Covers.

dell-xps-12

Make no mistake about it: This is a PC first, and a tablet second. At 1558 g (3.4 lb), your arms will tire if you try to hold this thing for too long. But it’s quite solid in your lap, and it’s perfect on an airplane tray table with the screen flipped to the back and tilted up to a comfortable viewing (and touching) angle. That’s great for watching a movie, reading documents, or doing light editing in coach seats where a full-size Ultrabook won’t open properly.

dell-xps-12-tablet-mode

This is a drop-dead gorgeous piece of hardware, in both looks and feel. The carbon fiber on the base and on the back of the display allow more grip than metal or plastic and feel cooler as well. The palm base is magnesium, and the base has an anodized aluminum frame that matches the look and feel of the screen.

The XPS 12 is about the same thickness as the Surface Pro with Type Cover attached, but it’s considerably larger, with 68 square inches of display area (versus 44 sq in for the Surface Pro), making it possible to use its Full HD, 1920x1080 display at normal size rather than adjusting it to 150% as the Surface Pro does. The display doesn’t have a digitizer.

The keyboard is backlit, and the keys themselves are labeled using a distinctive font that’s unlike any conventional keyboard. (I like the look; I suspect some people might find it odd.) The 1.3MP front-facing camera makes this device adequate for casual Skype calling, but it’s a little too low-res for serious video work.

On the left side of the base are a combination headphone/microphone jack, rotation lock and power buttons, and a volume rocker. On the right is a mini-DisplayPort adaptor

Despite its larger height and width, the XPS 12 weighs less than the Samsung in PC mode. And because this device doesn’t have to pack a bunch of electronics behind the display, it feels perfectly balanced and lighter than the specs would suggest.

The review unit I’ve been using has some serious guts: an i7-3517U CPU at 1.9 GHz with 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD. It feels as fast as any desktop PC I’ve used and had no trouble with any task I tried. But that power comes at a price in terms of battery life. In my test of video playback, the XPS 12 conked out after 3:51, with power settings at balanced and screen brightness at its default setting.

That’s shorter than the Surface Pro lasted for me, even though the Dell has a larger 47-WHr battery, which is sealed and not user-replaceable. (It’s worth noting that the display was noticeably brighter during video playback than the Samsung I looked at. Turning the display brightness down would probably extend battery life a bit.)

So I wouldn’t count on this device to last more than five hours in normal business use. On the other hand, you can count on it to do just about anything you throw at it, including running multiple virtual machines. The 8 GB of RAM makes a big difference.

I’ve owned and used Dell XPS PCs for years and have always appreciated their refreshing lack of crapware. This machine is no exception. Besides some system-specific Dell and Intel utilities, the only extra software on the machine were a few Windows 8 apps: Kindle, Skype, Amazon, and (naturally) Dell Shop.

There’s also a “Getting Started with Windows 8 on Your New Dell” training module, with video tutorials designed to overcome Windows 8-phobia.

When I priced an XPS 12 with a configuration similar to this one at Dell a few minutes ago, the price tag came to $1700. That’s steep compared to some competitors with similar specs. But if you don’t care about maximum mobility but instead want a powerful, well-built Ultrabook that can double as a tablet when necessary, this is an excellent choice.

Page 4: HP's Envy X2

Topics: Hardware, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Mobility, PCs, Samsung, Windows 8

About

Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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