November 24, 2012, 7:03 AM — Dell's entry into the Windows 8 convertible-notebook market bridges the gap between a tablet and a notebook through some wonderfully clever engineering. Instead of using the keyboard as a dock for the display, the display flips around inside a frame to convert this 12.5-inch notebook PC into a proper (if slightly heavy) Windows 8 tablet. The price tag is also heavy, though: The Dell XPS 12 starts at $1,199 and goes up from there.
We were shown a production prototype of the XPS 12, so there might be minor changes in the model we saw and the actual shipping product, but the basic concept should remain the same.
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The flippable display locks into place when turned, thanks to magnetic clasps along the top and bottom. It takes a bit of a push to get the display to pop out of place and turn, but with a little practice you get used to the amount of force needed. Be careful when flipping the display around, though. Not only can you pinch your fingers, but you need to keep the display fully upright to avoid smacking against the keyboard when turning. Make sure you have clearance behind the unit as well.
The XPS 12 lacks a couple of niceties that users might miss. There's no built-in Ethernet jack, which helps keep the system slender, but a Targus-brand dock sold by Dell can add wired networking and a slew of other connectivity functions. The other inconvenient omission: There's no system-drive activity light.
Longtime Dell users may remember the way their notebook batteries had a built-in power meter. The XPS 12 has a similar offering: Push a button on the side of the unit, and a row of lights indicates how much juice is left without you having to crack the whole thing open. With the power-saver profile enabled, I used continuous Netflix playback to run down the battery, wringing 2 hours, 40 minutes of usage out of the system before it forced itself into sleep mode. (Dell claims 5 hours, 36 minutes with Mobile Mark 2012.)
Touch actions on the display all work well, although the press-to-click touchpad was more finicky than I expected. It registers a click best if you press near the bottom of the pad, where a touchpad's physical buttons are normally found. Also, while many of the Windows 8 touch actions are emulated via touchpad behaviors, some of them have a hair trigger. For example, the side-swiping gesture to swap apps kept firing even when I wasn't doing anything remotely resembling a side-swipe on the touchpad. I had to shut off that gesture completely to keep the system from channel surfing between apps. (I suspect that many of these issues can be fixed with a touchpad software upgrade.)
Typing is quite comfortable. The Chiclet-style keys, my favorite layout, don't have the kind of full-blown mechanical action I've seen in, say, Sony's notebooks, but they're good for long-form productivity. The backlighting can also be dimmed or shut off completely with a function key. One minor keyboard gripe: I had to hit the spacebar dead center to make sure it registered a keystroke. I'm used to tapping the outer edges of the bar, but that didn't always work here.
Since Ultrabooks lack an integrated optical drive, Dell's tool for generating recovery media can use an external USB drive as its target. You'll need at least 5.76GB of free space to back up the base system, so make sure you have at least an 8GB flash drive handy. I was grateful for the relative absence of bloatware shoveled into the system, barring the Intel networking and Dell systems management tools.
Clever engineering makes the Dell XPS 12 a slick fusion of Windows 8 tablet and notebook form factors. The downsides -- a hefty price tag and the lack of Ethernet jack and disk activity light -- detract only slightly from this highly usable and lightweight Ultrabook.
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