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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  • Visual - Friday, February 22, 2013 - link

    "(Note that the Surface Pro also comes with a pen, so that's probably a $50 add-on.)"

    Are you joking, or are you really that clueless?
    It is not just the pen that is added there, it is an active digitizer layer added to the screen that costs at least $150. And it is worth every penny. No sane person would want a tablet without an active digitizer after having experienced using one for a time.
  • althaz - Friday, February 22, 2013 - link

    Whilst I would not buy a tablet without a digitizer and pen, it's a bit of a stretch to say that no sane person would want one without it.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, February 22, 2013 - link

    $150 isn't what it would cost to add, but they might add that much to the price. Just like upgrading from a $90 quality TN panel to a $150 IPS panel often adds $300 to the price.
  • redmist77 - Friday, February 22, 2013 - link

    The flip screen is very sturdy (over-engineered if anything), works flawlessly and gives the best of both worlds. It's a bit strange to see the armchair experts in these comments passing extreme judgements despite clearly having zero experience with the product.

    This a fantastic Ultrabook with one of the best capacitive 1080 touch screens on the market that happens to fold into a tablet. Exactly what I wanted. I also *much* prefer glossy screens that add real depth and polish to on-screen images.

    I'm sure pen support would be nice but the pen screens I've used aren't anywhere near as responsive, sensitive or accurate as this one.

    My only minor gripe with the XPS12 is the poor color gamut.
  • Sazar - Friday, February 22, 2013 - link

    I agree with most of your sentiments. I think I also lucked out on the color gamut because with very little tweaking, color's look great on my screen. In the interest of full disclosure however, I am partially color-blind :)

    My only concern has been a bug that is either tied to the panel, or Windows 8, where the touch-screen simply stops working. The only fix is to wake it after putting the system to sleep, or a reboot. Given how quickly it resumes or reboots, it doesn't take long to resolve, but it's annoying when it happens (about once or twice a month thus far).

    There are new drivers for the touch pad as well that make it a lot better.

    As an aside, for those interested, the frame is sturdy enough that you can flip the screen and then use the device in "tent" mode, like the Yoga. Works brilliantly.
  • alexvoda - Friday, February 22, 2013 - link

    Please get Lenovo to send you a Thinkpad Helix review unit.
    I believe the Helix has the best combination of features and form factor with the only downside being the price.
    It can be used in more ways than any other simmilar device.
    IIRC the Helix is the only dockable tablet that an be docked in two ways giving it the use cases of both "flexible" laptops (Dell XPS12, Lenovo Yoga) and detachable tablets (Asus, Acer, Samsung).
  • rwei - Friday, February 22, 2013 - link

    ^ this.

    After using an x120e more and more while traveling, I'm a solid convert to the TrackPoint. It seems like the obvious solution for putting a pointing interface into a space-constrained device, particularly when complemented with a touchscreen (which obviates the need for many gestures).

    Also love the option of just having the tablet on its own, which I'd probably do for my day-to-day use commuting in a subway.

    Then, on a plane, I can put it in stand/combined tablet mode for battery life.

    Then, when work inevitably gives me a task to work on during a trip, I can pop on the dock as a keyboard and deal with that.

    All within 3.3lbs total + charger, barely more than the x120e.

    Optionality is valuable $$$
  • damianrobertjones - Friday, February 22, 2013 - link

    "RAM is soldered onto motherboard"

    - Slapping in Vengeance performance ram REALLY does help improve the HD4000 so it's a DAMN shame.
  • ssj3gohan - Friday, February 22, 2013 - link

    Really? I was under the impression that intel IGPs didn't care much for RAM bandwidth, it's the AMD chips that really suffer when using slower (higher latency) RAM.

    But I'm not really into this stuff, could be wrong here.
  • Alexvrb - Saturday, February 23, 2013 - link

    You're not entirely wrong. Intel's IGP doesn't scale as well or as far as AMD's integrated graphics (especially A8 and A10 APUs). This is especially evident in Intel's low-voltage variants (such as the one in this model), which employ lower base and sustained turbo clocks than their higher-power brethren (despite using the same name). With that being said, they could have benefited somewhat from using DDR3 1600 even without a full-factory-power HD4000.

    However, I'd bet that using slower memory is actually quite intentional. I suspect that they're using 1.25V DDR3U 1333 instead of 1.35V DDR3L. During development, they must have determined the hit to performance was not enough to outweigh using less power hungry memory - at least for this particular combination.

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