When unboxing the XPS 12, the overall first impression is excellent. The hood and chassis are finished in a soft-touch kind of material that doesn't pick up too many fingerprints. Once open, the keyboard is set into a sleek-feeling border. The glossy black screen bezel is in turn surrounded by a metal frame running around the outer edge of the display. That's probably the part of the XPS 12 that we found the least visually impressive, as it adds extra width to the screen bezel. It just seems to take up a lot of unnecessary space.
Unlike the keyboard seen in Dell's XPS 13, which felt a bit plasticky, the XPS 12 keyboard is as pleasant in design as it is to use. The keys are backlit too, which can be really handy for typing in a low-lit room.
The touchpad offers smooth glide and precise navigation. It supports multitouch gestures (zooming, two-fingered scroll, etc.) as well as the Windows 8 shortcut gestures. Note that while Acer and Sony offer videos or diagrams on how to get the hang of using these new controls, Dell just gives a simple explanatory phrase for each gesture.
Connections are fairly limited for a notebook. The XPS 12 has two USB 3.0 ports, a mini-DisplayPort (video out) and a headphones/mic combi port (hands-free port). While we're not too bothered about the fact that there's no DVD drive for some occasional movie action or backup disc burning, the absence of an Ethernet port, memory card reader and HDMI out could prove more problematic.
Seeing as there's no Ethernet port (RJ45), a wireless network is your only option for getting online. Plus, choosing a mini-DisplayPort over an HDMI out isn't necessarily helpful. An HDMI connection is now present in most monitors and in all new TVs on the market, while DisplayPort is generally only seen in monitors geared up for pro use and isn't often seen in TVs. Oh—but wait—Dell sells a mini-DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter for an extra £27.60.
That said, Dell has clearly put some thought into designing the XPS 12. The left-hand edge is home to the "On" button as well as volume controls, which means they can still be easily accessed when using the XPS 12 in tablet mode.
Temperature readings for the XPS 12 with the components working hard.
Measured with a Fluke Ti25 thermal camera.
When it comes to controlling noise and temperature, the XPS 12 is no match for the best ultrabooks on the market. Like the Acer Aspire S7, the fan used in this XPS 12 can sometimes be heard running (42 db(A)) for about a minute with the machine at idle on the Windows desktop. The fan gets up to about 45 db(A) when you start to work the components with some more heavyweight applications or with various benchmark tests.
In those kinds of situations, the air expelled from the underside of the chassis can reach up to 50°C. While this kind of temperature poses no real risk to the computer's components, it can be quite unpleasant if you're working with the XPS 12 on your knees.
Frequency response: Dell XPS 12 speakers
Green = good / Orange = OK / White = poor
Green = good / Orange = OK / White = poor
The XPS 12 headphones out is certainly powerful but distortion is high and the stereo output is poorly rendered. The speakers don't exactly make up for things either, as they saturate as soon as you start to push up the volume. Audio therefore isn't really up to much in this convertible ultrabook.
The screen, on the other hand, has some real strong points. First of all, the 1920 x 1080-pixel definition means that this 12" screen can display an impressive amount of onscreen detail without making text characters too small to be readable. What's more, Dell has chosen to use an IPS screen panel, which ensures vertical viewing angels are nice and wide. Screen contrast is also on the better side of average, as we measured between 800:1 and 850:1 depending on the brightness (350 cd/m² max.). However, colour fidelity could benefit from a spot of in-factory calibration. With an average Delta E of 5.6, onscreen colours won't be reproduced accurately enough to satisfy a graphic designer, photo editor or anyone else looking for faithful colour reproduction.
The most original thing about the screen in the XPS 12 is that it's mounted on hinges, so it swivels freely within the aluminium frame that surrounds it. Simply push the top of the screen to set it moving and you can flip round the display to effectively turn your ultrabook into a touchscreen tablet. Plus, Dell has done a good job of managing the amount of pressure you need to apply to the screen to move it—it's pretty much impossible to swivel the screen by accident, but you don't have to force it to move either.
Our Test Model
The XPS 12 we tested was equipped with an Intel Core i5-3317U processor, 4 GB of RAM, an Intel HD 4000 graphics chipset and a 256 GB SSD. While the first part of this review applies to all versions of the XPS 12 (see inset), what follows is only valid for this particular model.
The Intel Core i5-3317U processor (CPU performance index 96) in this 12" ultrabook ensures good performances and opens the door to all kinds of activities (3D modelling, video encoding, etc.).
The 256 GB SSD and 8 GB of RAM ensure good levels of general responsiveness. Boot time is just 10 seconds, including connection to a Wi-Fi network. The XPS 12 takes just under 5 seconds to switch off fully.
Dell hasn't loaded this ultrabook with a dedicated graphics processor—the Intel HD 4000 (3DMark06 index: 4945) integrated graphics processor is on hand instead. Performances are quite limited and you'll need to switch to 1366 x 768 pixels to play certain games. Heavyweight titles like Dirt 3 can then be played with a mid-range level of graphics. Playing HD movies poses no problem, however.
MOBILITY / BATTERY LIFE
The Dell XPS 12 weighs in at 1.54 kg, which makes it a little heavy for holding up and using in your hands like a stand-alone touchscreen tablet. You'll therefore need a desk or table nearby when using the XPS 12 in tablet mode. Otherwise, you can use the XPS 12 on your knees.
Battery life (video playback, screen at 100 cd/m², Wi-Fi and keyboard backlighting off, headphones plugged in) is a little bit tight for a touchscreen tablet. It's also a little low compared with most of the ultrabooks we've reviewed to date. The XPS 12 held out for 4 hrs 07 mins before we had to reach for the mains charger. That said, it's a similar performance to the Acer S7, with also has a touchscreen.