If there's one thing we can say about the XPS 12, it's that there's nothing else like it. For starters, there aren't too many 12-inch ultrabooks floating around. However, it's the use of a remarkable rotating hinge unique to the XPS 12 that makes this a truly different laptop. Our only concern is whether this novel design can stand the rigours of life on the road, a place where this highly portable device is likely to spend most of its time.
Design and features
As the photos show, the 12-inch display is mounted on an extraordinary twisting hinge — a design first introduced by Dell last year. The aluminium frame around the edge is separate to the display, and the two are connected via a single rotating hinge on each side. It works perfectly, converting this from a standard ultrabook into a tablet in mere seconds. The simplicity of the design suggests it might hold up to the wear and tear that transforming hinges have to endure over years, but it's impossible to test the long-term endurance. Dell's one-year warranty doesn't inspire a lot of confidence, but a failure past that date would still be reasonably expected to be covered under Australian consumer law.
Weighing in at a mere 1.52kg, the XPS 12 is the perfect weight for stashing away in a handbag or backpack. At its thickest, it's just 20mm deep, while the width is a mere 31cm, dictated by the 12.5-inch display. Considering the smaller screen, Dell's insistence on a true HD resolution of 1920x1080 is to be applauded. Lesser manufacturers would easily have gotten away with a much lower-quality screen. At default settings, it's a little too high resolution, making Windows 8's fonts quite hard to read, but these can be tailored via the control panel to improve readability. The screen is obviously touch enabled, allowing it to be used in the slate mode, and we found touch accuracy to be impeccable.
Despite the slim dimensions, Dell has managed to pack in a very comfortable backlit keyboard. The island design leaves a surprisingly large gap between keys, though obviously, there's no room for a number pad. The touch pad is of the same high quality exhibited throughout the product, with just the right amount of give when clicking the buttons.
Connections, performance and battery
Given the tiny dimensions of the XPS 12, we weren't expecting to see a plethora of inputs and outputs, but it was even worse than anticipated. A headphone jack sits next to the awkward sliding power button on the left-hand side, while the right is dominated by twin USB 3.0 ports, one of which doubles as an eSATA port. Finally, there's a mini-DisplayPort output. Sadly, there's not an HDMI out to be found, but mini-DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapters can be purchased for less than AU$10. We'd simply have preferred the more commonly used HDMI over DisplayPort.
Obviously, a laptop the size of a small magazine doesn't have a lot of room for top-shelf components, but we found the XPS 12 perfectly responsive for normal daily use. Apps loaded promptly, while switching between programs felt suitably snappy. This is most likely a result of the new Haswell CPU used within, and Dell hasn't cut any corners in the version selected. Rather than going for a lower-power Core i5 processor, the XPS 12 has one of the faster i7 chips in the form of the i7-4500U. This quad-core Hyper-Threaded beastie hums along at 3GHz in the most demanding situations, which explains the excellent responsiveness during use. There's no room for a dedicated GPU in such a small machine, so Intel's integrated HD Graphics 4400 are used instead. A healthy 8GB of DDR3 memory is included, but the speed is not advertised. Finally, a 256GB SSD ensures blistering performance.
Given these specs, we expected the XPS 12 to perform extremely well, so we were a little surprised to see it come out towards the bottom of our PCMark 8 results. Having said that, the performance difference wasn't too large, and remained more than usable for standard desktop duties. Our gaming benchmarks weren't kind to the integrated GPU, though, showing that the XPS 12 is most definitely not suited for gamers.
Like most tablets, battery life proved to be excellent. The six-cell lithium-ion battery managed to last a very respectable 265 minutes in our PowerMark benchmark, which indicates that it'll easily last a full day of normal use.