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

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.

At a Glance

XPS 18

DellPrice: $900 (1.8GHz Intel Pentium processor, 4GB RAM, 320GB HD), $1,000 (1.9GHz Intel Core i3 processor, 4GB RAM, 500GB HD), $1,350 (1.8GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB RAM, 500GB HD/32GB SSD), $1,450 (Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB RAM, 500GB HD/32GB SSD).Pros: Slim and light, long battery life, good performance, tiltable standCons: Non-removable battery, no Ethernet connection

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.

Sony Vaio Tap 20 Mobile Desktop

At first glance, you could be excused for thinking that the Vaio Tap 20 is just like any other desk-bound AIO rather than a desktop computer that can travel.

Much more conventional-looking and larger than the XPS 18, the Tap 20 measures 19.9 x 12.3 x 1.8 in. and weighs 11.5 lb. It comes in white or black; Sony sells a $60 carrying case.

Sony Tap 20

The Tap 20's 20-in. screen is 1.6 in. larger and yields 15% more viewable area than the XPS 18's display. It has a maximum resolution of 1600 x 900, short of the full HD resolution that the XPS 18 delivers.

Like the XPS 18, the Tap 20's screen is responsive and can interpret up to 10 independent finger inputs as well as gestures. The screen worked well with a Wacom Bamboo Solo stylus.

The Tap 20 comes equipped with a matte-silver U-shaped arm on the back that props the system up. You can adjust the angle of the screen from 70 degrees to full horizontal orientation on a tabletop. Overall, it was much more stable than the XPS 18's stand when I was moving my fingers over the screen or tapping it.

I really like the way that the stand folds up to create a convenient handle to lug the system around. Due to the system's weight, though, the handle can be a little awkward at times. And be aware that the display is too heavy to rest on a lap for any length of time; it's really meant to be carried from room to room and set up on a table.

The Sony Tap 20 Mobile Desktop comes equipped with a matte-silver U-shaped arm on the back that props the system up; it can also be used as a convenient carrying handle.

The $900 Tap 20 model I tested has a 1.7HGz Intel Core i5 3317U dual-core processor that can speed up to as fast as 2.6GHz if needed. The system came with 4GB of RAM and a 750GB hard drive. Sony has two other models: an $880 version that uses a Core i3 processor with 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive, and a $1,100 Core i7 system with 8GB RAM and a 1TB hard drive.

All of the Tap 20 models have a slightly better assortment of ports than the XPS 18: along with the two USB 3.0 ports and the audio plug, it includes a wired Ethernet connection and a flash card reader that works with SD and MemoryStick cards.

There's also 802.11n Wi-Fi networking and Bluetooth, but the Tap 20 lacks HDMI and VGA ports. It has WiDi for sending images and video to a TV.

Includes NFC

It also has an NFC chip built in, something that Sony is integrating into many of its computers. The chip has the potential to ease the setup of wireless devices by simply touching an NFC-aware device to the chip's location on the back of the Tap 20. The NFC system worked like a charm, connecting Sony's SRS-BTV5 speaker by just tapping it on the back of the system.

You probably won't need to use external speakers, though, because the Tap 20 has excellent built-in audio. It not only sounds rich, full and vibrant but its speakers get more than loud enough to annoy neighbors.

At a Glance

Vaio Tap 20 Mobile Desktop

SonyPrice: $880 (1.8GHZ Intel Core i3 processor, 4GB RAM, 500GB HD, configurable), $900 (1.7GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB RAM, 750GB HD), $1,100 (1.9GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB RAM, 1TB HDPros: Stand becomes handle, removable battery, good (and loud) sound, Ethernet and other connectionsCons: Display doesn't offer full HD, heavy and awkward to carry around

Up front, the Tap 20 has a prominent Home button, while on the back there are buttons for turning the Tap 20 on, adjusting the volume, locking the screen orientation and getting help via Sony's online VaioCare. The system has a matching wireless mouse and keyboard that has dedicated keys for volume control, mute and app keys for the Web and email.

Performance

It all adds up to a reasonable, though not stellar, performer. On the PerformanceTest 8.0 benchmark, the Tap 20 scored a 1,373.3. Its score of 2.51 and 13.06 frames per second on the Cinebench processor and graphics tests were in line with its processor.

With its 5,000mAh battery, the system ran for 1 hour and 56 minutes (while running constant videos), less than half the run time for the XPS 18. On the other hand, the Tap 20's design uses the same battery as some of Sony's notebooks and you can quickly remove and swap it if needed; a replacement costs $200.

Sony includes Art Rage Studio Pro (an artistic painting/drawing application) along with 64-bit Windows 8 and a 30-day subscription to Kaspersky's Internet Security program. The system comes with a one-year warranty, which can be extended to three years of coverage for $150.

Bottom line

Although it's heavier and more awkward than the XPS 18, the Tap 20 does offer excellent sound, a removable battery and a wider selection of ports.

Conclusions

Of all the computers I've looked at over the last 25 years, these two were the hardest to pick between because they are so similar -- and, at the same time, so different.

I really like the Tap 20's handle-stand and the inclusion of ArtRage software. Its NFC module has the potential to make connecting to wireless devices simpler, but it lacks true HD resolution and its battery petered out after about two hours of use. That should be plenty for most tasks but the last thing you want to do when the aliens are attacking is to look for the power cord and an AC outlet.

The test version of the XPS 18 is the more powerful and innovative system of the two and sets the pace for industrial design for computers. The XPS 18's tiltable base is an engineering gem that makes the system much more useful as a desktop PC. It can go for more than four hours on a charge and its HD screen is perfect for anything from viewing digital images to watching movies.

Its design is certain to be copied, and maybe improved upon. But for now, the XPS 18 is an unusual computer that could suit a lot of needs.

This article, It's a desktop! It's a tablet! Dell XPS 18 vs. Sony VAIO Tap 20, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

Read more about pcs in Computerworld's PCs Topic Center.

This story, "It's a desktop! It's a tablet! Dell XPS 18 vs. Sony Vaio Tap 20" was originally published by Computerworld.

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