Microsoft’s Windows 8 is a bit schizophrenic. Microsoft likes to focus on the shiny new tiled interface that is specifically designed for tablets and other mobile devices. But scratch beneath that surface and you’ll soon discover ye olde Windows desktop, preserved in its entirety for those of us that still need to perform mundane tasks such as running Microsoft Office.
Not surprisingly, this schizophrenic operating system has spawned a variety of schizophrenic hardware designs. We’ve seen giant tablets that can double up as a desktop PC, and tiny tablets with bolt-on keyboards that masquerade as rather underpowered laptops. Dell’s XPS 12 takes a slightly more pragmatic approach, simply providing an attractive, lightweight laptop that offers elements of tablet functionality for your off-duty moments.
Jack of all trades
Any device that attempts to perform more than one function risks falling foul of the ‘jack of all trades’ syndrome―performing neither function particularly well. Thankfully, the XPS 12 keeps its feet quite firmly in the laptop PC category―or, to be precise, the Ultrabook category.
This is very much a high-end laptop for business users. The model reviewed here comes in at £1,299 with a 12.5-inch high-definition (1920×1080), touch-sensitive screen, a dual-core Ivy Bridge i7 processor running at 1.9GHz, 8GB of RAM and 256GB solid-state drive. That’s quite expensive, but not unreasonable for a high-end Ultrabook. In contrast, Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Air costs £1,249 with only an i5 processor and 4GB memory. There’s also a less expensive Intel i5 model that starts at £999 and should be perfectly adequate for most business users.
The build quality is very good, solidly constructed with a carbon fibre coating, and a smart black-and-silver finish. Like most Ultrabooks, the XPS 12 jettisons its DVD drive in order to reduce both size and weight. It measures just 20mm thick and 1.54kg in weight, so it’s easy to slip into your briefcase when you’re ready to hit the road. Battery life is also very good, so you should get a full day’s work done between charges, or watch a good 5 hours’ worth of video on a flight.
Our only minor complaint here is that the XPS 12 has no Ethernet interface, and that Dell has replaced the HDMI interface with a Mini DisplayPort connector. This means that you’ll need to buy additional adapters in order to connect the XPS 12 to a wired office network, or to a larger screen for presentations. But, for the most part, the XPS 12 is an attractive and impressive business laptop―especially with Dell’s enterprise options, such as Configuration Services and Bitlocker Data Encryption.
The screen of the XPS 12 is a particular strong point, boasting full 1920×1080 resolution and a bright, attractive image with a wide viewing angle. You can cram quite a large spreadsheet onto that screen, prepare slick video presentations, or just sit back and watch a film when you need to relax.
And, of course, the XPS 12 also allows you to flip the screen around and fold it flat so that it hides the keyboard and turns the device into a large tablet. The tiled interface of Windows 8 does work well in tablet mode and, of course, the ability to install Microsoft Office onto the XPS 12 means that you can view and edit your Office documents in both laptop and tablet modes.
The size of the screen also means that the on-screen keyboard that is available in tablet mode is larger and more comfortable to use than on a 10-inch tablet such as the Apple iPad. It’s certainly good enough to use for firing off a quick e-mail every now and then, and it even offers a separate numeric keypad so that you can tap figures into Excel quite comfortably.
But while a 12.5-inch screen and a weight of 1.54kg might be fine for an Ultrabook, they’re a distinct liability in a tablet. You can’t hold the XPS 12 in one hand, which means that you have to prop it up on your knees or on a table in order to use it properly. Ultimately, this tablet mode isn’t intended for work―it’s for those off-duty moments when you can put your feet up and browse the Web or watch a few films. It’s a nice option to have, but hardly essential for business users.
Taking the tablets
The tablet option provided by the XPS 12 is something of a gimmick. It’s fine if you can lean back and watch some streaming video in a hotel room, but the sheer size and weight of the device mean that it simply doesn’t work very well as a hand-held tablet. Fortunately, the XPS 12 can still earn its keep as a business laptop, thanks to its slimline design, strong performance and battery life. Treat it as an Ultrabook for work, and just save the tablet mode for when you’re stretched out on the sofa and you won’t be disappointed.