Subjective Evaluation: Pulling the Old Switcheroo

It’s pretty clear that the raison d’être for the XPS 12 is to be a convergence laptop and tablet hybrid. This is accomplished via the flipscreen, allowing the device to switch from being a regular laptop into tablet mode. There are other devices that do something similar, as I discussed in a blog last month, but right now to my knowledge Dell is the only company that’s trying to go with a flipscreen. Sliders, tablets with a detachable keyboard, twist hinges, and even foldable laptops are out there, and they all go after the same problem: how to make a device that’s both a laptop and a tablet work well. I’m going to tackle the subjective evaluation in two parts, first as a laptop and second as a tablet, but first let’s cover some of the core design elements.

Gallery: Dell XPS 12

One of my biggest concerns when I first saw images of the XPS 12 was the durability of the flipscreen. Since the whole display section has to be free to pivot, I was worried the frame would feel flimsy and might wear out sooner rather than later. While I can’t say how well the hinge and pivot points will hold up long term, I can say that they actually feel quite solid in practice—the frame is reasonably thick and made of metal and inspires confidence that it will last for a while. The flipping action also works nicely, with strong magnets that lock the display into place in either orientation. The build quality for the rest of the XPS 12 is also good, and I like the carbon fiber covers on the bottom and the back of the LCD. Overall, the XPS 12 is definitely a step up from Dell’s other consumer branded laptops.

One drawback of the flipscreen is that the screen portion of the XPS 12 is quite a bit thicker than on most Ultrabooks. Part of that might be necessary additional thickness to accommodate the touchscreen, but in order to make the flipscreen work I think Dell added an extra two or three millimeters to the display portion of the chassis to make it more durable. As a point of reference, I measured the display on the Acer S7 at around 4mm compared to roughly 7.5mm on the XPS 12. For an Ultrabook, that’s a pretty significant difference, but since the XPS 12 is still reasonably thin I won’t belabor the point. Just know in advance that it’s going to be thicker than some of the competing options.

One other point to bring up before getting into the laptop/tablet specifics is that the WiFi stack on the XPS 12 (an Intel 6235 with Bluetooth) is for some reason quite flaky, relatively speaking. Every couple of days, I would suddenly find that the XPS 12 was off the network. When I checked the WiFi control panel, I could see the appropriate networks, but trying to join any of them would result in an error. The fix was to simply disable and then re-enable WiFi via the keyboard shortcut, but I’m not used to seeing this sort of problem with Intel WiFi controllers. Updating drivers didn’t help here, so perhaps I just received a slightly flaky unit in this regard.

The XPS 12 as a Laptop

While the XPS 12 is a hybrid device, it’s still primarily a laptop I think, so I’ll start here. Other than the above comments about the build quality, the most important elements for a good laptop experience are going to come from the keyboard, touchpad, and display. Dell gets two out of three with the XPS 12, with the touchpad being the part that misses the boat. I understand that the touchscreen partially obviates the need for a touchpad, but when I’m typing I still find it more natural to reach down to the touchpad rather than up to the display. YMMV, naturally, but let me give the full scoop.

The hardware for the touchpad apparently comes from Cypress, which isn’t one of the more well-known touchpad brands. In order of quality, I still rate Synaptics at the top, with Alps and ElanTech coming in roughly tied for seconds. From there, it’s a moderate drop down to the Cypress touchpad in the XPS 12, with the only other touchpad brand that I can recall using that’s worse than Cypress being Sentelic. I don’t know if the problem is with the core hardware (e.g. the integrated circuits and finger sensing technology) or if it’s the drivers—probably a bit of both. Whatever the cause, I’ve had numerous clicks, drags, multitouch swipes, etc. simply fail to register on the touchpad. Sometimes the touchpad will stop working entirely, and oddly enough the only way to get it to start again is to touch the screen. Even when it does work, it’s not as precise as I would like—using two fingers to scroll through a web page for example can be rather choppy when you swipe and the let the scrolling “coast”. Perhaps Dell can fix the issues with an updated driver, but I had enough trouble that I’m guessing that won’t be the case.

The good news is that the touchscreen works far better than the touchpad, so if you can make the mental switch to using the screen you might forget about the touchpad issues. Scrolling, coasting, pinch to zoom, swiping, etc. all worked well for me on the touchscreen, and while you will have to deal with some fingerprints over time it worked about as well as dedicated tablets that I’ve played with…mostly—I’ll get to the exceptions in the tablet portion below.

The keyboard is one of the better Ultrabook keyboard offerings, possibly even besting the ASUS UX31A keyboard in terms of overall feel (though I understand that’s a highly subjective statement, so take it for what it’s worth). Key travel is decent, the layout is good, and there’s no crazy missing row of function keys like on the Acer S7. The keyboard also comes with backlighting, a must for any modern laptop in my book, and other than that I really don’t have much to say on the keyboard. It works well for me, and I’ve typed a fair amount of text on the XPS 12 over the course of this review.

Last up is the screen, and here Dell once again swings for the fences but comes up short. Dell uses a 12.5” 1080p IPS panel, which means great viewing angles and a high resolution for a small display. The problem is that colors just don’t look quite right, and when I calibrated the display I found that once again the results were way off. Post calibration, both the blue and red intensity have to be significantly reduced to get decent colors, and even then the result isn’t as good as what we usually see. I do have to wonder if Windows 8 might be messing up my testing a bit, as both the Acer S7 and Dell XPS 12 have very similar results, but for now it looks like it’s just a case of poor calibration from the factory. It’s 2013 now, and while it might cost $1 extra per unit to calibrate the colors (or even $5), it’s time to make that effort—particularly on a $1200+ Ultrabook. Actually, even if Dell just took a sampling of ten LCD panels and profiled them and then averaged out their profiles and applied that to all the XPS 12 laptops, the result would be much better than what you currently get—and cost in that case would be negligible.

Overall, as a laptop the XPS 12 works reasonably well, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. Performance is comparable to other Ivy Bridge Ultrabooks, the keyboard and display are better than average, and the touchscreen is something I imagine a certain set of users will really like (and others will probably loathe). Flip the screen over and turn the XPS 12 into a tablet and things take on a decidedly different feel.

Dell XPS 12: Everything to Everyone? Subjective Analysis Continued: XPS 12 as a Tablet
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  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, February 26, 2013 - link

    There's a specific application I use on my Android tablet (that is also available on iOS) that has text versions of several thousand books and magazines, and it's all linked together (e.g. you'll see a reference to an article and you can click it to go there). All of the content is freely available on the Internet, but instead of staying within a unified full-screen app (with the ability to make notes and highlight material), you end up having a bunch of web pages open (which requires an active Internet connection) and you can't take notes directly or highlight passages, nor can you have any notes sync between devices.

    The best you can find in the Windows Store right now is an app that only has about five books, none of the magazines or other manuals, etc. I'm pretty sure the group that makes the apps for Android and iOS will have a Windows Store app in the future, but it might be a year or two (or it might be a month or two -- who knows?).

    When I use the XPS 12 as a laptop, none of the above bothers me much, but in tablet mode the fullscreen apps are far more important. I don't want to open web pages and type URLs if I don't have to; I don't always have Internet either. I don't have a GPS in the XPS 12, which makes getting turn-by-turn navigation directions impossible (sometime I can get on a $200 or less Android tablet).
    Reply
  • AncientWisdom - Wednesday, February 27, 2013 - link

    " Maybe it was all in my head, but those extra couple inches make a big difference. " (Page 3)

    Sure made me laugh :-)
    Reply
  • IndyJaws - Wednesday, February 27, 2013 - link

    I have a 15z, and while I've been happy with it overall, the Cypress touchpad is proof Satan exists. I'd have hoped they got their act together in the 2 years since I got my machine, but the issues Jarred describes are very similar here, but to an even worse degree. I've only recently found a driver for another Dell laptop that has made it semi-usable, but for the most part, I find myself using a wireless mouse instead. Reply
  • vectorm12 - Sunday, March 3, 2013 - link

    I keep wondering where the sub 700 € ultrabooks powered by AMD hardware went?

    There was loads of talk about how OEMs would design one Intel "Premium" ultrabook which would then filter down into more affordable and probably similarly performing ultrathins with AMD hardware inside?

    Right now I'm looking to replace my wife's 13" Macbook Pro with something halfway decent, but considering the small difference in price and the unfortunately high amount of shortcomings I'm still inclined to think spending a couple of hundred more on an Air is the smarter choice given the standard she's used to from the MBP.

    Dell, HP, Asus and the other OEMs should be able slam Apple on price/performance but in this case they are more like equals.

    At least I'm happy to see highres displays starting to show up on these machines.

    Honestly I feel a 13" MBP equipped with the retina display would be solid value. User-upgradeable battery, RAM(2 SO-DIMMs instead of the stupidly soldered primary SO-DIMM) and SSD/HDD. Would kill all competition even if it was priced similarly to the 13" "MBP with retina display".
    Reply
  • CeriseCogburn - Monday, March 4, 2013 - link

    It's the proletariat crap consumerism we have nowadays.

    Then we get the insane bottom dollar acquisition talks about Apples production takeover strategies, and what's left is the crap sandwhich everyone pretends to hate until they buy one, then the love never ends.

    If anyone does produce the correct device that isn't a crap sandwhich, the first and only thing anyone ever hears is it's a ripoff.

    Instead, we get a crap sandwhich, and an on the spot economics lesson by the posting would be CEO, who notes that 50 cent a bom is 50 million bucks.

    So expect many crap sandwhiches, forever.
    Reply
  • JasonJ65 - Thursday, March 14, 2013 - link

    This Dell XPS 12 is by far the worst device that I have ever purchased. Touch screen stops working all the time, constantly unable to connect the wifi, cannot find hot spots, crashes at least once per week. Dell's solution is to continue reinstalling the drivers. Not what I expected for $1700. I've gone back to my $300 HP2000 which has turned out to be a much better purchase. Reply
  • simonmarksmith - Sunday, April 21, 2013 - link

    If the touchpad or touch screen stop working on your XPS try touching the metal casing with your other hand... Here's a video of what I found happened with mine.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3fWIEtOFfk
    Reply
  • sheehanje - Monday, April 22, 2013 - link

    I know I'm a bit late to the party with this review comment - but I would first like to point out that prices have started coming down on the XPS 12. I got an 8GB i7 model with 250GB SSD for $1300, and they are dropping even further.

    As a Network Analyst/Engineer/Duct Tape Master, I am constantly in wiring closets, in meetings, and on the go. The XPS is what I would call a perfect blend of Laptop/Tablet. For MY purposes, it works better than any other hybrid out there. One reason the flip screen works so well is for documentation - I can use it in full tablet mode, or just flip the screen around easily go through large PDF's in either portrait or landscape using the base (keyboard) as a prop. It is sturdy, unlike most tablet stands, were I can navigate without worrying about the unit flopping over.

    There are some glaring omissions on what could be a grand slam of the jack of all trades laptop. GPS is not included, which is disappointing to me. It's not a deal breaker by any means, but the cost of adding GPS is negligible these days in a modern device. Also, as mentioned, there is no digitizer pen capability with the XPS 12. I don't find that as crucial. It would be nice, but it does reduce the sensitivity of the touch screen - which the XPS is one of the best touchscreens I've ever used. I just ordered a Jot Pro for note taking - but even that will be used sparingly.

    My last con is the touchpad - it is ill conceived to say the least. I've had all the mentioned issues - and it has horrible response. Button presses often go amiss. One thing I will say, it has gotten me used to the touchscreen, because I'm now constantly trying to use gestures on my non touch screen Mobile Precision laptop.

    I highly recommend this hybrid to anyone that needs flexibility between a laptop and tablet. Especially IT pro's that need to between the office and the field. (The field being wiring closets or datacenters). To me, Dell hit a triple with this. It is so close to being a home run, but I'll take it given the current generation of Tablet/Laptops hybrids.
    Reply
  • rburnham - Wednesday, May 8, 2013 - link

    I don't mind the price of this because the specs are really good. However, the bulk worries me. In order to get a tablet with 256 gigs of storage and a 1080p screen, it seems like just about everything I can find are these sort of thick hybrid/convertible units. Sony's Duo slider unit comes to mind.

    What I would really like to see is something with a detachable keyboard, like Samsung's 700T tablet, which has the perfect style, but with 256 gigs of storage.

    I have not found the perfect Windows 8 tablet yet, but the XPS 12 come really close.
    Reply

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