Dell XPS 18 review: A massive tablet that doubles as an AIO desktop

Sarah Tew/CNET

I ended up pairing the XPS with a Logitech standalone T650 touch pad and ditching the mouse. I've been a longtime advocate of the touch pad over the mouse, and we've even seen some all-in-one models from Dell, Vizio, and HP take that approach. It doesn't hurt that the Logitech touch pad makes for a cleaner desktop look than the plastic Dell mouse.

Display
The 18.4-inch display has a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels. That's standard for any big-screen laptop, and even for laptops and tablets with screens as small as 13 inches (and even the 10-inch Surface Pro), although it's usually restricted to systems that cost $1,000 or more.

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With edge-to-edge glass over the entire display, it's a clean, sophisticated look, but the thick screen bezel means you have less actual screen space than you might think at first glance. The screen's glossy coating reflects light too easily, leading to glare and reflections from any nearby light source. I found myself angling the screen regularly to find a slightly less glare-filled view. Off-axis viewing angles are excellent, which is especially important when using the XPS 18 as a tablet, or placing it down on a coffee table or ottoman for use as a tabletop PC. An ambient light sensor adjusts the brightness to offer the best screen image -- it felt jumpy on our review unit, but Dell says a software update should fix it.

Touch response is excellent on the 10-point input screen, although the glass offers too much friction for fast-paced onscreen gaming. Laying the system down on its back and launching a simple air hockey game, I found real-time play was difficult because of the screen resistance. For turn-based games, or virtual versions of board games, it would be a much better fit.

Performance and battery
The Intel Core i5 in the most high-end configuration of the XPS 18 is a well-known part, found in many Windows 8 machines, including laptops and tablets. It's a slightly faster version of the ultralow-voltage chip found in Sony's Vaio Tap 20, and these two all-in-one/tablet hybrids performed similarly in benchmark tests.

Both lagged behind more traditional all-in-one systems with desktop CPUs, but in everyday use, you're unlikely to notice much difference. Streaming HD video, working on office documents, and flipping among multiple open browser windows all worked smoothly, as did using touch to move around the Windows 8 tile-based menu interface.

Basic Intel HD 4000 gaming is something laptop and tablet owners have had to work around for a long time. It's touch-and-go on newer games, but by dialing down the options and detail settings, you can get a playable, though not perfect, experience from games as diverse as Skyrim and Modern Warfare 3. Some games, such as Portal 2, are especially well-suited for this kind of low-power gaming.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you're looking for the Windows 8 app store to help you find the right games, either appropriate for this hardware or for general tabletop-style gaming, you're out of luck. The Windows 8 app store remains a failed experiment in software curation. Dell includes a couple of tabletop-style apps, including a multiperson music game called Fingertaps, but that only whetted my appetite for more.

Besides the Core i5 CPU in this $1,350 configuration (which also includes 8GB of RAM and a 320GB HDD/32GB SSD combo drive), you can trade down to a Core i3 for $1,000, which also knocks the RAM in half, removes the SSD storage, and omits the docking stand. That feels like too many compromises to justify, even for the lower price, and the $900 Intel Pentium model should be avoided -- I can't imagine why it's there in the first place, besides hitting some predetermined marketing-plan price.

When away from its powered dock or the AC adapter, the XPS 18 ran for 4 hours and 5 minutes on its built-in 69Wh battery in our video playback battery drain test. That's impressive for a big 18-inch display that manages to stay thin and light. The Tap 20 from Sony ran for about 20 minutes less in the same test, but that system weighs about 7 pounds more. Microsoft's 10-inch Surface Pro tablet, with similar hardware, ran for half an hour longer than the XPS 18.

Roughly 4 hours is long enough for family movie night, or to use the XPS 18 screen as an interactive cookbook in the kitchen. Playing games will likely run down the battery quicker, but for same-house-different-room use, I'd call 4 hours for an 18-inch screen acceptable. Future versions may do even better, as Intel promises improved battery life for its upcoming fourth generation of Core i-series CPUs, expected later in 2013.

Conclusion
If you want to be one of the first to try a large-format tablet/all-in-one hybrid, be prepared to pay for the privilege in both features and price. As with the Vaio Tap 20, you're paying more for a smaller screen, and slower laptop-level components, in exchange for the flexibility of being able to take the screen off its base and carry it around. Just as nearly every laptop now has a touch screen (as do many all-in-one systems), I can envision one possible future in which nearly every all-in-one has a detachable screen, and doubles as a tabletop PC -- but we're not there yet.

Of the few examples available for purchase today, the XPS 18 is clearly the best of the bunch. That said, it's still light on the specs for $1,300-plus, and I'd be tempted to wait and see what the next wave of these systems, including the Lenovo Horizon, brings to the table.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
iTunes and HandBrake  

Cinebench 11.5
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Rendering multiple CPUs  
Rendering single CPU  

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Dell XPS 18 (1.8GHz Core i5, April 2013)
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