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Dell XPS 12 review: Welcome battery boost for a unique hybrid

This unique flip-screen laptop/tablet gets a bit better with each new version.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
8 min read

To give Dell credit, its rotating-screen laptop/tablet hybrid keeps getting a bit better with each generation. The basic design, a screen with a center horizontal hinge that can flip 180 degrees and fold down to form a tablet, first came to us in the form of the Dell Inspiron Duo in 2010.


Dell XPS 12

The Good

The <b>Dell XPS 12</b> is a slim rotating-screen hybrid with a high-res display and improved battery life.

The Bad

The accelerometer can get confused when flipping the screen around and the fan gets very loud. It also lacks an SD card slot and HDMI output.

The Bottom Line

This updated version of Dell's XPS 12 hybrid adds newer CPUs for improved battery life, but still works better as a laptop than a tablet.

That system was an underpowered touch-screen Netbook (if you remember those) that worked ok as a cheap laptop, but made for a clunky, hard to use tablet (part of the blame went to Windows 7). The idea came back in an ultrabook that was renamed the XPS 12, and was one of the first Windows 8 hybrids, combining Microsoft's new tile-based OS with a touch screen, but the battery life didn't measure up for an on-the-go tablet, and the system often didn't seem to know how to adjust on the fly when its screen was being moved between positions.

The new XPS 12 is only slightly different than the previous edition, but the main change is an important one. Now featuring CPUs from Intel's recent fourth-generation Core i-series, the XPS 12 finally has battery life worthy of an ultrabook/tablet hybrid.

Sarah Tew/CNET

That the XPS 12 manages to run for over 7 hours and offer a movable screen while maintaining a slim, light, ultrabook body is to its credit. Our Intel Core i5 version, with a 128GB SSD, carries a bit of a price premium, at $1,199, but not outrageously so.

The screen and its accelerometer still get confused sometimes when I flip the display around to the back, and I even had a few instances where the display refused to wake up, requiring a hard reboot, but I continue to the think that the ability to point your screen out from the back of your laptop (the Lenovo Yoga, Acer R7, and other systems achieve the same end, although in different ways) is something many people will find frequently useful once they get used to it.

I'd be tempted to spend a little less and get an IdeaPad Yoga 13 from Lenovo, or even a 13-inch MacBook Air (a different animal, to be sure, but still a top ultrabook alternative), but Dell keeps making the XPS 12 a little better with each iteration.

Dell XPS 12 Acer Aspire S7-392-6411 Samsung Ativ Book 9
Price $1,199 $1,399 $1,499
Display size/resolution 13.3-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 touch screen 13.3-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 touch screen 13.3-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 touch screen
PC CPU 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 4200U 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 4200U 2GHz Intel Core i7 3537U
PC Memory 4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz 4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz 4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz
Graphics 1,745MB Intel HD Graphics 4400 128MB Intel HD Graphics 4400 32MB Intel HD Graphics 4000
Storage 128GB solid-state drive 128GB solid-state drive 256GB solid-state drive
Optical drive None None None
Networking 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Windows 8 (64-bit) Windows 8 (64-bit) Windows 8 Pro (64-bit)

Design and features
Like the previous XPS 12, the new version has a screen that sits within a thin outer frame. In fact, the overall physical design is nearly identical, and our previous aesthetic observations still hold.

The screen swivels via a hinge anchored in the middle of the lid, so it can rotate 180 degrees along its horizontal axis and end up facing out from the back of the lid's frame. This allows you to display the screen in what I call a kiosk mode, or else fold the clamshell shut to form a thick slate-style tablet.

The screen mechanism is well-designed, and it snaps into position without slipping. Dell says the mechanism has been tested to 20,000 cycles, and it certainly feels sturdy enough.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Like the excellent Yoga 13, the XPS 12 offers tablet-like functions without much compromise to the traditional laptop shape. When closed, the XPS 12 looks like any small ultrabook, although at nearly 3.5 pounds, it's heavier than an ultrabook like the 13-inch Acer Aspire S7.

It's nice to see laptop makers getting away from the all-aluminum or all-plastic bodies we're used to. For example, the previously mentioned Acer S7 matches a glass lid with an aluminum body, and in this case, the XPS 12 mixes aluminum with carbon fiber.

The interior is minimalist, with only the keyboard and touch pad. A power button, in the uncommon form of a slider switch, is located along the left edge, and most other functions, from the Wi-Fi antenna switch to volume control, are mapped to the row of function keys. The wrist rest, keyboard, and keys are all matte black, with a powdery finish that resists fingerprints.

The island-style keyboard feels familiar, it's similar to what you'll find on nearly every other current laptop. The only difference in Dell's version is that the keys have gently rounded corners, and the top row of function keys is half-height. Typing on the backlit keyboard is comfortable and accurate, and none of the vital system keys (Shift, Tab, Ctrl, and so on) are oddly sized or out of place.

Sarah Tew/CNET

When the system is folded down into tablet mode, clicking on a text field pops up the default Windows 8 onscreen keyboard, which does a decent job. In kiosk mode, with the screen pointing out from the back, I had to manually launch the onscreen keyboard from the Windows 8 task bar.

The buttonless clickpad is a good size, considering this is a small laptop. Of course, you'll only use it when the system is set up as a traditional clamshell laptop. It works fine for general pointing and navigation, but two-finger scrolling was jumpy, and it doesn't measure up to the best Windows touch pads, or the pad on a MacBook.

The 12.5-inch screen has a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels, which has quickly become the default for higher-end ultraportables. The screen is covered with edge-to-edge Gorilla Glass, which is a smart idea for an outward-facing tablet display, and looks bright and clear, with excellent off-axis viewing angles.

Dell XPS 12
Video mini-DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack
Data 2 USB 3.0
Networking 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive None

Connections, performance, and battery
The collection of ports and connections on the XPS 12 is slim, and it lacks an SD card slot, and note that you get a DisplayPort output, rather than the more common HDMI. However, I liked the manual button on the left edge for turning automatic screen rotation off and on, and just below that button is a handy volume control rocker switch, which is always appreciated. There's also an NFC antenna in the wrist rest, for tapping and connecting NFC devices. It's still not a technology that's been widely adopted, but it has great future potential.

Dell offers three stock configurations for the XPS 12. We're testing the lower-end $1,199 model, with an Intel Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. For $1,399, you can double the RAM to 8GB and trade up to a Core i7 CPU. Jump to $1,799 and the SSD is a 512GB model.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In our performance tests, the XPS 12 and its Core i5-4200U CPU performed as expected, matching up with other recent ultrabooks using new fourth-generation Intel Core i5 processors. That means this is more than powerful enough for mainstream use, such as Web surfing, social media, office productivity, and HD video playback and in anecdotal use, much like other recent laptops such as the Sony Vaio Pro 13 or Samsung Ativ Book 9, the XPS 12 felt fast and responsive, including excellent touch-screen response. There's no discrete graphics chip, however, so don't look for gaming capabilities beyond basic casual and browser-based games.

The most notable change in the updated XPS 12 is in battery life. Thanks to Intel's latest generation of power-efficient CPUs (sometimes referred to by the code-name Haswell), laptops and tablets of all stripes are seeing big jumps in battery life, and this is no exception. The previous XPS 12 ran for 4:43, which we found disappointing at the time. This new model ran the same video playback battery drain test at 7:13, which was just a minute off from the Haswell-powered Acer Aspire S7 we just reviewed.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Has anyone completely nailed the hybrid middle ground between laptop and tablet? I wouldn't say so, but Dell's flip-screen XPS 12 at least makes for a more solid laptop than most of the detachable-screen models we've seen. The carbon fiber body gives it an upscale feel, and the new Intel CPUs take care of our main issue with its predecessor, battery life.

The twitchy accelerometer and touch pad are the main knocks, as well as the relatively high starting price for a Core i5/4GB RAM/128GB SSD configuration, but I can say that each version of this design, from the original Inspiron Duo on, has gotten better.

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

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

HandBrake MMT
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Find out more about how we test laptops.

System configurations
Dell XPS 12
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 4200U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,745MB (Shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400: 128GB Lite-On SSD

MacBook Air 13-inch (June 2013)
OSX 10.8.4 Mountain Lion; 1.3GHz Intel Core i5 4240U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,024MB (Shared) Intel HD Graphics 4000; 128GB Apple SSD

Samsung ATIV Book 9 (13-inch, 2013)
Windows 8 Pro (64-bit); 2GHz Intel Core i7 3527U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 4000; 256GB SSD

Sony Vaio Pro 13
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Core i7 4500U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz;1659MB (Shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400; 512GB Samsung SSD

Acer Aspire S7-392-6411
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 4200U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 128MB (Dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 4400: 128GB SSD

Find more shopping tips in our laptop buying guide.


Dell XPS 12

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8Battery 8