Dell XPS 12 Ultrabook review: Haswell refresh adds performance

At a Glance
  • Dell XPS 12 Ultrabook Convertible

    PCWorld Rating

    Dell's XPS 12 is better as a notebook than as a tablet, but it remains one of the best convertibles on the market.

Dell’s XPS 12 Ultrabook Convertible is one of the better marriages of laptop and tablet. The version reviewed here, which Dell shipped over the summer, isn’t tremendously different from the original XPS 12: It’s slightly thinner and a little lighter, but it’s powered by one of Intel’s new Haswell-class processors. That update helps the new XPS 12 deliver better performance and much better battery life than its predecessor offered.

This machine’s key feature is a 12.5-inch touchscreen with a native resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels that pivots inside its aluminum frame—just as on the original. Open the lid, and you can use the computer as you would any other notebook. You simply push the top front or bottom back of the display to pop it out of its frame, and then flip it over and close it to convert the machine into a tablet.

ROBERT CARDIN
The aluminum frame around the pivoting display is stronger than it looks.

The configuration we tested consisted of an Intel Core i5-4200U processor, 4GB of DDR3/1600 memory, and a 128GB mSATA solid-state drive. It posted an excellent Notebook WorldBench 8.1 score of 296, and the Windows log-in screen appeared in just 9.2 seconds. Tested battery life was a cool 6 hours, 49 minutes: That’s enough for a coast-to-coast plane ride with time to spare, and it’s 2 hours longer than the battery life of the first XPS 12 we reviewed, which used an Intel Core i5-3317U CPU.

The XPS 12 still relies on integrated graphics, so don’t expect to play hard-core games on it. Dirt Showdown played at 44 frames per second at 1024-by-768-pixel resolution and low visual quality, but you’ll need to drop most games down another notch for smooth play. Video looks superb, and the system easily handled high-bit-rate high-definition video. If you want to use an external display, you’ll need a Mini DisplayPort cable (the beauty of DisplayPort is that you can buy adapters for any other type of display, including analog VGA for when you need to use an old-school video projector).

ROBERT CARDIN
The redesigned model is thinner and lighter than the original.

Although Dell has reduced the XPS 12’s weight to 3.35 pounds (the earlier model weighed 4 pounds), it’s still too heavy to hold in one hand and use as a tablet for any length of time. Dell also needs to outfit the XPS 12 with better sensors for detecting the screen’s orientation. I often had to pick up the unit and manipulate its angle before it would rotate to the correct orientation.

Dell XPS 12 Worldbench score
Dell’s XPS 12 earned an excellent Notebook WorldBench 8.1 score, although its gaming subscores were low.

I have no complaints about the XPS 12’s excellent backlit keyboard. Being a writer, I consider keyboards to be a big deal, and I wish every laptop had one that felt as good. The layout is spacious, the keys are slightly sculpted, and the feel is nothing short of fantastic. The touchpad and touchscreen are also nicely responsive.

The XPS 12’s audio system is better than average for its class, too. The low-end emanating from the speakers is more low-mid punch than thump, but I could pick up the bass in the intro to Van Halen’s “Runnin’ with the Devil,” a frequency that stymies many portable devices.

Dell XPS 12 battery life
Battery life is excellent at 6 hours, 49 minutes.

The XPS 12 has just two USB 3.0 ports, one of which is always on for charging devices such as a smartphone or a digital media player. A headset jack and a built-in dual-array mic sit next to the webcam for videoconferencing. The machine has no hardwired ethernet, but this is one of the few laptops we’ve seen to boast an integrated 802.11ac adapter (Intel’s dual-band Wireless-AC 7260, which also supports Bluetooth 4.0 and Intel’s wireless display technology).

The Dell XPS 12 is well equipped, fast, and fun to use. Like most convertibles, it’s better as a notebook than as a tablet.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    Dell's XPS 12 is better as a notebook than as a tablet, but it remains one of the best convertibles on the market.

    Pros

    • Keyboard not exposed in tablet mode
    • Outstanding battery life
    • Includes 802.11ac Wi-Fi adapter

    Cons

    • Heavy, especially when held in one hand
    • Occasional delay in screen-orientation switch
    • Only two USB ports
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