We'd be remiss if we didn't revisit the Dell XPS 12 in its Haswell revision. Why? The XPS 12 was one of our early top picks among Windows 8 convertibles with a full HP IPS display, clever design that avoided the Lenovo Yoga's keyboard poking out from the bottom issue, and it runs on full Intel Core CPUs for strong performance. Many convertibles and detachables hit the market since the XPS 12's launch, but the Haswell refresh that started shipping a few months back, puts Dell's 12.5" convertible safely back as one of our top picks. Better yet, Dell and retailers have been running some strong promotions since the 2013 Christmas holiday season, and you may still find the normally $1,100 1.6GHz Core i5-4200U laptop for a bargain $799 (or less) at places like Microcenter and Microsoft Stores.
Inside, the XPS 12 makes the move from Ivy Bridge to Intel Haswell fourth generation CPUs, and the Ultrabook-tablet is available with Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 CPU options. You can get it with 4 or 8 gigs of DDR3L RAM and a 128 gig or higher SSD drive. Dell takes care of the little things that please enthusiasts, so you get a few niceties like fast mSATA SSD drive models (ours is a Samsung PM841) and robust Intel 7260 dual band 802.11ac WiFi with Bluetooth 4.0.
The XPS 12 has a full HD 1920 x 1080 IPS display that's bright, has good very contrast and above average, though not class leading color gamut. This is a touch-only display and there's no digital pen option. The 3.35 lb. machine has one of the best backlit Ultrabook keyboards on the market, and the Synaptics touchpad works well too. The Dell can be used as a standard laptop, a tablet, in presentation mode and in tent mode, making it a versatile machine. Clearly at 3.35 pounds, it's not meant to be an iPad replacement and you'll need to spend a lot of time at the gym if you want to hold this tablet on resting in the crook of your arm for hours. I suspect most folks will use it on a desk in tablet mode, or opt for presentation and tent modes.
Design and Ergonomics
We won't go too deep on design and ergonomics because that hasn't changed much from our original XPS 12 review. The easel hinge has gotten a firmer locking mechanism, but the carbon fiber and aluminum casing with soft touch magnesium keyboard deck haven't changed outwardly. That's fine with us since the XPS 12's build quality, materials and styling impressed us the first time around. The machine feels rugged yet it's not bulky or homely (in fact quite the opposite). We like the little touches like the small hump on the bottom that raises the back for better typing, provides better ventilation and acts as a good grab point when carrying the laptop. Like the Lenovo Yoga models, the Dell can be a laptop, tablet or work in tent and presentation modes. Better yet, the keyboard's keys don't face downward and make contact with the table or your lap when using it in tablet and presentation modes.
The XPS 12 has two USB 3.0 ports side-by-side, a mini DisplayPort (more versatile than HDMI since you can use adapters for VGA, HDMI and DisplayPort for ultra-high resolution monitors) and a 3.5mm combo audio jack. Like the XPS 13, there's no SD card slot. The tablet's power button is on the side, as is the display rotation lock button and volume rocker so you can access these even when the tablet is closed. There are multimedia controls on the Fn row of the keyboard as well. You can specify whether the top row defaults to Fn or multimedia control when you press them without the Fn key.
The side mounted stereo speakers put out clear sound that won't shake your teeth with bass, as you'd expect from a small computer. However, the sound isn't shrill or harsh and volume is loud enough to fill a small room. The computer doesn't get hot and the fan is generally silent. If you play Civ V you'll hear the fan, but it's quiet when web browsing and streaming video.
Deals and Shopping:
Dell XPS 12 (late 2013) Video Review
Performance and Horsepower
As we know by now, Intel Haswell 4th generation CPUs bring integrated graphics performance improvements, but CPU performance is the same as 3rd gen Ivy Bridge-- the real gains are in battery life and cooler temperatures. The latest XPS 12 does score a bit higher on synthetic benchmarks thanks largely to the faster Intel HD 4400 integrated graphics (sorry, there's no dedicated graphics in machines this small), but the gains are modest vs. Ivy Bridge in the first gen XPS 12. The convertible is available with the usual Intel U series dual core ULV/ULT Core i3, 1.6GHz Core i5-4200U and 1.8GHz Core i7-4500U CPUs. All are 15 watt packages with Intel HD 4400 graphics. As always we recommend the Core i5 and i7 since they have Turbo Boost. The performance difference between the Core i5 and i7 is small, but since the Core i7 is bundled with 8 gigs of RAM and 256 gigs of storage that some folks will want, you might end up with the Core i7 anyway. Our Core i5-4200U model performed near the top of the pack among similarly equipped Haswell convertibles and Ultrabooks, but keep in mind it's a close race with a relatively small point spread between competing models and brands.
4 or 8 gigs of DDR3L 1600MHz dual channel RAM is soldered on board and the laptop uses a standard mSATA SSD drive that is upgradable. Happily, those drives aren't too hard to find if you look in the geeky parts section on Amazon and NewEgg.com. The wireless card is likewise socketed, but since it's the top of the line Intel AC-7260 module, it's unlikely you'd want to upgrade it. To access the internals you'll remove the bottom panel, which isn't that hard but do be careful of the carbon fiber when prying at the edges; it's flexible but can be snapped and broken if you're rough with the pry tool.
Ultrabooks with integrated graphics aren't gaming machines, but the Dell like its competitors, can play older 3D games and casual games well. It can handle some current 3D titles like Civ V, Minecraft and World of Warcraft on low settings, but Battlefield 4 and Skyrim generally run at 30 fps or less on low settings and 1366 x 768 resolution.
(1.6 GHz Intel Core i5-4200U, 4 gigs RAM and 128 gig SSD and 1.8GHz Core i7 with 8 gigs RAM and 256 gig SSD tested)
The XPS 12 has a lovely 12.5" full HD IPS touchscreen with 400 nits of claimed brightness (we measured it at 340 nits) and Gorilla Glass. It has wide viewing angles, extremely sharp text and pleasing colors. 1920 x 1080 means 1080p videos play without scaling and photos look very detailed. As with the Microsoft Surface Pro 2, color gamut is better than average among laptops, though it's certainly not the widest we've seen. The display manages 71% of sRGB and 53% of Adobe RGB. In practice, you won't be able to tell, and most folks find this a very sharp and pleasing display. Graphics professionals who require the best color fidelity might want to consider laptops with higher color gamut that approaches 100% of sRGB like the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus, 13" MacBook Pro with Retina display, Sony Vaio Flip 13 and Asus Zenbook UX301LA.
There's been some discussion of temporary image retention, where an after-image of a window left open for 10 or 20 minutes might leave a temporary ghost image on the display. The Dell isn't the only one with that problem, it seems to be an issue with LG 12.5" displays used in machines like the XPS 12 and Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga, as well as the 15" LG panel used in first generation 15" MacBook Pro with Retina display. Most folks wouldn't notice it, and it's more likely to be apparent if you use a solid gray background. That said, our unit, which we've had for a month, has shown modest temporary image retention. Is it enough to bother me? No. I generally use busy background images and don't leave the laptop on the same window for long though.
Keyboard and Trackpad
Like the Dell XPS 13, the XPS 12 has a superb island style keyboard that's a joy for those of us who spend a lot of time writing. The sculpted keys keep your fingers located and there's good key separation along with better than average travel for a thin machine. Key damping is easy on the fingers and ensures that the keyboard isn't too noisy. The white backlighting is effective and it has three levels (off, medium and bright). The XPS 12 has arguably the best keyboard in the convertible Ultrabook space, beating out Lenovo's latest thin convertibles and Ultrabooks for tactile feel and travel.
The keyboard has a standard layout with the expected oversized keys for both shift keys, backspace, enter, caps lock and the tab key. There's a small arrow pad and the Fn row up top does double duty with multimedia and notebook controls.
The Synaptics trackpad is fairly large for a 12.5" machine and gestures such as side swipes to bring up the Charms menu and multi-tasking list worked well, as does pinch zooming. We're thrilled that Dell dumped the so-so Cypress trackpad they used in the last generation XPS 12, since it was less well mannered. Though the trackpad visually blends into the wrist rest area, its texture is smoother than the soft touch wrist rest area and the border is physically distinct so your finger won't unwittingly wander off. The trackpad uses the now standard buttonless design where the entire trackpad moves down and up with an audible click when you left or right click.
Battery Life: Impressive
As mentioned, Haswell brings strong improvements to battery life, particularly when the machine is idle or you're using it for relatively undemanding tasks like word processing, email and web browsing. Battery life wasn't a strong point for the first generation XPS 12, and the same was true for most first gen convertible Windows 8 models on the market at the time. The second gen is significantly improved thanks to Intel Haswell, and we've managed an admirable 8 hours of productivity use that included writing reviews in MS Word 2013, checking email and web browsing using IE with several tabs open (Internet Explorer has a lower RAM and CPU footprint while supporting touch better than Chrome, sorry Google) at 35% brightness. Streaming a full HD one hour Netflix episode consumed 14% charge with brightness set to 50% with the internal speakers turned on. That's more than enough to get you through a transatlantic flight of movie-watching bliss.
The Dell XPS 12 remains one of our favorite Windows 8 convertibles, even though the overall design hasn't changed. Sometimes it's best to not mess with a great thing. The 12.5" size is comfortable for ultra-portable travel yet it doesn't feel cramped like the MS Surface Pro 2 or 11.6" Ultrabooks and convertibles like the Dell XPS 11. Build quality is superb, the carbon fiber surface is unique looking and resists fingerprints and isn't slippery. The full HD touch screen is bright, colorful and very sharp with good contrast-- it might not have the very wide color gamut of the Sony Vaio Flip 13, but most folks won't be able to tell the difference. Performance is good in its class and Dell does a good job of keeping drivers up to date.