Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 OS, which launches on 26th October, represents a radical departure from the usual desktop operating system you’ve grown to love (or perhaps loathe) - for a primer on just how different it is, read our introduction guide here. Due to Windows 8's emphasis on touch, PC manufacturers hoping to capitalize on the launch of the OS have been busy adding touchscreens to all of their desktop systems and notebooks. Unfortunately, as we discovered, the traditional clamshell notebook form factor just isn't the best medium for a touchscreen device. As a result, we've started to see a number of innovative new products combining the tablet and notebook form factor into a radical new 'convertible' hybrid. Dell is the latest to reveal its convertible hybrid, the 12.5-inch Dell XPS 12:
The 12.5-inch Dell XPS 12 uses a swivel form factor unseen on any other convertible hybrid Ultrabook. However, unique as it may seem, it's actually not the first time we've seen something like this. Those of you with good memories will remember almost two years ago when Dell introduced the Inspiron Duo, a similar device with a touchscreen and swiveling screen. However, because it was running Windows 7, which isn't designed with touch in mind, there wasn't much you could do with the touchscreen, and the Inspiron Duo subsequently didn’t do very well in the market. You might say that the swivel form factor was ahead of its time.
In theory, the swivel form factor is a pretty good idea, as it gives you the versatility of both a tablet and a notebook without having to carry an extra keyboard peripheral around with you all the time.
To swivel the screen, all you need to do is tap the top of the display with a little bit of force, causing the screen to swing back and snap into place in one smooth motion. If you didn’t have your lunch, and you're feeling a bit weak, you might need two pushes, one to snap it out, and one to snap it back.
One minor problem we noted with this form factor, is that if you're ever holding the notebook while it’s open - say, to carry it from one room to another - your hand might accidentally dislodge the screen and, unfortunately, there's no way to lock the screen in place.
Something we felt was a bit of a missed opportunity rather than a design flaw was that the keyboard only works when the screen is facing forward in its notebook form factor position. This means you can’t use the keyboard or trackpad while having the screen facing outward. Technically, you shouldn't ever need to, but it could have been a useful feature for presentations, somewhat similar in practice to ASUS' Taichi concept.
One of our biggest ongoing complaints with Ultrabooks is that manufacturers often opt for screens with a standard 1366 x 768 pixels resolution. While this was fine when Ultrabooks were first launched in 2011, second and third generation models could definitely use an upgrade. A higher definition screen is just overall more pleasing to look at and use. Fortunately we have no such complaints with the XPS 12 as it's boasting a 12.5-inch Full HD 1920 x 1080 resolution display.
If you're wondering why Dell opted for such an unusual screen size, according to them, they believe that 12.5-inches is the ideal size for both work and content consumption. This is based on a standard tablet being about 10 or 11 inches and the standard Ultrabook being 13-inches. Therefore, you can consider this as the compromise middle-ground.
As with the XPS 13, the screen is protected by edge-to-edge Corning Gorilla Glass, which makes it a bit glossy and prone to reflections and fingerprints. Having said that, the display is also very bright, which makes it good for use under harsh and bright light. Still, we would’ve liked to see Dell use a better anti-reflective coat on the display.
Another thing we’re very impressed with is the quality of the speakers. They're very loud, especially for such a compact device, and definitely good enough for movie watching and personal music. The sound quality may not be good enough to appease audiophiles, but for most users, they should be more than adequate.
One concern we had with the build quality of the XPS 12 was the durability of the swivel form factor due to the constant swinging of the screen that might eventually wear out the hinge. It's impossible to tell right now if its going to be a problem later on, but we tried swinging it really hard over and over again (it’s that much fun!), and the swivel seems to hold up pretty well.
Encouragingly, the frame which holds the swivel and the screen in place is very robust. It’s made up of machined aluminum and is very rigid without any budge at all. On the other hand, rather disappointingly, the hinge which connects the screen to the base is made of plastic. That said, it didn’t feel loose at all .
There is also an aluminum strip running along the edge of the XPS 12’s bottom half. This strip lends extra rigidity to the already rigid carbon fiber bottom body, which is found throughout the machine. The carbon fiber build is pretty similar to that of the previously reviewed XPS 13. In that review we found that carbon fiber is very similar to aluminum in terms of strength and weight, and as the XPS 12 makes liberal use of it, you can expect it to be quite robust. In terms of weight, the XPS 12 weighs just under 1.5kg, which is a bit on the heavy side for a machine of this size, but as we found out with Samsung's Series 5 Ultra Touch, the touchscreen adds quite a bit of extra weight.
Thanks to its mostly carbon fiber construction, other parts of the XPS 12, such as the keyboard, benefit from extra rigidity. From our brief hands-on, we were quite appreciative of the keyboard, and found that it has hardly any flex at all.
The backlit chiclet keys were also very comfortable to type on. There was hardly any wobble found on the individual keys, and there was plenty of resistance for a nice tactile feel. Our only real complaint was that the keys themselves are fairly shallow, although, this is likely a side effect of trying to keep the machine as thin as possible - it's just under 20mm thick.
Like the XPS 13, the wrist rest surrounding the keyboard is coated in a soft touch rubber finish which makes it very comfortable. This same finish is found surrounding the keyboard, most likely to protect the screen from contact with the chiclet keys.
As for the trackpad, it’s also very similar to the one found on the XPS 13. It’s big and clickable, making it a pleasure to use. On top of that, it’s also made of glass, and coated with a teflon like material, which makes it fast and smooth.
Unfortunately, due to an embargo set by Microsoft and Dell, we’re unable to share the configurations, ports and prices of the XPS 12. What we can say for now though is, the Dell XPS 12 will be running the full version of Windows 8.
As for configurations, the XPS 12 will be available with either an Intel Core i5 or i7 processor, with 4GB or 8GB memory, and 128, 256 or 512GB SSD available as storage options. Unfortunately, we don't know right now which option will go in which configuration. Pricing-wise, we're told that it will be priced very competitively compared against Ultrabooks already out in the market.
When the embargo lifts on 26th October, we'll be sure to update you with all the relevant information, so stay tuned!