Dell XPS 12: Everything to Everyone?

When dell first launched their XPS brand—prior to acquiring Alienware—the XPS acronym stood for Xtreme Performance System. (Back then, it was considered really cool to use the letter X, so Extreme becomes Xtreme and we get an X rather than an E—though I suppose we’re not really any better about this in 2013.) The XPS line was Dell’s highest performance line, but over time it started to lose its luster. In 2005, Dell tried to reassert XPS dominance over companies like Alienware and Falcon Northwest, but when they later purchased Alienware the need for the XPS brand became questionable. We had Studio XPS for a bit, then XPS totally disappeared (around 2009), but now it’s back with a new role.

No longer is XPS the top performance consumer brand, as that task falls to Alienware; instead, XPS is a premium consumer line, generally offering better build quality and materials than the Inspiron line and with configurations that straddle the fence between high-end and budget offerings. Some businesses may also opt for XPS systems, as they tend to look a little nicer than the typical business laptops and they should offer similar reliability. Or at least, that’s the theory of it. The reality is that we’ve seen some good XPS offerings since the relaunch, but we’ve also seen some disappointing units with mediocre displays and very little other than appearance to set them apart from the Inspiron line.

Thankfully, that’s not the case with the XPS 12 Duo. Build quality has been generally good of late with the XPS laptops we’ve reviewed, and while there were certainly flaws I found a lot to like in the initial XPS 15 and 15z. The more recent XPS 15 was a different matter, as the combination of a 35W quad-core processor with a GT 640M GPU proved to be more than the cooling could handle, and rampant throttling was the result. I thought Dell would eventually address the problem with a BIOS update, but that never came and so the “detailed first look” ended up as the final review. [Whoops! Let me wipe the egg off my face….] Temperatures were also a concern with the XPS 13 when we reviewed that Ultrabook, so you can bet we’ll be investigating that area with the XPS 12 Duo. But first, let’s start with the specifications rundown.

Dell XPS 12 Duo Specifications
Processor Intel i7-3517U
(Dual-core 1.90-3.00GHz, 4MB L3, 22nm, 17W)
Chipset HM76
Memory 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1333 (9-9-9-24-1T)
Note: RAM is soldered onto motherboard
Graphics Intel HD 4000
(16 EUs, up to 1150MHz)
Display 12.5" Glossy 16:9 1080p (1920x1080)
(LG LP125WF1)
Storage 256GB Micron C400 mSATA
Optical Drive N/A
Networking 802.11n WiFi (Intel Advanced-N 6235)
(Dual-band 2x2:2 300Mbps capable)
Bluetooth 4.0 (Intel)
Audio Realtek ALC275
Stereo Speakers
Headphone/Microphone combo jack
Battery/Power 6-cell, 8.3V, ~5690mAh, ~47Wh
65W Max AC Adapter
Front Side N/A
Left Side Volume Rocker Buttons
Power Button
Headphone/Microphone Jack
Screen Orientation Lock Button
Right Side 1 x USB 3.0 (Powered when Sleeping)
1 x USB 3.0
AC Power Connection
Back Side N/A
(Exhaust vent located on bottom)
Operating System Windows 8 64-bit
Dimensions 12.48" x 8.46" x 0.59-0.79" (WxDxH)
(317mm x 215mm x 15-20mm)
Weight 3.35 lbs (1.52kg)
Extras HD Webcam
80-Key Backlit Keyboard
Warranty 1-year limited warranty standard
3-year available ($199 upgrade for "Good" service)
Price $1199 Base Model (Core i5, 4GB, 128GB SSD)
$1699 Tested (Core i7, 8GB, 256GB SSD)

As is so often the case with review units, we have the top-end model of the XPS 12 Duo in house for review. That means we get an i7-3517U processor, 8GB RAM (4GB soldered onto the motherboard), and a 256GB SSD. As mentioned already, Dell is also using a 12.5” 1080p IPS display, which is one of the standout items of the spec sheet. Overall, the specs match up pretty well against the Acer S7; the major differences are the battery capacity (Dell has 34% more battery capacity), I/O ports (Dell doesn’t have any sort of flash memory reader), and the dimensions. Not surprisingly, the XPS 12 Duo is closer to the maximum dimensions Intel allows with a sub-14” Ultrabook, but the hybrid tablet aspect and other elements could very well make up for the increased thickness.

The base model of the XPS 12 Duo starts at $1200 and comes with an i5-3317U, 4GB RAM, and a 128GB SSD. Pricing is usually a major factor when people are shopping for a new laptop, and $1200 is likely a lot higher than most will be willing to pay. That’s going to be a problem, and we would expect a system carrying a price like this to basically get every element right, which is unfortunately not the case. The various upgrades that are available only make the situation worse. For $200 more, Dell will sell you an i7-3517U with 8GB RAM, $1500 will get you the i5-3317U with 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD, or you can get the whole enchilada (like our review system) for “only” $1700. Yikes!

I’m not sure why companies insist on trying to milk their customers like this, but frankly there’s no point in even offering a 4GB model at this stage; we’re talking about $27 for 2x2GB compared to $45 for 2x4GB at retail, and with a starting price well north of $1000 we expect 8GB standard. Dell also looks to be charging roughly $250 for the 256GB SSD upgrade; granted, compact SSDs are more expensive than 2.5” models, but a new 256GB mSATA SSD will generally cost less than $300 and a 128GB model is under $150, so we’d like the upgrade cost to be closer to $100. And rounding out the pricing the CPU upgrade is also a premium charge, since Intel quotes $225 for the i5 compared to $346 for the i7 (and there’s no way Dell is paying anywhere near those prices).

As much as there is to like with the XPS 12 Duo, I find myself at the same conclusion I came to with the Acer S7: this is a good Ultrabook, but who is going to pay Apple prices (or even higher than Apple prices) for Dell hardware? Apple has built a premium brand name over the years and their user base is willing to support their prices, but there simply aren’t any Apple compatible laptops (unless you want to try and make your own Hackintosh/HackBook). In the Windows world, alternatives are a dime a dozen, so you can’t get away with the same premiums even if you’re making premium hardware. My gut feeling is that the XPS 12, like the S7, is priced about $200 too high on the base model, and about $400 too high for the top configuration we’re reviewing. But if we just ignore pricing for a bit, how does the XPS 12 fare in day-to-day use?

Subjective Evaluation: Pulling the Old Switcheroo
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  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, February 26, 2013 - link

    There's a specific application I use on my Android tablet (that is also available on iOS) that has text versions of several thousand books and magazines, and it's all linked together (e.g. you'll see a reference to an article and you can click it to go there). All of the content is freely available on the Internet, but instead of staying within a unified full-screen app (with the ability to make notes and highlight material), you end up having a bunch of web pages open (which requires an active Internet connection) and you can't take notes directly or highlight passages, nor can you have any notes sync between devices.

    The best you can find in the Windows Store right now is an app that only has about five books, none of the magazines or other manuals, etc. I'm pretty sure the group that makes the apps for Android and iOS will have a Windows Store app in the future, but it might be a year or two (or it might be a month or two -- who knows?).

    When I use the XPS 12 as a laptop, none of the above bothers me much, but in tablet mode the fullscreen apps are far more important. I don't want to open web pages and type URLs if I don't have to; I don't always have Internet either. I don't have a GPS in the XPS 12, which makes getting turn-by-turn navigation directions impossible (sometime I can get on a $200 or less Android tablet).
  • AncientWisdom - Wednesday, February 27, 2013 - link

    " Maybe it was all in my head, but those extra couple inches make a big difference. " (Page 3)

    Sure made me laugh :-)
  • IndyJaws - Wednesday, February 27, 2013 - link

    I have a 15z, and while I've been happy with it overall, the Cypress touchpad is proof Satan exists. I'd have hoped they got their act together in the 2 years since I got my machine, but the issues Jarred describes are very similar here, but to an even worse degree. I've only recently found a driver for another Dell laptop that has made it semi-usable, but for the most part, I find myself using a wireless mouse instead.
  • vectorm12 - Sunday, March 3, 2013 - link

    I keep wondering where the sub 700 € ultrabooks powered by AMD hardware went?

    There was loads of talk about how OEMs would design one Intel "Premium" ultrabook which would then filter down into more affordable and probably similarly performing ultrathins with AMD hardware inside?

    Right now I'm looking to replace my wife's 13" Macbook Pro with something halfway decent, but considering the small difference in price and the unfortunately high amount of shortcomings I'm still inclined to think spending a couple of hundred more on an Air is the smarter choice given the standard she's used to from the MBP.

    Dell, HP, Asus and the other OEMs should be able slam Apple on price/performance but in this case they are more like equals.

    At least I'm happy to see highres displays starting to show up on these machines.

    Honestly I feel a 13" MBP equipped with the retina display would be solid value. User-upgradeable battery, RAM(2 SO-DIMMs instead of the stupidly soldered primary SO-DIMM) and SSD/HDD. Would kill all competition even if it was priced similarly to the 13" "MBP with retina display".
  • CeriseCogburn - Monday, March 4, 2013 - link

    It's the proletariat crap consumerism we have nowadays.

    Then we get the insane bottom dollar acquisition talks about Apples production takeover strategies, and what's left is the crap sandwhich everyone pretends to hate until they buy one, then the love never ends.

    If anyone does produce the correct device that isn't a crap sandwhich, the first and only thing anyone ever hears is it's a ripoff.

    Instead, we get a crap sandwhich, and an on the spot economics lesson by the posting would be CEO, who notes that 50 cent a bom is 50 million bucks.

    So expect many crap sandwhiches, forever.
  • JasonJ65 - Thursday, March 14, 2013 - link

    This Dell XPS 12 is by far the worst device that I have ever purchased. Touch screen stops working all the time, constantly unable to connect the wifi, cannot find hot spots, crashes at least once per week. Dell's solution is to continue reinstalling the drivers. Not what I expected for $1700. I've gone back to my $300 HP2000 which has turned out to be a much better purchase.
  • simonmarksmith - Sunday, April 21, 2013 - link

    If the touchpad or touch screen stop working on your XPS try touching the metal casing with your other hand... Here's a video of what I found happened with mine.
  • sheehanje - Monday, April 22, 2013 - link

    I know I'm a bit late to the party with this review comment - but I would first like to point out that prices have started coming down on the XPS 12. I got an 8GB i7 model with 250GB SSD for $1300, and they are dropping even further.

    As a Network Analyst/Engineer/Duct Tape Master, I am constantly in wiring closets, in meetings, and on the go. The XPS is what I would call a perfect blend of Laptop/Tablet. For MY purposes, it works better than any other hybrid out there. One reason the flip screen works so well is for documentation - I can use it in full tablet mode, or just flip the screen around easily go through large PDF's in either portrait or landscape using the base (keyboard) as a prop. It is sturdy, unlike most tablet stands, were I can navigate without worrying about the unit flopping over.

    There are some glaring omissions on what could be a grand slam of the jack of all trades laptop. GPS is not included, which is disappointing to me. It's not a deal breaker by any means, but the cost of adding GPS is negligible these days in a modern device. Also, as mentioned, there is no digitizer pen capability with the XPS 12. I don't find that as crucial. It would be nice, but it does reduce the sensitivity of the touch screen - which the XPS is one of the best touchscreens I've ever used. I just ordered a Jot Pro for note taking - but even that will be used sparingly.

    My last con is the touchpad - it is ill conceived to say the least. I've had all the mentioned issues - and it has horrible response. Button presses often go amiss. One thing I will say, it has gotten me used to the touchscreen, because I'm now constantly trying to use gestures on my non touch screen Mobile Precision laptop.

    I highly recommend this hybrid to anyone that needs flexibility between a laptop and tablet. Especially IT pro's that need to between the office and the field. (The field being wiring closets or datacenters). To me, Dell hit a triple with this. It is so close to being a home run, but I'll take it given the current generation of Tablet/Laptops hybrids.
  • rburnham - Wednesday, May 8, 2013 - link

    I don't mind the price of this because the specs are really good. However, the bulk worries me. In order to get a tablet with 256 gigs of storage and a 1080p screen, it seems like just about everything I can find are these sort of thick hybrid/convertible units. Sony's Duo slider unit comes to mind.

    What I would really like to see is something with a detachable keyboard, like Samsung's 700T tablet, which has the perfect style, but with 256 gigs of storage.

    I have not found the perfect Windows 8 tablet yet, but the XPS 12 come really close.

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