Dell XPS 12 Convertible Touch: laptop meets tablet

It's heavy for the size, but a good performer with a great display.

With the now-shipping Windows 8 fully controllable by touch as well as mouse and keyboard, you're bound to see some innovative portable designs such as the Dell XPS 12 Convertible Touch Ultrabook that take advantage of touch. In the XPS 12's case you can rotate its 12.5-inch touchscreen to face outward when the laptop is closed, turning it into a tablet. Clever, though the company might have taken it a step further.

Overall, the XPS 12 works well in its dual roles. It's a fully functional laptop with no obvious compromises, and as a tablet it works as well as anything else. There's a dedicated Windows button that mimics the Windows key on the display itself so you can easily switch from the new Windows 8 UI Metro interface to the Windows 8 desktop when the physical keyboard is hidden.

Build quality and ergonomics

Materials specialists will have a field day perusing the XPS 12's physical specs. The display is covered with Gorilla Glass, the frame is aluminum, the base and top of the unit are carbon fiber, and the keyboard deck is magnesium. The only thing not mentioned in the literature is the unit's radar cross-section. Seriously though, it's a tough unit.

Notably, despite the space age materials, as a tablet alone the XPS 12 would be overly thick and heavy. Even as a smallish laptop, its 4-poundJ1 travel weight is considerably heavier than a normal 12.5-inch or even 13.3-inch laptop. Part of that is the touchscreen digitizer, though an ounce or two is certainly due to the sturdy aluminum frame necessitated by the swiveling display. Gorilla glass probably adds to the overall weight as well.

You also pay for the XPS 12's duality. Our low-end test unit is priced at a rather hefty $1200 with a 128GB SSD, Core i5-3317U CPU, 4GB of system memory and integrated HD 4000 graphics. You can up the memory to 8GB, the CPU to a Core i7-3517U, and the SSD to 256GB and pay a whopping $1700. Of course you're getting both a laptop and a tablet, though a cynic might point out that rotating a screen isn't really that difficult.

The input ergonomics on the XPS 12 are for the most part top notch. The keyboard is a back lit, Chiclet-style unit with a more travel then you'd expect; it types well. The touchpad is responsive but for me was a bit prone to registering inadvertent taps. The touchpad is also a one-piece rocking unit that you can press to click, and requires only a comfortable amount of force (the amount of travel is quite small).

One bet Dell may have missed was not articulating the center of the sides of frame that houses the rotating display. This would allow you to rotate the display to a 45 degree angle with the lower front resting on the front edge of the keyboard deck for easy touch use while sitting on a table. As it stands, you may rotate the display to 45 degrees, but the upper part of the frame is in the way. To be fair, an articulated frame might be too fragile and complicated for everyday use.

Performance

Our new WorldBench 8 suite and scores can't be compared directly with the previous WorldBench 7, however, the 64 turned in by our XPS 12 is competitive and subjectively the unit feels fast. Dropping down to 1366 by 768 and lower was required to get decent game play from the Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics--par for the course.

The PC WorldBench 8 score posted by the Dell is 64, which means it's 64% slower than our baseline system, which is a desktop unit with a Core i5 3570k and GTX 660 Ti discrete GPU. By way of contrast, the old baseline system scored a 67, while the Sony Tap 20 (and all-in-one built with laptop class components) scores 40.

Battery life is 4:39 in our revised battery test, which now alternates video playback with some light office scripts. That compares favorably with a couple of other systems under test, like HP's Envy TouchSmart 4, which posted a battery life of 4:07. The Dell posted a PCMark 7 productivity score of 2187, about half the score of our baseline desktop system but compares favorably to the 2058 posted by the Envy 4 TouchSmart.

The 12.5-inch display's native resolution is 1920 by 1080 for Retina-like pixel density, and 1080p movies look nothing short of spectacular. On the other hand, the audio through the speakers is extremely tinny--bring your headset.

Minimal expansion

The port selection for the XPS 12 is minimal. There are two USB 3.0 ports, and a mini DisplayPort which will drive VGA and HDMI displays--with the additional $33 and $20 adapters. There's a headphone/headset jack, but the unit also features a dual-array microphone next to the 1.3 megapixel Webcam. Connectivity is good--if you don't want or need wired Ethernet, which will also require a $20 USB-to-Ethernet adapter. Sacrificing one of only two USB ports to Ethernet may present problems for some. The XPS's Wi-Fi is 802.11 a/g/n and the Bluetooth is 3.0.

Bottom line

The XPS 12 Convertible Touch Ultrabook is a clever and stylish design, and it obviates the need to carry a tablet with you. At least if a Windows 8 tablet is what you want. It's on the heavy side, but that's may be a common theme with touchscreen laptops for the foreseeable future. It could also use another USB port, but that will limit relatively few users.

This story, "Dell XPS 12 Convertible Touch: laptop meets tablet" was originally published by PCWorld.

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