Late last year, Dell announced the updated XPS 12 2-in-1, a direct competitor to Microsoft's Surface Pro and Surface Book lines. Unlike the previous XPS 12 that had a weird swivel display, this time around Dell took a more traditional approach to the design. Since the launch, Dell offered us the chance to review the device and I gave you my initial impressions of the device last month.

The XPS 12 doesn't have that sleek design of the XPS 13, but there's much more to a device than its aesthetics. I've spent the last month using the XPS 12 2-in-1 in a variety of situations, including the Secure360 conference I attended, so let's find out what's good and what's bad about this device.

Specifications

The Dell XPS 12 comes in a few different configurations that range in price from $999 up to $1,399, with the main differences coming in the form of SSD size (128GB vs. 256GB), screen resolution (1920x1080 vs. 3840x2160), and the inclusion of a stylus.

Regardless of the configuration, all of the Dell XPS 12 2-in-1 devices come with the Intel Core m5 6Y57 CPU and 8GB of LPDDR3-1600MHz RAM, and a screen size of 12.5". For video, the XPS 12 comes equipped with the Intel HD 515 graphics card. For Wi-Fi, you get the Intel 8260 2x2 802.11ac 2.4/5GHz and there's embedded Bluetooth 4.1 connectivity as well.

For those who want to take pictures with your tablet, there's an included 8MP world-facing webcam, and for those who enjoy using Skype to interact with people, you have a 5MP user-facing webcam with dual array digital microphones.

Where things get interesting is the ports that the Dell XPS 12 comes with. Gone are the old-style USB ports, replaced with two Intel Thunderbolt 3.0 ports instead, that support USB 3.1 but use Type C connectors.. Not only is this used for connecting devices, but it's also the port used to charge the device. Other than these two Thunderbolt ports, the only other ports on the hybrid are a 3.5mm microphone jack, and an SD card slot. The tablet comes with a Noble lock slot to secure it to a desk.

To get around the lack of USB Type A ports (the ones everyone's used to), Dell has included a dongle that has VGA and HDMI outputs, an RJ-45 Ethernet jack, and a USB 3.1 type A port on it. You can also get more ports by connecting to an optional Thunderbolt dock.

Design

When the Dell XPS 13 was released last year, people's jaws dropped at the gorgeous Infinity Display, and with good reason: it looks amazing and works great. When reviewing it last year, I found very little to complain about.

So I was a little surprised at how... ordinary... the XPS 12 looks. There's no Infinity Display on this laptop, and the bezel around the screen is extremely wide. At first I thought this was a big disadvantage, but when using the XPS 12 in tablet mode, the need for the bezel becomes obvious. Still, it's clear that the XPS 12 won't be winning any design awards.

Despite its look, the XPS 12 actually does close very similarly to how a regular laptop would. The curved dock that connects the keyboard to the screen makes it easy to just push the screen down to close it over the keyboard, and the embedded magnets hold the device shut. If you use the included portfolio, it also helps keep the XPS 12 closed. Now if you hold it upside down from the keyboard, it will come apart, but for general use it works really well and is a great design.

Operating System

In what will come as no surprise, the XPS 12 comes pre-installed with Windows 10, and the experience works extremely well. The OS does a great job detecting when you connect and disconnect the keyboard, meaning it can switch to and from tablet mode automatically for those who want the different experience. There's not much else to say, other than it supports all of the features of both laptop and tablet mode perfectly.

Inputs

The 2-in-1 has three main input methods: The touchpad, the touchscreen, and the keyboard.

Like Microsoft's Surface Pro line, the Dell XPS 12 has a keyboard that clicks into place with the tablet portion of the device. The keyboard itself uses chiclet-style keys that are spaced well. In addition to the standard letters and numbers, there are also four arrow keys in the lower right hand corner, as well as dedicated page up and page down keys. I found that with a touchscreen, I use these keys less than with a normal laptop, but I love having the functionality when needed.

While the keyboard itself works great, there are a couple of minor issues that crop up from time to time that, while not showstoppers, were annoying. The first issue, which will impact everyone who uses the device, is that the keyboard doesn't always make a proper connection with the tablet. You'll hear a slight click when you put the tablet in the groove, but frequently the keyboard will not respond, forcing you to slightly rock it to ensure the connection is made. This happened just frequently enough for it to be annoying, and was something I never experienced with the original Surface Pro, although we did run into similar issues when reviewing the Surface Pro 4.

The second issue may only impact people with larger hands, but I found myself accidentally tapping the touchscreen when reaching for the function keys or, less often, the numbers on the top of the row. While this sounds innocent enough, it can be frustrating when the touch changes focus to a different window in the middle of typing.

The precision touchpad works as well as any other touchpad I've used, and it can be easily configured within Windows 10 to enable features such as pinch to zoom, two finger scrolling, and double-tap to drag. In addition, there's a tactile click when you press the right and left buttons, something that makes the touchpad much easier to use than some of its competitors.

Many people bemoan the fact that that more and more devices have a touchscreen, but in this case it's obviously required in order to perform in tablet mode. Windows handles touch extremely well, and there were never any issues whether it be scrolling through a webpage, highlighting words, zooming into images, or navigating through a game. The more I use laptops with touchscreens, the more I realize it's a feature I can't live without.

There's also a stylus available for those who want to be able to write and draw on the XPS 12. While not much of an artist, I was able to use OneNote and the included Bamboo app to do some basic writing and drawing with no issues. That said, like with the Surface Pro, I rarely found myself using it.

Battery

One of the most important features of a portable device like the XPS 12 is the battery life. Unfortunately, this is one area where the device falls short. While the Dell XPS 13 I reviewed last year had no issues getting me through an entire day of use, with the XPS 12 I was looking for a power outlet after only four hours of use at the recent Secure360 conference. To compound matters, I wasn't even doing anything particularly resource intensive: the battery drained that quickly from a combination of web surfing, taking notes in Wordpad, and the occasional tweet on Twitter. Overall, this was very disappointing.

You can increase your battery life with the optional $99 Dell Power Companion, and I highly recommend that product, but even using that device will not get you through an entire workday, let alone an entire day.

Screen

The screen on the XPS 12 looks amazing. With the 4k display providing a resolution of 3840x2160, viewing pictures and watching 4k YouTube videos is definitely a treat. While you won't be able to use those pixels to play any high-end games (see Performance section below), doing work in Photoshop on the display works great, if a little slow, and really lets you see the details of your digital photos.

In addition, as mentioned earlier, using the touchscreen as an input method on the XPS 12 is a flawless experience. Being able to scroll through webpages, use the News app to read articles, and generally navigate through the operating system is extremely simple.

Docking Station

For those who want to be both portable as well as tied to a desk, Dell offers an optional Thunderbolt docking station for use with the XPS 12. I'll save a more detailed look at this combination for a future review, but overall the accessory worked well in converting the laptop into a desktop.

Connecting via the Thunderbolt port as a USB-C device, the docking station lets users connect to additional monitors, networks, and provides five USB type A ports to allow you to plugin a keyboard, mouse, thumbdrive, or the like.

The only issue I experienced with the docking station is that when connected, I would frequently lose audio on the XPS 12. This could be remedied by attaching speakers to the docking station, but I would expect this device to be able to correctly identify whether anything is connected and, if not, to play out of the embedded speakers instead.

Audio

As with most portable devices, the speakers on the XPS 12 will not be winning any awards for high fidelity sound quality. That said, playing music through the device at moderate levels sounded fine, if uninspiring.

Performance

So far we've talked about many of the XPS 12 features, but what do the raw performance numbers look like? Is this a device that can be your day-to-day machine or is it more of a novelty?

As mentioned before, the XPS 12 has an Intel Core m5-6Y54 CPU operating at 1.1GHz and the Intel HD Graphics 515 card, so you know you won't be playing hard core games on the machine. Indeed, the Dell XPS 12 was well behind the older Dell XPS 13 we reviewed, scoring 22,408 in Ice Storm (vs. 29,892), 2,732 in Cloud Gate (vs. 3,484), and 355 in Firestrike (vs. 570) in the 3dMark tests. This means you'll be able to play low-intensity games without a problem, but a graphically demanding game will be out of the question.

From a productivity software perspective, the XPS 12 scored respectable numbers in the PCMark tests. Compared to the XPS 13, the scores were on par or slightly higher in all three of the tests. However compared to the HP EliteBook 1020 or the HP EliteBook 1040, the results were generally lower.

To put these numbers into perspective, 3dMark reports that the XPS 12 is faster than only 6% of all results, and that an office PC from 2013 is roughly 50% faster. When you move to the graphically intense Firestrike test, the XPS 12 is faster than only 3% of tested machines.

Attempting to load Tomb Raider at the device's native 3840x2160 resolution resulted in even the main menu being extremely choppy. Once the resolution was set down to 1920x1080, the beginning of the game ran at a meager 12fps. That said, casual games like Gems of War loaded and played just fine.

Tablet Usage

If you wanted a laptop, you would've just purchased a laptop, so how does the Dell XPS 12 work in tablet mode? In a word, great.

Microsoft has done a really good job blurring the line between laptop and tablet use. When taking the device out of the keyboard dock, the desktop stays in the background but various Live Tiles take their place, giving you easy access to news, social media, the web, and other applications. When you rotate the tablet, the view is changed almost immediately, making it easy to use in both landscape and portrait mode. It's also very clear why Dell had to forego the Infinity Display in favor of a more traditional bezel.

One concern I had was that the XPS 12 might weigh too much for long periods of usage, but that turned out to be unfounded as I had no issues using the tablet for long stretches of time.

Lapability

One area where the Surface Pro really struggles is being able to easily use it in laptop mode on your lap. With the Dell XPS 12, the thicker keyboard allows the device to be used on your lap with ease. While at the aforementioned Secure360 conference, I was easily able to take notes by typing into Wordpad. In other words, the device acts just like a standard laptop and never felt like a balancing act trying to keep everything together.

Conclusion

There's a lot to like with the Dell XPS 12. The Thunderbolt 3 connector combined with a docking station lets you use the device like a full fledged desktop that works great. Having a large, fairly light tablet running Windows is also a really nice feature.

Unfortunately there are a few things holding the XPS 12 back from being an amazing machine. First, for a mobile device, the battery is really weak. As stated earlier, by halfway through the eight hour conference, I was already hunting for an outlet. While it's true you can combine it with a Dell Power Companion to give yourself a few more hours of life, that's more of a bandage for the problem and not an actual solution.

The second issue is that the connector between the tablet and the keyboard is really finicky and doesn't always click together properly. There were many times when I started typing, only to realize that it wasn't quite in place, so had to wiggle the tablet to get the connection working. That's an issue I never had with the original Surface Pro, and something that seems like Dell should've been able to fix.

So while the Dell XPS 12 has a lot going for it, there are enough negatives to make you pause.

 

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