Dell XPS 12 review

It's indisputable that Dell is going through a pretty tough time of things at the moment. The firm has suffered massive a massive drop in profits as the PC sector continues to decline, and gets replaced with tablets, phones and other smart devices. Dell has perhaps been too focused on PCs, and hasn't managed to compete with Apple in creating a diverse product range.

Arguably, the firm indicated that things were bad when it announced that it would delist itself from stock markets NASDAQ and SEHK and buyback shares in a management and investor buyout. This is just about the biggest news ever to hit the technology world, and it's the largest buyout in history.

But what of Dell computers? Well, we think that they've continued to improve over the last few years. The XPS product line, in particular, has improved greatly and become a solid performer that has designs that are often stunning, and always feel sturdy. Of course, the firm has done this by raising the price of its XPS laptops to the point where they are more expensive than a MacBook Air.

And, when your choice is a Dell or an Apple, we fear many people will hop on the Apple ship, given that the firm still has street cred and Dell is seen as a more business-focused firm. Even so, these high prices yield some incredible computers, and the Dell XPS 13 is still one of our favourite Ultrabooks.

Rotating screen

We'll start with the screen, because it's the unique feature of these Dell Ultrabooks, and it's the main reason to consider this machine over an XPS 13. The idea is that you can convert the laptop into a tablet simply by rotating it. It's mounted on a mechanism that's like a revolving door, almost, it allows the screen to flip 180 degrees and then for the lid to be closed and give you a Windows 8 tablet.

Frankly, as a tablet it's too heavy to be much use. It's okay for short periods, but reading with it, or holding it as you would a low-power Android device, or Apple iPad is not really practical. But we don't mind that so much, because the arrangement is still useful and ultimately doesn't really affect the laptop in any negative way, save a slight increase in the price.

What is annoying, is that as soon as you start rotating the screen, the built-in hardware keyboard is disabled. This rules out using the screen in different positions while you continue to type, while we can see that most people won't want this, it's a decision made by Dell that feels quite arbitrary and frustrating. We'd like to see it as an option to keep the keyboard active.

Aside from the neat rotating trick, there's a LOT to like about this screen anyway. It's a 1080p panel crammed into 12.5 inches (about 176ppi) so you're getting a very high resolution screen here. You get nice wide viewing angles too although we did notice though, is a few degrees of dead on, and you loose perhaps a third of the panel brightness. The screen remains bright enough to see though, but it's not as powerful as it would be seen from straight on. This screen is a hundred times better than the one on the XPS 13, which was fairly dismal and washed out at most angles.

What struck us constantly while we were using the machine, was how small the text was, but thanks to the resolution and high-quality panel, it was still incredibly easy to read. Obviously, Windows allows you to increase font sizes where needed, so if you find it too small, it shouldn't be hard to tweak it to suit you.

The only problem we observed with the screen was a matter of some clunky drivers. The problems we saw were the screen would sometimes not be able to tell its orientation, and would fail to rotate. In these situations, closing the lid and moving the laptop would usually fix it. We are led to believe that this is an issue that has been addressed via driver updates.

Design

In general, there's a lot to like here. The aluminium parts of the body feel solid, and look great. The lid of the laptop is carbon fiber, as is the base, and they both have a tactile, non-slip feel that's just fantastic on a laptop, and gives it a feel nothing else has. Kudos to Dell for not just going for the Apple-inspired aluminium box.

You get two USB 3.0 sockets on the right of the laptop. There are no 2.0 sockets, which makes sense. A DisplayPort socket means that you won't be connecting this directly to your HDTV, but that's much the same as most small laptops. DisplayPort is directly compatible with HDMI anyway, so adaptors are not enormously expensive. One is not included though, which we think is a shame.

On the left, things take a turn for the tablety. There's a slider switch, which either wakes the machine up from a slumber, or turns it on from off. There's a headphone socket too, and a rotation lock key. It's worth noting too, that the drives that ship with the XPS 12 need some work. The auto rotate key is flakey to say the least. We couldn't make it work when the screen was in laptop mode, and it was fussy about doing what we asked.

The island keyboard and trackpad look similar to the ones on the XPS 13, and they seem to work a little better. The keyboard gave us almost no problems at all and was nicer to type on, and produced fewer errors than most we've tried recently. The trackpad is good too, and works well with Windows 8, although with the touchscreen we think it will see a lot less use.

Plenty of grunt

Our review sample came with a 256GB SSD with roughly 185GB available to use as you want. There was 8GB of memory installed, which is more than enough for all by the very most intense video editing or picture processing. Likewise, this machine had the i7 processor running at 2GHz with a turbo boost up to 3.1GHz.

Gaming is unlikely to be a joy, because the XPS 12 uses Intel Integrated Graphics. It's fine for normal stuff, but the hardcore games are still going to want discrete graphics to get good performance.

Aside from graphics, there's a PC here that's powerful enough to rival most home desktops, and it's portable. The tide appears to be turning for laptops, in a few years they'll likely keep pace with the desktop PC quite nicely.

We also think it's worth mentioning that the speaker placement on this machine is rather good. They are located on either side of the machine, but on the main body. This means they're able to produce consistent sound whatever mode you're using the machine in. We also found they location was good for holding it as a tablet, and they weren't too easy to block. They also sound good, and have loads of power. 

The perfect Windows 8 laptop?

Honestly, we can't think of a Windows 8 machine that's better suited to the operating system. The key here is the touch interface, which makes very little sense on a traditional laptop, because you sort of have to clumsily reach to the screen to operate it. Here though, it makes a lot more sense.

Firstly, you've got the tablet mode, which while not ideal on a laptop this heavy, it does still work for short stints, or when you have the device on your lap while watching TV. Where it comes into its own though, is when you flip the screen around with the keyboard pointing away from you, and the screen facing you, but at an angle. This gives you an amazing media interface mode that will be fantastic on planes. If you like watching video while you travel, there is no better way to watch video.

READ: Dell XPS 13 review

But add in a wireless keyboard, and you have a better typing surface than the built in keyboard - which is good, but still has the problems you get with a laptop of this kind, like corners digging in to you, and no numeric keypad. What you get then, is a sort of all-in-one PC for working at a fixed location and having a more desktop experience, without the built in keyboard getting in the way.

You can also go for the Yoga style positioning, where the laptop forms a tent. We can't see the advantage of this, but some might want to use it in this mode.

All of that makes for a really nice Windows 8 experience. It's a much-maligned operating system, but once you start to use it, it's not hard to really enjoy the extra stuff it brings. We can imagine spending a lot of happy time using this laptop as a media centre and for things like Netflix, it's just superb with their app.

Build quality

With laptops that have a non-standard feature like this laptop does, we always worry about how long things will last before going badly wrong. With this machine, the big worry is that the cables carrying the data to the display will get stretched or broken over time. We honestly can't say if this will be a problem. Externally, the build quality is amazingly solid. Dell has used quality materials throughout, and it feels like a million dollars.

The pivot seems to have been well-designed too. There's no real movement in the frame, and the whole thing is so solid you can pick the laptop up with it. Although we doubt you're supposed to do this, and would advise you don't. When we first got the laptop out of its box, we just couldn't stop rotating it. The location pins are well designed, and giving it a decent push allows the screen to rotate, but it's not awkward or difficult to work.

Everything else feels as solid as you'd hope too. There's no real flex in the keyboard, it feels like you could really hammer it and it would never give in on you. The trackpad is nicely designed, although we have to say, it's still got some of the problems of Windows laptops, but that comes down to issues with how touch works on Microsoft's operating systems.

Verdict

What at first might seem like a gimmick seems to be something of a double-edged sword. In fact, it's not a gimmick, the rotating screen has some very real uses, and even as a tablet it's perfectly usable, if a little heavy.

Following on from the other Dell Ultrabooks, the XPS 12 is supremely usable. The keyboard is very pleasant, and we wrote this whole review on it. That makes it better than most tablets, even those with keyboard covers and those with Bluetooth keyboards.

What we liked most was this pin-sharp 1080p screen though. It's bright, the viewing angle is a lot better than the 720p generation of XPS laptops - like the original XPS 13 - and it produces a staggering image on-screen that works fantastically for HD video or typing.

While the XPS 12 is expensive, it's also a wonderful laptop to use, and the screen rotation means that when you're out and about, on a train, on a plane or working in a cafe there's always a mode that will work in the space you have. It's a solidly-built laptop and typing on it is a pleasure. For us, this is one of the best uses of Windows 8 hardware, and we applaud Dell for getting it right.

And, if the price for the i7 is just too steep, then consider the i5 with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, it starts at £999, and is more than powerful enough for most people. For the best value, an extra £150 gets you a 256GB SSD and 8GB of ram with the i5. 



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