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Dell's XPS 12 convertible Ultrabook is an attempt to be all things to all people. By day, it can function as a standard office ultrabook, running Windows 8 in desktop mode and the usual range of productivity applications, with the added benefit of a touchscreen. By night, it can transform into a tablet-style device running the Windows Metro interface — and of course there's nothing stop you using it in tablet mode in the office, to deliver presentations or perform other business functions.
That's the idea, anyway. But does the combination really work? For the price of even the entry-level version of the XPS 12, you can buy a tablet and a laptop, so it really does have to meet both sets of needs well enough to justify the expense.
Dell has pushed the boat out with the design of the XPS 12. We've seen convertible laptops before, of course, but Dell's take is entirely different from the conventional twist-and-lay-flat design. The screen swivels inside its silver bezel, rotating around two hinges so that it can be lain flat facing outwards. It's a very clever idea, and the mechanism itself is smooth. The screen gently locks into position inside the bezel via four hinges (two on each of the long screen edges), and it feels very secure.
There's a knack to getting the swivel to function properly. A sharp flick at a screen corner seems to be the best action, fully flipping the screen before laying it to rest on the keyboard. To revert to clamshell mode, lift the lid and then flip the screen — don't try to lift and flip together.
Judged as an ultrabook, the XPS 12's overall weight of 1.54kg (3.35lb) is reasonable. However, that's three times the weight of a modern tablet, so it feels heavy when used in that mode.
Dell hasn't skimped as far as design and build are concerned. The chassis is made from carbon fibre and aluminium, while the screen bezel, base surround and lid are all tough and solid. The keyboard surround has an odd rubberised finish of the type more usually found on smartphone back plates. The same finish is used on the base plate and lid, and both share a neat two-tone grey-and-black checkerboard design.
The screen, which is made from Gorilla Glass, is very reflective. We find that distracting when in "business" mode, but the screen does have a lot going for it. For a start, its resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels puts standard office notebooks to shame. And with the pixels crammed into a 12.5-inch Screen, the display delivers real punch: Colours are rich and bright, text is sharp, and web pages are a pleasure to look at.
The screen's touch responsiveness is very good too, although in Windows Desktop mode, things can be a little hit and miss if you're stubby fingered. You can, of course, always take the traditional mouse or trackpad route, leaving touch for when you're using Metro.
The keyboard is a pleasure to use. The keys are nice and springy, and well spaced. Touch typing is comfortable, and we like the click that the keys deliver. Two things irritated us, though: The cursor keys are a little small, and, more seriously, the double-height Enter key is only half width in the bottom half. We missed it quite a lot until we got used to hitting it with the right little finger.
The Fn keys all have useful second functions such as volume control, media playback, screen switching — even a battery meter callup. The keyboard backlight bleeds out a little from behind the keys, but it can be toggled with a Fn key combination.
There are various iterations of the XPS 12 available, with three standard models available off the page (in the UK, where this review was conducted). The entry-level model runs on a 1.8GHz (up to 2.7GHz with Turbo Boost) Core i5-3337U and costs £999 (including VAT), and a 2.0/3.1GHz Core i7-3537U variant is the most expensive, at £1,299 (including VAT). In the US, there are four pre-configured models, with prices ranging from $1,199 to $1,699.
The entry-level XPS12 comes with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, while the most expensive model doubles both of these to 8GB and 256GB, respectively. Our review unit had a 1.9/3.0GHz Core i7-3517U, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD.
All XPS 12 variants are equipped with Intel's integrated HD Graphics 4000 GPU, dual-band (2.4/5GHz) 802.11a/b/g/n wi-fi, and Bluetooth 4.0.
There's no optical drive and, as on many ultrabooks, connectivity options aren't great: You get two USB 3.0 ports on the right edge, plus a Mini-DisplayPort slot. And that's it; neither Ethernet nor an SD card slot get a look-in. Whichever way you look at it, this feature set is minimal in the extreme.
The right edge also houses a small button you can press to get an indication of battery power. Up to five white LEDs will illuminate when you press it. This is a very neat feature, as it lets you check whether you need to apply some charge without actually switching the XPS 12 on.
The left edge has a headset jack, a volume rocker, a button to lock auto screen rotation, and the power switch. Stereo speakers deliver remarkably good sound — possibly the best we've come across on a notebook. You can crank up the volume without undue distortion, and there's not too much treble. The sound subsystem could handle a multimedia presentation to a small group without recourse to external speakers.
Above the screen, there's a 1.3-megapixel webcam, and beneath it a Windows Home button. This can be used in both notebook and tablet mode: Tap it to toggle between the Desktop and Metro home screens. It's a borrow from Microsoft's Surface tablet, and it works very well.
The XPS 12's Windows Experience Index WEI) score of 5.4 (out of 9.9) corresponds to the lowest component score, which went to Graphics (desktop graphics performance). The other scores were 6.4 for Gaming graphics (3D business and gaming graphics performance), 7.1 for Processor (calculations per second), 7.4 for Memory (RAM memory operations per second), and 8.1 to Primary hard disk (disk data transfer rate).
This adds up to decent performance for mainstream business and consumer usage, although demanding graphical apps and games will require a system with discrete rather than integrated graphics.
In true ultrabook fashion, you can't access the six-cell battery, whose life is not the XPS 12's strong suit. We'd struggle to get through a full day if that day included a measure of video playback, and suspect that many office workers will need to plug into mains power at some point during the working day.
Dell's swivel-screen solution is extremely efficient, smooth in operation and ergonomic in use. The build quality is solid, and the screen is delightful to look at in both notebook and tablet modes, although it may be too reflective for some tastes.
Battery life is not great, though, and this system is severely lacking in connectivity — even by ultrabook standards.
If you can get by with no Ethernet port or SD card slot and just two USB ports, and you really need tablet and notebook usability in one machine, this is a great way to get it. Note, though, that Dell is currently quoting a shipping date of early April for some XPS 12 models, including the most expensive variant.