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Dell XPS 12 Convertible Ultrabook Review

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Montreal
Since the advent of Window 8 and its touch-centric interface, notebook manufacturers have been striving to find a balance between typical form factors and the new realities Microsoft’s latest OS brings to the table. The results have been quite varied with some taking a basic approach of incorporating a touch screen onto their standard chassis and calling it a day. Meanwhile, others like Dell, Lenovo and ASUS have been feeding the market with a steady stream of convertible notebooks which are supposed to blend the physical input options of a notebook alongside a tablet-like experience.

Dell’s new XPS 12 takes this convertible mentality and runs with by allowing for a fully capable Ultrabook to be quickly converted into a tablet. They’ve accomplished this by simply incorporating a flip mechanism into the XPS 12’s screen bezel so there aren’t supposed to be too many sacrifices when changing between notebook and tablet modes. In addition it doesn’t turn a blind eye to performance since the included hardware is top-shelf stuff, unlike what most tablets come equipped with. You do however pay for the novelty of this design since the XPS 12 starts at around $1200, making its base configuration $200 more than Dell’s excellent XPS 13 Ultrabook.


The XPS 12 comes in a number of different configurations with Intel i5 and i7 processors alongside 4GB to 8GB of memory and 128GB and 256GB SSDs. Past these three options, there is very little –if any- customization allowed. The display, output connectors, battery and secondary wireless connection (through an Intel Centrino 6235 chip) remain in place regardless of price point.

The base layout comes with an i5 -3371 ultra low voltage processor, 4GB of memory and a 128GB SSD while upgraded versions are available with either faster CPUs, more storage or additional RAM. These are currently priced at $1400 and $1500 while the full monty will set you back a cool $1700.

The XPS 12 shipped to us (the specs are above) received an impressive set of hardware choices and represents what you’ll get at that $1700 price point. The most important item here is the 8GB of memory since in its default form, the included Windows 8 Pro gobbles up nearly 2GB of RAM which could seriously hinder the 4GB system’s performance.

From a warranty perspective, Dell’s offering is head and shoulders above the competition, with possible exception of Lenovo. For the XPS 12 they offer one year of comprehensive “Enhanced” coverage which includes in-home service if an over the phone diagnosis can’t find the problem. Two and three year options are available but expect to pay $119 and $199 respectively while accidental damage insurance can be added for between $50 and $130 depending on length.


At first glance, there really isn’t anything that differentiates this convertible Ultrabook from the likes of Dell’s XPS 13. It features a brushed aluminum frame which surrounds a soft-touch outer shell that’s finished with a carbon fiber composite that’s been coated in silicon. This allows for an excellent amount of grip so there’s no chance this expensive notebook will come tumbling out of your grip.


Opening up the XPS 12 reveals a typical notebook layout using a chassis which exudes high build quality and near perfect material seams. Once again there is a perimeter of precision cut anodized aluminum which embraces an input surface that feels durable and is coated in soft-touch paint. This is one of the best built notebooks we’ve come across, mostly due to the expensive use of aluminum within the chassis which builds an interior skeleton to reduce material flex.


Class leading build quality aside, the real differentiator for the XPS 12 is its hinge-based flip feature which allows the notebook to be converted into a tablet by simply spinning the display and then closing the lid. This can actually be done while the system is running and moving the screen automatically disables the keyboard while enabling additional onscreen functionality so the experience remains seamless.

While the screen’s bezel may look slightly flimsy, its extensive use of aluminum ensures that stability is maintained when rotating the somewhat heavy display into position.


The flipping screen is held in place by a quartet of small plastic table which gently lock into place. Personally, I don’t have much confidence in these holding up after a few years of abuse so be prepared to have your screen flopping around if an extended warranty isn’t in the cards.


The end result of this circus performer act is a reasonably compact 12.5” tablet. Unfortunately, actually using the XPS 12 as a mobile device isn’t exactly easy since a weight of nearly 3.5 lbs and distinctly un-tablet like size of 13” x 9” makes it extremely hard to manipulate. Thumb typing with the onscreen keyboard is impossible and holding it with one hand isn’t any easier despite the base’s excellent finish.

For quick browsing, the XPS 12’s tablet form is an excellent option but only if it’s placed on a table. In addition, the Windows 8 Pro OS constantly dumps you back onto the decidedly non-touch friendly standard desktop for nearly every meaningful function. As a result, the whole thing feels rather clunky and unpolished but that’s no fault of Dell since they’ve provided some excellent hardware.


When in tablet form, there are still very few areas where the XPS 12 ends up falling flat. The use of edge to edge Gorilla Glass and anodized aluminum edges feel great and the flip mechanism never relinquished its grip throughout the six weeks of intensive testing we subjected it to.



In order to incorporate tablet and notebook functionality into one product, Dell had to make sacrifices in certain areas. As such, XPS 12 has thrown out SD card compatibility and a third USB port in exchange for side mounted volume and power buttons. That’s simply unacceptable for a $1700 notebook, let alone a Windows 8 Pro tablet.

While the lack of an SD Card reader is a definite faux pas, the XPS 12 is still served by a pair of USB 3.0 ports (one of which boasts PowerShare to charge your devices when the system is powered off) and a mini DisplayPort. Unfortunately, Dell only offers a mini DisplayPort to DisplayPort adapter as a $35 option. A USB to LAN jack is also available for $30.


The top panel’s woven carbon fiber material with silicon finish makes its way onto the XPS 12’s underside as well and provides an surface that’s nearly impossible to scratch or scuff. There’s also a metallic plate covering the Windows serial number and a full-width ventilation strip that acts as an intake / outlet for the cooling fans. As with most Ultrabooks, the battery and internal components aren’t user accessible.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Keyboard, Trackpad & Touch Screen

Keyboard, Trackpad & Touch Screen



Dell’s XPS lineup typically boasts some of the best keyboards in the notebook market and the XPS 12 is no exception. It chiclet-style layout boasts well spaced and large keys which exhibit just the right amount of bounce-back to ensure nearly perfect responsiveness and tactile feedback. My word per minute rate actually improved when using this notebook and that’s quite impressive since I’m intimately familiar with the one on my much-used Sony Vaio Z 1290 (which has arguably one of the best mobile keyboards ever created).

As with many other high end keyboard configurations, this one has some additional features as well. It includes adjustable backlight with three levels (bright, subtle and off) and complete spill resistance.

Some may not appreciate the proximity of individual “islands” to their immediate neighbors but this has allowed for a dynamic increase in key size without sacrificing ergonomics. The natural rigidity of the XPS 12’s chassis, beautifully rounded casing perimeters and anti-slip surface also come in handy for quick typing maneuvers. In addition, they ensure typing consistency and accuracy while also enhancing long term comfort.


Dell has obviously maximized the keyboard’s area but there have been a few very minor sacrifices: the Backspace button is a touch on the small side and the Function keys seemed to be crammed into the XPS 12’s northernmost areas. However, this has also led to a maximization of the directional keys’ area so finding them will quickly become second nature.


The XPS 12’s integrated Cypress touchpad is nothing to write home about although it is relatively large and features a textured glass surface. Onscreen movement is swift, there’s a perfect amount of resistance across its surface and its multi touch integration works exceedingly well within a Windows 8 environment though it does loose tracking data every now and then.

Unfortunately, that size will cause the odd mistaken input as your palms will periodically touch it while typing. The integrated buttons do however boast an acceptable amount of feedback so unlike similar solutions, they’re quite user friendly. I did however find myself reaching for the touch screen quite often to perform basic navigation.


With the advent of Windows 8, touch screens are becoming the must-have addition to Ultrabooks. We won’t go into the full rundown of the positive and negative aspects of it so let’s just say that Windows 8 takes some getting used to. Personally, I’m not a huge fan but there are some redeeming qualities alongside many glaring issues.

There’s just so much about Microsoft’s newest OS that just seems half baked and cobbled together but using a touch-sensitive device quickly becomes second nature. Dell’s awesome integration of a capacitive 10-finger surface that’s been covered in Gorilla Glass also helps things out immeasurably. It feels great and looks even better.


The XPS 12’s screen is responsive, lightning quick and inputs are quickly registered within the software. Some items like copy / paste remain annoyingly out of reach and the OS’s habit of dumping you back to the legacy desktop is infuriating but for the most part, Dell has done exceedingly well by playing to Windows 8’s strengths.

Having a 12” Ultrabook moonlighting as a tablet does present a unique set of challenges though. Due to its size and weight, manipulation of notebook is nearly impossible without having a flat surface nearby and text input via the onscreen keyboard is frustrating at best. However, Dell has actually made the whole convertible concept much more user friendly than it otherwise could have been.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Screen & Audio Quality / Included Software

Screen Quality



Dell’s XPS 12 uses a 1080P IPS panel with a TrueLife glossy coating (in this case Gorilla Glass) and it’s nothing short of stunning and sets a new benchmark among notebooks we’ve tested. Color reproduction is absolutely spot on, the contrast ratio brings a new meaning to image depth and its relatively quick refresh rate virtually eliminates ghosting. The 1920 x 1080 resolution also guarantees razor sharp text and native support for HD videos, though Windows 8’s automatic DPI scaling feature can reduce image fidelity in non-supporting applications.

Unfortunately, due to the touch-centric input options of Windows 8, this beautiful screen will become a fingerprint-coated mess no time but that’s not really a show stopping issue. The high reflectivity will also be a problem for on-the-go professionals and all but eliminates the possibility of using the XPS 12 within an office environment.


As with most IPS displays, this one boasts stellar viewing angles with only the barest hint contrast loss when viewed from extreme angles.

One thing you should be aware of is Windows 8’s adaptive brightness feature. It dims or brightens the display based on ambient lighting conditions and manually increasing backlight output won’t override its controls. According to Dell, all of their Windows 8 notebooks have this feature enabled by default and as a result the XPS 12’s screen looked dim and washed out when we first received it. Disabling adaptive brightness has to be done through the Advanced Power Options under the Display heading and once that is done, this panel can easily reach its stated output of 400 nits.


Audio Quality


Here’s something unexpected: the XPS 12 is one of the best sounding notebooks we’ve come across….ever. Its speakers are mounted on the chassis’ sides and unfortunately take the space normally set aside for USB connectors or a multi card reader. However, the room filling sound these small units provide is simply shocking for a compact Ultrabook even though some reverberations are introduced at higher volumes.

There isn’t any software to aide with soundstage reproduction when using headphones which is disappointing but output through the 3.5mm jack is adequate nonetheless.


Included Software



The XPS 12 remains blissfully devoid of any additional unnecessary software which is actually a surprise since past Dell offerings have been literally packed with bloatware. To some Windows 8 will could be considered intrusive enough that additional software would just be adding insult to injury.

Indeed, the amount of memory used by the Windows 8 OS and its associated running processes is nothing short of shocking, coming in at just over 1.8GB when the system is running at idle. If it wasn’t for Dell’s included 8GB of RAM, the system could have bogged down when watching HD videos on YouTube (which tended to push the XPS 12’s memory usage to around 3.6GB) or browsing websites across multiple tabs in Chrome or IE. This however could cause a serious issue for the default XPS 12 configuration which comes with just 4GB of onboard memory that’s split between the CPU and HD4000 IGP.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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System Benchmarks

System Benchmarks


These system benchmarks will cover the basics of a notebook’s sub-system performance along with Startup and Shutdown times. For PCMark 7 the standard test is used for most notebooks but entry level models are tested using the Lightweight Test. WPrime tests CPU performance and finally, Crystal Diskmark will give us an idea of storage (HDD or SSD) performance.







Like all other Ultrabooks, we can’t expect miracles from the XPS 12’s hardware despite our unit’s MacBook Pro-like price point. With that being said, the performance it returned was solidly in the middle of the pack with the SSD returning some truly impressive results.

We also want to mention that from our testing, it seems like Windows 8 acts erratically in some instances and delivers inconsistent results. On one hand, system boot times are nothing short of phenomenal with ridiculously quick Windows load times but actual raw performance suffers in comparison to the Lenovo X1. Not only did that X1 have a slower processor but it also featured less memory.
 

SKYMTL

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Productivity Benchmarks

Productivity Benchmarks


In this section we will be benchmarking programs which many people use on a daily basis. WinRAR will show how well a given system’s CPU, memory and storage subsystem performance work together to compress a large folder with 2.5GB of information contained within. Meanwhile, we use DriverHeaven’s Photoshop Benchmark and CineBench to recreate a professional usage environment of photo manipulation and rendering. MediaCoder x64 is also included in order to show CPU video transcoding performance within a free, vendor agnostic and multi threaded program.






While inconsistency ruled the day within our standard system benchmarks, the same can’t be said of the productivity suite results. Here we see the XPS 12 really stepping up to the plate by offering some great numbers, proving that Windows 8 has been well optimized in certain areas but not others. It’s also great to see this generation of Ultrabooks finally delivering adequate performance for professionals.
 

SKYMTL

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Entertainment Benchmarks / WiFi Performance

Entertainment Benchmarks


With a swift propagation of online and disk-based high definition content, testing a notebook’s performance in this area is critical. In order to accomplish this, a 720P YouTube Flash video clip is played through Google Chrome with hardware acceleration enabled.

The Blu Ray tests are conducted through Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 11 Ultra once again with hardware acceleration enabled if the system supports it. The video was run directly from the notebook’s hard drive. If the notebook doesn’t support 1080P input to its screen, we output the video via HDMI or DisplayPort to a 1080P HDTV.




As usual, these situations don’t necessarily present a hurdle for modern notebooks but within both tests, the XPS 12 used over 4GB worth of memory. At face value that isn’t an issue since our review unit was equipped with 8GB of RAM but Dell’s default 4GB configuration just wouldn’t cut it here.


Network Performance


One of the most important aspects of any portable device is its ability to connect to wireless networks. A weak wireless card, insufficient insulation around the receiver or a badly placed antenna could all lead to connection issues and poor signal reception. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting booted from the ‘net due to insufficient signal.

In this simple test, we set up a wireless router (D-Link DIR-825) in six pre-determined locations within our 3-floor home at a rate of two locations per floor and each connected to a host PC. The notebook is placed upstairs (on the 3rd level), the router is connected to and a 1GB folder of information is transferred over to the host PC over the network. Typically, the transfer takes 5 to 20 minutes depending upon signal strength, etc.

The numbers you see below indicate how many connection points each notebook could recognize and then complete a successful file transfer. Naturally, higher recognized connection rates and successful file transfer numbers indicate better wireless performance.

Note than the floor plate between the basement and first level is concrete, which will prove to be a significant challenge for the penetration of wireless signals. The locations chosen range from 20 feet to approximately 50 feet away from the tested computer.



Network performance was adequate for a slim and light notebook but we would have expected better from an Ultrabook equipped with Intel’s typically excellent Centrino 6235 wireless card. The XPS 12’s small stature could have forced Dell’s engineers to make some wiring sacrifices which led to insufficient antenna coverage.
 

SKYMTL

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Gaming Benchmarks

Gaming Benchmarks


The gaming tests seen below are relatively straightforward with a mix of DX11 and DX9 games being used in order to ensure full compatibility with every system. 3DMark06 and 3DMark 11 (for supporting systems) are used as well. They are all run in-game three times over so as to ensure accuracy with all settings as indicated in the charts below.






At this point, we just can’t recommend the XPS 12 for anything but light gaming in DX9 titles with the resolution set to 720P or thereabouts. 1080P testing wasn’t included since Intel’s HD4000 failed to deliver anything approaching playable framerates, even at lower detail settings.
 

SKYMTL

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Battery Life

Battery Life


Battery longevity is one of (if not THE) most important aspect of any mobile device which is why we are breaking this section down into three distinct tests. The “Standard Workload” represents relatively light usage with a Flash-enabled web page being refreshed every 30 seconds. Our “Heavy Workload” runs a looped 10 minute automatic script that reflects a professional usage pattern of photo manipulation (Photoshop CS5), word processing (Microsoft Word), drafting (AutoCAD 2011) and file compression (WinRAR). Finally, the “Gaming” test runs a timedemo loop of Far Cry 2 DX9.

All tests are run until the battery reaches 5% with the Balanced battery mode enabled and the screen at 75% brightness. Wireless is also turned on but any backlit keyboard functionality is turned off.



With a non-user replaceable or upgradeable battery, the XPS 12 needed to produce some excellent results when away from the charger. It didn’t exactly do that.

When used for standard web browsing, it allowed for nearly 5 hours of continuous coverage without the need to top up while a decidedly professional oriented usage pattern pushed things down to just over 2 ½ hours. Neither of those times is particularly earth shattering but they should be enough to get anyone through a moderate distance flight. Finally, the Gaming workload makes battery life plummet but that was to be expected since it stresses every one of the XPS 12’s internal components.

The real issue we have here is performance against a comparably equipped XPS 13 which has the same battery and overall dimensions and yet receives nearly an hour of additional runtime. Welcome to the Windows 8 experience folks!
 

SKYMTL

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Messages
12,857
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Temperatures & Acoustical Testing

Temperatures


Temperature testing is quite straightforward: we load the system with a loop of Far Cry 2 in order to stress the dedicated GPU (if there is one) while the CPU load is handled by a loop of WPrime 32M. Battery power is used during these tests. Temperatures are recorded with HWInfo and GPU-Z. Remember that this is a worst case scenario test so typical usage patterns will result in slightly lower temperatures.

Meanwhile, exterior temperatures are taken with a calibrated Fluke infrared thermometer at various locations on the notebook chassis. For comparison’s sake, we consider exterior readings of under 30°C to be perfectly suitable for on-lap usage while temperatures between 30°C and 40°C will start to feel a bit toasty. Anything above 40°C is uncomfortable and care should be given before placing it on your lap.



With its CPU temperatures approaching the 90 degree mark, the XPS 12 displays the same issues we’ve found on other Ultrabooks: in order to deliver the slimmest chassis possible, certain sacrifices have been made. One of those is internal temperatures which tend to spiral out of control in some instances. Luckily, Dell’s internal heatsink design ensures the processor’s temperature never reaches a point where throttling becomes a possibility.



Exterior temperatures seem to be well dispersed by the rubberized carbon fiber material. As a result, there may be a few hot spots but otherwise the chassis’ temperature profile remains quite tame. There aren’t any worries about your thighs getting overly toasty.


Acoustical Testing


No one likes a loud laptop so in order to objectively determine acoustical properties, we use a calibrated decibel meter which is placed 16” away from the keyboard. A loop of WPrime is used to load the system and replicate a high usage scenario.

Any result under 35dB can be considered no louder than general background noise and usually won’t be noticed. Between 35dB and 45dB is still perfectly acceptable for notebooks yet will be much more noticeable than lower frequencies and likely won’t be heard over the noise of typing. Finally, we consider any result above 45dB to be unacceptable for a mobile device.



The XPS 12 remained quiet throughout testing which is likely why the temperatures remained so high.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
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Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
Conclusion

Conclusion


With the advent of Windows 8, convertible Ultrabooks are quickly becoming the new meme for notebook manufacturers. Some provide an acceptable platform while many struggle to carve out their own niche, but one thing binds them all together: Microsoft’s new operating system. With that in mind, Windows 8 allows Dell’s XPS 12 to shine and also drags the entire user experience downhill. It is an interesting juxtaposition which highlights several missing links between Dell’s strong design and Windows 8’s limitations.

The XPS 12 is a great looking piece of hardware which boasts class-leading quality, a stunning high resolution touch screen and an installation package which is blissfully devoid of unnecessary add-ons. Add in a lightweight chassis and a great set of hardware specifications and this is could have very well been the ultimate Ultrabook. Even its flip mechanism points towards a well thought-out engineering process, though the plastic stoppers may not lead to longevity. The only real failing we found in this equation is the missing SD card reader.


Dell’s main selling point is the XPS 12’s dual use as a standard notebook and tablet in one package. Unfortuantely, Windows 8 as a tablet-centric operating system is an unmitigated mess with its Metro interface being nothing more than a simple wrapper plastered over a standard desktop that’s downright hostile for touch inputs. It feels unintuitive, horribly unpolished and eats up a shocking amount of system resources while laying a smack down on battery life.

Ironically, it is the failings of Microsoft’s development team which allow the XPS 12’s convertible form factor to work so well. Under no circumstance can Windows 8 be operated solely by touch, nor does it feature particularly well integrated onscreen pointer support. This means a well-rounded convertible notebook / tablet combination is really the only way to experience the OS and Dell has offered exactly that. The convertible part of this equation may seem like a simple gimmick but you’ll actually find uses plenty of uses for it.

In many ways, the Dell XPS 12 can be considered a microcosm of everything that’s right and wrong with the Windows 8 ecosystem. It provides a decent, albeit clunky tablet experience but ultimately needs a screen and onscreen pointer to get by. Their competitors have tried to find the perfect balance of these factors and have failed but Dell succeeded by delivering a solid design that hides many of Microsoft’s missteps.
 
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