Dell XPS 12: Windows 8 Ultrabook Re-imagined

by Patrick Moorhead   |   November 27th, 2012

With the advent of Microsoft’s Windows 8, computer makers developed different form factors to take advantage of the new operating system.  Most of these new Windows 8 form factors were shown for the first time at Computex in Taipei and then at the official Windows 8 launch event in New York.  The new PC form factors extend the functionality by taking advantage of touch screen and the Windows 8 Metro interface.  Consumers and businesses can now choose from a myriad of innovative form factors: hybrids where the tablet disconnects from the keyboard, convertible flippers, convertibles that flip 360 degrees and large, portable displays that are carried from room to room.

One of the best of these new devices is Dell’s XPS 12 Convertible Touch Ultrabook.  I have been using it for nearly a month as my primary notebook and wanted to share my experiences.

Ultrabook First, Tablet Second
The XPS 12 is an Ultrabook first and a tablet second.  This is important to understand, otherwise you may fall into the trap of comparing this to a tablet-only device, which would be a big mistake.  The XPS 12 operates as a tablet secondarily through the use of a very innovative flipping hinge, which allows the display to swivel back when you want to use it as a tablet, and swivel back when you want to use it as an Ultrabook. It also enables what I like to call “movie-mode” where the display is at the front and the keyboard is hidden but acts as a great stand.
The swivel display frame is very durable, regardless of what you may read elsewhere.  When you swivel the display into place, it emits a very robust “click”, which comes from magnets all around the frame. One thing that impresses the engineering side of me is that ability to deliver power, display and touch signals signals over a moving swivel mechanism.  Dell has added a few other details to improve use as a tablet.  Dell changed the power button from a bezel button to a side slider which enables the user to turn on the device in any form factor, Ultrabook or tablet, and keeps it from accidentally getting pressed when used as a tablet.  One other comfort feature that I only noticed after a week of use was that the rubberized “feet” act as great place to put your fingers when using as a tablet.
Industrial Design
The XPS 12 pulls from the design language of the entire XPS line, which looks premium but also very functional and durable.  The lid and bottom are both made from carbon fiber, which is not only durable and very light, but cool to the touch. The metal frame is machined aluminum, which is very sturdy and looks great.  The palmrest is made from magnesium, covered with black, rubberized material that is gentle on the eyes but also keeps your palms from slipping like mine does on my MacBook Air (MBA).  Like other notebooks made with machined aluminum, the XPS 12 is a bit heavier than some other Ultrabooks, but I personally like that trade-off  And at 3.35 lbs, it’s lighter than the MacBook Pro (MBP) 13″.
Beautiful 1080P Display
The XPS 12′s display is gorgeous.  It is 12.5″ with brightness up to 400 nits and at 1,920 x 1,080 resolution.  It’s made from bonded Gorilla Glass and therefore bright and durable.  Pictures and movies looked incredible.  This delivers a much higher PPI (176) than a standard 13″ MBA  (127) and less than a 13″ MBP with Retina Display (227).
Base Specifications
While thin and light, my XPS 12 came with relatively robust features:
  • Intel Core i7 3667U operating at 2.0Ghz up to 3.2Ghz in Turbo Boost
  • Windows 8 Pro 64-bit
  • 256 GB SSD/8 GB RAM
  • Intel HD 4000 GPU and mini DisplayPort out
  • Over 5 hours battery life (per reviews) with 47 wHR battery
  • 802.11 a/g/n, USB-3.0 with with PowerShare, eSATA/USB-3.0, BlueTooth 3.0, and WiDi 3.0
  • Intel RapidStart and Smart Connect Technology
  • 3.35 lbs/1.52kg
 All of these specs were very solid, but I would have appreciated an option for discrete AMD or NVIDIA graphics to play some higher level games and take advantage of programs that use GPU compute.
Apple MacBook or Dell XPS 12?
Ultimately, consumers must make a choice and in many cases, Apple and Windows Ultrabooks will be in the consideration set. If, and I mean “IF” the consumer is neutral on an Apple versus Windows 8 ecosystem and purchase experience, here are the things they should consider:
  • how important is touch?  The XPS 12 has it, Macs do not.  Apple may say that reaching across the keyboard to touch the display is bad ergonomics.
  • how important is being able to use the laptop as a tablet? The XPS 12 can, the Mac cannot.  Apple may say buy an iPad because it performs better as a tablet.
  • how important is having the highest resolution and PPI? Apple has the highest.  Dell may say look at the price penalty you pay for the Retina Display.
  • how important are discrete graphics?  Apple offers Nvidia’s latest graphics on the MBP, Dell does not.  Dell may say with such a thin and light design starting at $1,199, it’s not practical.
  • how important is price?  The XPS 12 starts at $1,199 with 1080P display, the MBP with Retina starts at $1,699.  Apple may say the XPS 12 isn’t retina, 500 MHz. more CPU, ThunderBolt and discrete graphics. Or Apple may say look to the MBA 13″, which starts at $1,199.
 Net-net, it is great consumers have such great choices with laptops and Ultrabooks.
Dell XPS 12: Windows 8 Ultrabook Re-imagined
As an industry analyst, I don’t publicly publish many product evaluations, but with the Dell XPS 12, I thought it was important, given its unique design and new usage models it enables.  As an Ultrabook, the XPS 12 was one of the most solid devices I have ever used.  It’s fast, light, thin, sturdy and Dell has paid great attention to details in form and function. As a tablet, I enjoyed it a lot better than I ever expected, and this is coming from a long-time iPad user.  I found myself using the XPS 12 on the couch propping it on my lap and even in bed in “movie-mode” where I historically used my iPad.  It doesn’t replace my iPad or Nexus 7, but I could see using my Surface a lot less.
Dell has a real winner with the XPS 12 and I applaud their courage for developing and productizing such a unique convertible, shape-shifting Windows 8 device during such turbulent times in the PC industry.

Patrick Moorhead

Patrick Moorhead was ranked the #1 technology industry analyst by Apollo Research for the U.S. and EMEA in May, 2013.. He is President and Principal Analyst of Moor Insights & Strategy, a high tech analyst firm focused on the ecosystem intersections of the phone, tablet, PC, TV, datacenter and cloud. Moorhead departed AMD in 2011 where he served as Corporate Vice President and Corporate Fellow in the strategy group. There, he developed long-term strategies for mobile computing devices and personal computers. In his 11 years at AMD he also led product management, business planning, product marketing, regional marketing, channel marketing, and corporate marketing. Moorhead worked at Compaq Computer Corp. during their run to the #1 market share leader position in personal computers. Moorhead also served as an executive at AltaVista E-commerce during their peak and pioneered cost per click e-commerce models.
  • FalKirk

    “The XPS 12 is an Ultrabook first and a tablet second.”

    It seems to me that EVERY new Windows 8 device is a “tablet second”.

    Is there a pure Windows 8 tablet on the market? They all seem to be trying to be “tweeners” – part notebook, part tablet, but mostly notebook.

    • steve_wildstrom

      The existence of Desktop mode in Windows RT and the fact that you have to resort to it for some administrative functions–guarantees that there cannot be a “pure” tablet.

      • FalKirk

        Microsoft is ceding the entire tablet market to Apple – again!

        • http://twitter.com/M_Gauche James King

          I’ve never understood why Microsoft insisted on fusing different interfaces on Windows instead of making unique OSs for specific markets. Why not have a specific Media Center OS and a unique tablet OS? The OS on the XBox is a tailored experience… why didn’t Microsoft just make a specific gaming OS with a Steam-style game delivery system? With all of its engineering resources, I simply don’t understand why Microsoft only builds essentially ONE OS (Windows Phone notwithstanding).

          If Sinofsky was responsible for that, then he definitely should have been shown the door. There were so many opportunities for Microsoft to lead while still sticking to its core strength as a platform company. I’ve always been mystified by that.

          • Rich

            I wish you could ask Steve Ballmer your question. The answer might be interesting.

          • FalKirk

            “I’ve never understood why Microsoft insisted on fusing different interfaces…”

            All of Microsoft’s users and developers were on the desktop. Microsoft is attempting leverage their massive desktop market share and transfer it, en masse, to the phone and the tablet. Creating a totally different OS would have put them head-to-head with the already established iOS and Android ecosystems.

            Microsoft wants the world to pretend that there is only one Windows OS and that Windows 8 runs on the desktop, the tablet and the phone. Of course, what they’ve actually done is create three separate operating systems that have the same user interface. Big difference.

          • http://twitter.com/M_Gauche James King

            While I get this, the fact is that Microsoft could have easily taken the lead in the phone, tablet and media device markets early on simply by using the same core technology while tailoring the interface to the particular use case, not simply grafting a UI on top of what is essentially a full version of Windows. It’s just lazy. Microsoft had the resources and market presence to take command of those markets from the very beginning (pre-iOS, Android). A good, not necessarily great, product and the Microsoft name would have been enough for MSFT to dominate those markets. But just attempting to graft and shoehorn Windows, which is even kludgey on the desktop, guaranteed that crafty, nimble competitors that created OSs actually TAILORED for each environment won out.

          • Rich

            Microsoft didn’t lose those markets because they’re lazy. They lost those markets because they’re married *in their heads* to Windows and don’t believe any other love will satisfy.

            Microsoft’s competitors brought a new girl, young and pretty, to the dance and she got all the attention.

      • Mir

        Windows Surface RT does not have a Desktop mode, it’s a pure tablet. The Windows Surface Pro has a Desktop mode, the one that’s installed on Dell XPS 12.

        • steve_wildstrom

          Sorry, but that is just wrong. You cannot install new desktop apps in RT, but it comes with Office Home & Student (Word, Excel, PPT, OneNote), Windows Explorer, the Desktop version of IE, and an assortment of utilities, all of which run in Desktop.

    • http://alexandersmith.co/ Benjamin Alexander

      I believe the correct term is toaster-fridge. The Surface can be purchased without a keyboard, but your point stands.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001035136448 Sihan Zheng

      There is quite a few tablet first devices, for example the Lenovo thinkpad tablet 2

    • http://twitter.com/shameermulji Shameer Mulji

      “Is there a pure Windows 8 tablet on the market?”

      Only one I can think of at the moment is Surface for Windows RT.

    • kongqueror

      If you never plan to use Office, the Windows RT is perhaps a pure tablet.

      • Mir

        You can use use Office on Windows Surface RT; and yes, it’s a pure tablet.

  • http://twitter.com/qka qka

    I liked John Gruber’s take on the Dell XPS 12:

    http://daringfireball.net/2012/11/best_dell_ad_ever

  • jgf

    I think this is a terrific review. The reviewer has used this device for a month as his daily driver where most reviewers have used reviewed devices on and off for a week at most, many using the devices for only few days. Additionally, Mr. Moorhead was open minded enough to learn the new Windows 8 interface as well as being willing to immerse
    himself into the user expirence of the Dell XPS 12 convertibles features. He has compared this product with competive devices showing no bias, a very rare trait these days. Job well done!