Design and Ergonomics
The laptop weighs 3.35 pounds, which is heavier than the 2.89 lb. Vaio Duo 11 but a little lighter than both the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 and 12.5" Lenovo ThinkPad Twist convertibles. It's easy to hold and grip thanks to the carbon fiber finish and is fine for use on a table or lap. At twice the weight of the iPad and Android 10" tablets, you won't be holding it in your hands for an hour of reading unless you're a body builder.
The styling and looks are pure XPS, and that's a good thing. We really like the XPS line's attention to detail, good build quality and high quality materials. It feels rugged and strong without looking bulky or ungainly. Quite the opposite, it looks slim and sleek with modern lines.
The tablet has two USB 3.0 ports, 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 including volume on the Fn row of the keyboard as well.
The side mounted stereo speakers put out clear sound that's lacking in bass, as you'd expect from a small computer. Volume was loud enough to fill a small room and was fine for watching a feature length film on Netflix. There's a 3.5mm stereo jack for higher quality audio output and/or private listening, and you can use Bluetooth headphones and speakers as well.
The 1.3MP webcam yielded bright and relatively detailed video in Skype and the built-in dual array mics did a good job of picking up our voice.
Horsepower and Performance
Third generation Intel Ivy Bridge Core i5 and i7 ULV CPUs power the machine, with Intel HD 4000 graphics. In other words, it's a standard Ultrabook. The base model has the usual 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U, 4 gigs of DDR3 1600MHz RAM and a 128 gig Samsung PM830 SSD drive. For a pricey $1,699 you can get it with the 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U ULV CPU, 8 gigs of RAM and a 256 gig SSD. You can also order it in a variety of in-between configurations, like the tempting $1,499 Core i5 with a 256 gig SSD and 8 gigs of RAM. While the performance gain of the Core i7 isn't huge, many of us will be tempted by more storage space. The 4 gig model uses single channel RAM and the 8 gig uses a dual channel configuration for a slight speed boost.
The XPS 12's performance is in line with other Windows Ultrabooks running on the same hardware. Our Core 1.7GHz i5 unit with 4 gigs of RAM performed similarly to the Asus Taichi 21, Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A and Sony Vaio Duo 11. The machine feels responsive and is more than adequate for Office, web, streaming video, photo editing and light video editing. It has the power to be a main machine unless you do a lot of heavy lifting with computationally intensive applications or lots of HD video editing. Clearly, with Intel HD 4000 graphics, this isn't a gaming rig, though it can play older games and casual games perfectly well.
Dell Ultrabooks tend to be a little noisier than other Ultrabooks, as are some Lenovo machines. Dell builds corporate products that are built to last years, and we suspect their cooling errs on the side of longevity. That said, the CPU runs in the 40's Centigrade, which isn't unusually cool. Fan noise isn't bad at all when the XPS 12 is unplugged, but when plugged into power you'll hear the fan more often at moderate volume. Thanks to the carbon fiber casing, the laptop doesn't get too hot to touch, even when working moderately hard.
PCMark07: 4678 (1.9GHz Core i7, 4 gigs RAM and 256 gig SSD)
Windows Experience Index (scale of 1.0 - 9.9):
Desktop Graphics: 5.4
Gaming Graphics: 6.4
Primary Hard Disk: 8.1
Benchmark Comparison Table, Windows 8 ULV Notebooks and Tablets:
Keyboard and Trackpad
Like the 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. The white backlighting is effective and it has three levels (off, medium and bright). The XPS and Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga have the best keyboards in the convertible Ultrabook space.
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 control keys (you'll have to hit the Fn key to use functions like volume and wireless control).
The Cypress 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 fine, as did pinch zooming. Given the touch screen, we suspect most folks will use touch rather than the trackpad for Windows 8's grand gestures and zooming. 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.
So far, Windows 8 convertible Ultrabooks haven't had stellar battery life. That said, the Dell XPS 12 leads this lackluster pack with 5 hours and 30 minutes of runtime on a charge with average use at 50% brightness. In our test we edit MS Office documents with Outlook running in the background, stream HD video for 45 minutes, surf the web with 8 tabs open and play music for 30 minutes. The Dell comes out ahead of the Vaio Duo 11 (not including the Vaio's optional sheet battery) by 30 minutes and lasted a full two hours longer than the Asus Taichi 21. It also outlasted the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 (which admittedly drives a larger display) by 35 minutes.
The Dell has a relatively generous 47 WHr, 6 cell battery that's sealed inside and it comes with a compact notebook style charger. There's a small button on the computer's right side and 4 LEDs that indicate charge level.
The Dell XPS 12 is a very likeable and powerful full Intel Core convertible Ultrabook with an excellent full HD display, superb keyboard and beautiful fit and finish. We're taken by the carbon fiber surfaces that aren't just cool looking: they make for a grippier and cooler computer. Performance is in line with third generation Intel Core i5 and i7 Ultrabooks and the fast Samsung PM830 SSD drives are icing on the cake. We also appreciate that you can order the machine with 8 gigs of RAM when some manufacturers stop at 4 gigs. Our only complaints? At nearly 3.4 pounds, this is a compact but heavy Ultrabook that's best supported by a table or your lap, and there's no digital pen option for educators, note takers and artists.
Price: Starting at $1,199