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

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If three examples of the same thing marks a trend, then we're almost guaranteed to see more systems like the Dell XPS 18. Like the Sony Vaio Tap 20 and the Asus Transformer AIO, the XPS 18 is a hybrid of the all-in-one desktop and the large-format tablet.

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8.0

Dell XPS 18

The Good

The <b>Dell XPS 18</b> combines an all-in-one PC with a lightweight 18-inch tablet, making it a flexible system for at-home entertainment and productivity.

The Bad

You're paying a premium for a relatively small screen. Less expensive configurations cut too many corners to be a good deal.

The Bottom Line

It's the best of the small handful of current tablet/all-in-one hybrids, with a subtle, sophisticated design and good battery life, but this new genre is still in its early days.

In practical terms, that means this is an all-in-one PC with a built-in battery that detaches from its included stand. You can keep it docked, in which case it's virtually indistinguishable from other AIO systems, or pick the 18-inch display up and go from room to room, or farther if you're feeling bold.

Why would you want to do that? We've found existing tablets to be very useful for quick information gathering or showing off photos and media, but too small for really sharing efficiently with a group (say, a family).

Unlike a large all-in-one desktop screen-stand combo that needs to be lugged from room to room, the 18-inch touch-screen display on the XPS 18 is easy enough to pick up and carry around. It even has two flip-out feet for standing up on its own, although I wouldn't count on them as stable enough for permanent use.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The second major use for a system such as this is as a tabletop PC. That top-down view still smacks of retro-futurism, an idea most at home in '80s sci-fi movies or else reminiscent of cocktail table arcade cabinets. In anecdotal use, we had some fun with the XPS 18 lying flat on its back, facilitating some basic two-player touch-friendly games -- although the Microsoft app store doesn't make games of this ilk easy to find, and the screen's top coating had too much finger drag to really work for fast-packed air hockey/Pong-style games.

Behind the 18-inch, 1,920x1,080-pixel screen, you're dealing with an Intel Core i5-3337U processor, which is a laptop CPU, plus a 500GB hard drive/32GB solid-state drive (SSD) combination, and 8GB of RAM. A perfectly usable configuration, but not what one might expect for $1,350 from a standard all-in-one desktop. These all-in-one/tablet hybrids still command a price premium, especially considering that you don't get an optical drive or GPU beyond Intel's integrated HD 4000.

Less expensive configurations include $1,000 for a Core i3 version and $900 for a Pentium-class CPU version, the latter of which I can't imagine recommending under any circumstances. Both of these sub-$1,000 configurations omit the system's docking stand, which can also be used as a charging base, but all three include a basic wireless keyboard and mouse.

The Dell XPS 18, at least in its too-expensive higher-end configuration, is the best (and best-looking) of the current crop of big-screen tablet/all-in-one PCs, though keep in mind Lenovo and other PC makers have new versions on the way. Its practical applications are debatable, and will be more obvious to some (families and students, perhaps) than others, but it's certainly fun to play around with.

Dell XPS 18 Asus Transformer AIO Sony Vaio Tap 20 Dell Inspiron One 2330
Price $1,349.99 $1,299 $999 $1,199
Display size/pixel resolution 18-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen 18.4-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen 20-inch, 1,600x900 touch screen 23-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen
PC CPU 1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3337U 3.1GHz Intel Core i5-3350P 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-3330S
PC memory 8GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM 8GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM 4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM 8GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM
Graphics 32MB Intel HD Graphics 4000 2GB Nvidia GeForce GT 730M 64MB Intel HD Graphics 4000 32MB Intel HD Graphics 2500
Storage 1TB, 7,200rpm hard drive 1TB, 7,200rpm hard drive 750GB, 5,400rpm hard drive 1TB, 7,200rpm hard drive
Optical drive None Dual-layer DVD burner None Dual-layer DVD burner
Networking Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11a/b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Windows 8 Pro (64-bit) Windows 8 (64-bit) Windows 8 (64-bit) Windows 8 (64-bit)

Design and features
The XPS 18 looks like a smaller all-in-one desktop at first glance. Sitting on a hefty industrial-looking stand is a featureless black screen, with only a Dell logo in the upper left corner and a Windows 8 flag logo below the screen. From the side, it's as thin as or thinner than most non-tablet all-in-one systems, and feels designed to fade nicely into the background. An 18-inch screen is on the small side for an all-in-one, but conversely it's large for a tablet, making this either bigger or smaller than you might expect, depending on whether you're viewing it primarily as a desktop or portable device.

As mentioned above, other examples of this hybrid genre so far have been the 20-inch Sony Vaio Tap 20 and the Asus Transformer AIO, which has an 18.4-inch display. Each of those systems has a near-fatal flaw, making the Dell XPS 18 the best of this new breed. In the case of the Vaio Tap 20, the slightly larger tablet display weighs nearly 12 pounds, while the 18-inch Dell tablet weighs closer to 5 pounds. As you can imagine, the Dell lends itself to casual household carry-around sessions much more easily.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Asus Transformer model sits on a gigantic stand, with a full back plate behind the tablet, so it has a giant footprint even in tablet mode. The Transformer is an unwieldy combination of operating systems, switching over to Android and an Nvidia Tegra CPU when detached from its dock. Windows is only available via a virtualized interface, beamed from the base to the tablet. If you think that sounds overly complicated and less than ideal for household use, you'd be right.

That leaves the XPS 18 as the tablet/all-in-one that best represents both sides of its dual nature. Upcoming systems, such as Lenovo's 27-inch Horizon 27, will challenge it, but we'll have to wait and see if consumers prefer a large lap-size tablet or a giant tabletop-style one.

The screen of the XPS 18 has a small rubberized border around its outer edge -- a nod to the heavily hands-on way Dell expects people to interact with it. Two rubber-and-plastic feet fold out from the rear panel as a kickstand, holding the screen at about a 100-degree angle. It's reasonably stable, but I wouldn't use it full time. Unfortunately, anyone buying something other than the top-tier $1,350 configuration will have to shell out another $99 for the metal docking stand.

Sarah Tew/CNET

That stand is weighted for stability, and has a rotating cradle to hold the actual PC, allowing you to adjust the angle. The system's power cord can snake into the dock's hinge and connect, providing power via a connector built into the cradle. Much like the connector on Microsoft's Surface Pro, it's a line of raised copper dots that matches up with its counterpart on the bottom edge of the tablet. When it's connected, a lighted strip on the dock activates, letting you know a connection has been made, which is important, as a little nudging back and forth was often required to seat the tablet on the stand properly.

You can also connect the power cable directly to the tablet, and the power port sits on the left edge, alongside two USB 3.0 ports, a headphone jack, and a volume rocker. The XPS 18 also has a front-facing 720p Webcam, and support for 802.11n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0, and Intel's Wireless Display.

Included are a prepaired mouse and keyboard. These look like standard Dell pack-ins, and not particularly customized to match the industrial design of the XPS 18. The large plastic mouse, with its arched back and large scroll wheel, feels especially out of place (read: cheap) when placed next to a $1,350 computer. The compact keyboard fares better, with widely spaced, flat-topped keys and a full number pad. The individual keys, slightly rounded at each corner, were clacky under the fingers but offered no flex, even under heavy typing.

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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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8.0

Dell XPS 18

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 7Battery 8Support 7