Making a laptop with a screen that spins within its bezel isn’t a new idea. Early in 2011, Dell tried the trick with its Inspiron Duo netbook, but sadly that proved to be a woefully poor device. Now Dell is trying again, this with Ultrabook hardware and Windows 8 as the basic ingredients.
It helps that, unlike the Duo, the new XPS 12 isn’t built down to a price. The entry level Core i5 version will set you back a cool £999 but the full-fat Core i7 version I have been testing will take £1299 out of your wallet. For that sort of cash I expect something rather special.
The frame game
The money certainly gets you some quality materials. The body is made from a mix of carbon fibre and aluminium, while the screen is faced with Corning Gorilla Glass. The whole thing is very solid, with only the aluminium screen frame demonstrating a wee bit of flex, though not enough to keep you awake at night.
The notion is that when you want to use the XPS 12 as a laptop, you rotate its 12.5in screen so its facing you across the keyboard and trackpad. But it you’re in a tablet mood, you spin the screen round to face the other way and close the laptop’s lid.
While the black and brushed aluminium colour scheme is undoubtedly smart and business-like, all the black surfaces are matte which means greasy fingerprints quickly multiply.
It's sturdily built, you'll be pleased to know
At 1.45kg the XPS is 200g heavier than a 13in MacBook Air. That’s not enough to get bent out of shape over in my book and while I wouldn’t want to hold the XPS one handed for long, the Dell machine is certainly light enough for prolonged two-handed use in tablet form.
The XPS 12 shares a hardware feature with the Microsoft Surface tablet that really improves the Windows 8 user experience: a recessed Windows home button below the screen. Press it and the display swaps between the traditional desktop and the Modern tile-based UI no matter which way the screen is facing.
Other handy features include a volume rocker and screen orientation lock on the left side of the body where they can be accessed when using the XPS in tablet mode.
On the subject of volume the stereo speakers fitted on either side of the body are excellent. The XPS is the best sounding laptop I’ve come across since the B&O-equipped Asus N73.
Fingerprint magnet, alas
The backlit keyboard and trackpad feel very much as they do on Dell’s other XPS-series Ultrabooks: the chiclet keys have a positive action and the keyboard deck is rock solid. I find the key characters excessively stylised, but that’s the only criticism I can make.
While the Inspiron Duo’s screen locked into the frame using magnets alone, the XPS adds four physical catches. This makes for a slightly cheap-sounding ‘click’ when the screen latches in place but has the benefit of holding the screen more firmly in the frame and making it less likely to spin free when tapped near the top in laptop mode.
Two small rubber nubs sit on the front corners of the keyboard deck to soften the impact of the deck and the lid/screen. And because the lid closes in the same way no matter which way round the screen if facing, once folded it stays folded, just like a normal notebook.
To give you a better idea of how the XPS 12 spins and transforms from Ultrabook to tablet, Dell has put together this video