Latest Dell XPS 12 comes close to a true 2-in-1

Latest Dell XPS 12 comes close to a true 2-in-1

Summary: I've yet to to find a hybrid that is both a great laptop and a good tablet. But the latest version of the Dell XPS 12, which has been updated with Intel's Haswell processor, comes pretty close.


The concept of a hybrid holds lot of appeal, but I've yet to to find one that is both a great laptop and a good tablet. We are getting closer, though. The latest version of the Dell XPS 12, which has been updated with Intel's Haswell processor, is one of the best 2-in-1s to date.

There are many different approaches to convertibles. The XPS 12, which I've been using on and off for several weeks at the office, at home, and on the road, relies on a "flip hinge", which lets the screen rotate 180 degrees inside its frame so you can fold it flat to use it like a tablet. This isn't the first time Dell has tried this — it has experimented with the flip hinge on other laptops — but this time, it got it right. The hinge is smooth and sturdy, the aluminum frame barely flexes, and the display clicks into place. The base is constructed of the same high-quality materials, giving the XPS 12 a solid and sophisticated feel.

Dell XPS 12 Mainedited
(Image: Dell)

The XPS 12's display stands out in other ways, too. The 12.5-inch full HD display is bright (Dell says 400 nits), has wide viewing angles, and is covered edge to edge with Corning Gorilla Glass on the front and a carbon fiber composite on the back. The only trouble I had with the display is that I often had to pick up the entire system and rotate it from side to side to get the screen oriented correctly (the XPS 12 has a rotation lock button, but it simply turns auto-rotation on and off). Dell wasn't able to duplicate the problem, but other reviewers and users have noted the same issue.

The XPS 12 starts at $1,000, but the system I tested with a faster processor (the 1.6GHz Core i5-4200U capable of bursts up to 2.3GHz), 4GB of memory, and a larger, 128GB solid-state drive (SSD) is $1,200. Dell offers faster Core i7 processors, up to 8GB of memory and larger capacity SSDs, but the model I tested delivered plenty of performance for most users.

The battery life is even more impressive (Intel says that Haswell delivered the largest boost in battery life form one generation to the next in its history, and indeed that seems to be the case). The six-cell (50WHr) battery, which isn't swappable, often lasted around 7 hours in typical use — even with the display brightness cranked up. For most users, this will be the biggest benefit of Haswell and its successor, the 14nm Broadwell family due in 2014.

The XPS 12 has two USB 3.0 ports (one of which can charge devices even when the system is off), mini DisplayPort for connecting external displays, and a combination headphone/microphone jack. There is no SD or microSD card slot, nor an Ethernet jack, though you can use a USB adapter.

It does, however, have 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, and built-in near-field communication (NFC), which lets you tap to connect with devices such as the Jabra Revo wireless headphones, but the number of peripherals that support this feature is limited. The built-in audio is also a step up from what you typically get in a laptop.

One of the biggest surprises with the XPS 12 is the keyboard, which is among the best I've tried on laptops this size.

The large keys are widely spaced, and they have a soft feel and plenty of travel, which makes for accurate, comfortable typing. The keyboard is also backlit and, according to Dell, spill resistant. The glass touch pad with integrated left and right buttons generally worked fine, though I had a bit of trouble with the two-finger scrolling.

The XPS 12 is only 15-20 millimeters thick and weighs 3.4 pounds. That's just fine for a laptop — it easily qualifies as an ultrabook — but it's still a bit big and heavy for a tablet. In tablet mode, it works well for browsing the web or checking email — and the larger touchscreen is nice to use — but it's tougher to hold it in your hands for a long period of time to, for example, read an ebook or watch a movie.

Having said that, you can always flip the screen around so that the keyboard is in the back, and use the XPS 12 in a hands-free display mode.

Later this year, Dell plans to release a smaller XPS 11 convertible, which should be a little easier to use in tablet mode.

The competition in this space is getting tougher. HP has the Ivy Bridge-based Split x2 and recently announced the Spectre x2 — both of which have a detachable 13.3-inch display. And for business users, it has the Ivy Bridge-based HP EliteBook Revolve with an 11.6-inch swiveling display. Earlier this month, Lenovo announced the Yoga 2 Pro with a 13.3-inch QHD+ (3,200x1,800) display and a ThinkPad Yoga with a 12.5-inch display — both with fourth-generation Core processors. Sony has the Vaio Duo slider 11 and a newer 13-inch model with Haswell Core processors.

The Dell XPS 12 is an excellent ultraportable laptop with a great display, solid performance, and very good battery life. It is also a decent Windows 8 tablet. For most users, I'd still recommend having a separate best-of-breed laptop and an Android tablet or iPad. But for those who really want a hybrid device, the XPS 12 is easily one of the top choices right now.

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Topics: Laptops, Tablets, Windows 8

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  • Using these devices as tablets...

    Having owned 7", 10" and larger tablets I find that they are usable as tablets, but not the same way. A Nexus 7 you whip out of your jacket pocket while standing in line at the airport and check the weather at your destination city. A Microsoft Surface you lean back on the couch with the bottom edge of the tablet resting on your lap, one hand holding it steady and the other interacting with the screen.

    I find surfing this way pleasant and productive with both sorts and sizes of tablets.
    • Taking Notes

      For taking notes the 13" is very close to a standard 8.5X11" paper. I find that an ideal size. Of course it needs Wacom touch. I tried using a Surface Pro for taking notes and it did not quite work. Close but no brass ring. 10" was to small for this.
  • Still a bit pricey ...

    for me, but making progress. HP Envy x2 with Atom processor is down to about $500 at Office Depot this week. Not as fast or quite as big, but for half the price I can buy one of those and a tablet/keyboard and more accessories. Not sure how big of a percentage of people are going to pay that much money. Time will tell.
  • I don't think it has a stylus, does it?

    Convertible tablet/laptops with a stylus and OneNote are ideal. I recently went looking for a "back to school" PC (I started an "executive masters degree" this month). Day long classes meant it had to be Haswell. And, a stylus (for use with OneNote) was an absolute.

    I ended up with a Sony Vaio Duo 13 and I'm very happy.
  • I've got the earlier version...

    My current "office PC" is a Dell XPS12, albeit with the older i7 CPU so it doesn't get as much battery life (but still enough to meet most of my requirements). I think it's a great piece of kit for the most part.

    I did run into the auto-rotation issue mentioned. My solution was to simply turn it off when using the XPS12 in laptop mode (easy to do with that switch on the side).

    The screen's a bit small and too hi-res for extended use, so I use a docking station with a keyboard, mouse and large screen attached in those instances. And therein lies one of the nifty features of the XPS12: when docked and the screen is flipped over, even if I'm using just the main big monitor the touch interface on the XPS12's screen is still active and can be used to control things on the main monitor.

    Finally, I'm not a fan of the "carbon-fiber" finish - some kind of substance has already fallen on and damaged part of the finish on my laptop.
    Brian Steele (2014)
  • Flip Hinge

    I've looked at this model online and my one concern was on the durability of the flip hinge. I thought that it was a clever idea but don't know how long it would last with normal use.
    • Durable Hinge

      I have a client that I setup with this notebook. She loves it, but she could tear a tank up. This notebook is tough.
  • No ethernet port a killer

    Sorry Dell, sounds good, and might have tempted me, except for the lack of an ethernet port which for me is a deal breaker. The lack of an ethernet port is the main reason I won't buy a tablet.
    The USB ethernet dongles are a pain and too easy to lose, never seem to work at full gigbit speed, and take up a valuable USB port that's probably already used by a USB stick, printer etc.
    I bet many (most?) other IT Professionals are similar to me and need the ethernet port. Wish HW manufacturers would understand that.
    • yes and no

      I agree, the lack of Ethernet is a problem, although I now use a Windows 8 tablet without. I have a desktop dock for my Samsung, which does include Ethernet. It isn't full speed, but fast enough - it still transfers as fast as my NAS or the servers at work can throw out data, and better than the 128kbps I get from my home WiFi to NAS (I get 60mbps over Ethernet and 30mbps wireless Internet, but the wireless is useless for accessing the NAS...
      • 30Mbps wireless...

        I have a 3 stream N router and a 2 stream N laptop card. I'm getting almost 200Mbps of actual throughput on the 5Ghz band with 40mhz channels. Although my house has CAT5e drops in most rooms, data and voice share the same drop and I only have two pair wired for data. That limits me to 100Mbps. If I'm close enough to the router, it's almost twice as fast.

        I've long been searching for a 3 stream + Bluetooth laptop card but no luck finding one. Unfortunately the new AC spec has likely stopped N innovation and I'll need to go that route for more speed. However, I would guess that with AC, I could get 500Mbps of actual throughput with the right router, card and if the environment is such that the end points are close enough.
        • I've no idea...

          what is causing the problem, but as soon as the NAS tries to communicate via WLAN over the router, the throughput drops to nothing.

          WLAN easily loads my DSL connection to its 35 - 38mbps and when the NAS is talking to another Ethernet attached devices, can transfer at around 50-60MBps, but with WLAN it drops down to modem like speeds...

          Transfering my photos to a new laptop, it said it would take about 4 days over WLAN, I took it down to the cellar and plugged it into the switch and it was done in under 10 minutes!
    • Why is Ethernet Port Required?

      It has AC which when close enough to the right router should at least reach 500Mbps of actual throughput. What's the use case that requires 1Gpbs of hard-wired throughput?
      • AC hotspots are rare, interference is common.

        "What's the use case that requires 1Gpbs of hard-wired throughput?"

        When your local hotspot doesn't support AC, and especially when interference is preventing you from having the advertised bandwidth and causing a major bottleneck.

        Wireless is far from perfect technology.
  • HP TouchSmart

    Having used a HP TouchSmart tm2 convertible for the last 3 years, I can say that as a tablet it is too heavy. I have tried using it to read books while waiting at airports even resting it on my lap in portrait mode it is still hard on the arm. I love the stylus with it and use it occasionally but not as much as I thought :-( I can type pretty fast and I don't have to correct as often. I put Windows 8 on it as soon as it came out to get the benefit of the touchscreen and won't go back to 7. When and if this laptop dies I would definitely buy a detachable keyboard/tablet model for the weight factor. I have a Nexus 7 and love it.