Dell XPS 12 Two-Day Thoughts
I bought a Dell XPS 12 because I needed a full-featured laptop for when I travel (and for when I don’t feel like sitting at my desk in my office; for example, right now, when I’m sitting in one of the recliners in our front room), and have spend a couple of days playing with it, writing on it, and generally getting used to it. Here are my thoughts on it so far.
* One, people have wanted to know why I went from a MacBook Air for my last machine to a Win8 laptop this time around. The short answer is: because I felt like it. The longer answer is that with the exception of exactly one thing, which I will get to in a moment, I don’t particularly have a preference for one OS or manufacturer over the other. While the Air I had was a gorgeous little computer, the XPS 12 has all the features I want (including some I can’t get on a Mac laptop yet) and better integrates with my desktop environment, which is also a Win8 box. So it seemed reasonable to go this route this time around.
This cavalier attitude regarding manufacturers and OSs will possibly start a holy war in the comments, but whatever. At the end of the day, computers are machines I use to do my work. The Win8 environment, for various reasons, best supports what I do for my work. And this particular computer seemed to have the best feature set for me. So there we have it.
* And, yes, this XPS 12 is a sweet little computer. I bought the fully-specced out version, because I intend to have it for a few years and don’t want it to chug on programs any earlier than it has to. That means that its guts (8GB RAM, i7 processor, 1920×1080 screen, etc) are not too far off from my desktop computer from a couple years back. The main differences there: A smaller hard drive (but this one has no moving parts and so is much faster to boot up and find things), and slightly less capable graphics, which I notice only if I’m trying to play graphics-intensive video games, which I don’t typically do on my laptops anyway. It also comes with a touchscreen which swivels on hinges into a tablet mode, which is a useful but idiosyncratic feature will I will explore in a minute.
So far there isn’t really anything I’ve thrown at the XPS 12 that it hasn’t been able to handle perfectly well, which is good — and which is why I needed the upgrade in the first place, since after my Air was stolen I was using a netbook which was increasingly limited in what it could do. It’s nice to have a fully capable computer which is also in an ultrabook format (i.e., tiny — this is a 12.5-inch screen and weighs three and a half pounds). Also, it has a lighted keyboard, which as silly as it may sound has become a deal-breaker for me in laptops; at this point, I won’t buy a laptop without one.
* That said, there are some idiosyncrasies of the machine that people who are interested in it for themselves should probably consider. First, while the computer’s screen is, flatly, gorgeous — a 1920×1080 display on a 12-inch screen is well and sufficiently “retina” for most humans — it also means that text on the screen is tiny, even with the XPS 12 defaulting to displaying text at 125%. My 43-year-old eyes were not particularly happy with that. On the Chrome browser I ended up going into the settings and having Chrome display Web pages (and their text) at 150%, which solved the problem for about 80% of everything I use the computer for; for everything else I’m going in and bumping up text sizes where needed.
Second, the track pad is somewhat less than impressive — it’s yet another twitchy, imprecise trackpad on a Windows machine. This is the one place where I unreservedly have a bias for Apple products: Apple has figured out trackpads so well that they just plain work — and that’s a genuine competitive advantage. I had to immediately go in and start futzing with this trackpad to get it to be functional, and I’m not near done futzing with it, and when it’s as optimized as it can be it still won’t be anywhere as good as an Apple trackpad. And that just makes me sad.
* People are understandably interested in the screen rotating on hinges and becoming a jumbo-sized tablet, so let me talk about that for a second. One, it pretty much works as advertised: You push on the top corner of the screen and it disengages from its frame, turns on a pivot, and reverses. From there you can fold the now-outward facing screen down over the keyboard and it becomes a tablet. This is fun to do and impresses folks, at least the ones I’ve shown the trick to.
But is it useful and functional? Maybe. The tablet mode is fine for reading and looking at stuff but less useful for using the computer as a computer, which I don’t think comes as a surprise to anyone. But even with the reading and looking at stuff, there are a few problems, most of which seem to be the effect of Windows 8, even in “tablet mode,” being less refined than either iOS or Android are at this point. And if you have something in desktop mode and you “go tablet,” then it’s even messier; things on desktop really do assume a keyboard and a mouse/trackpad rather than fingers. There is a keyboard in the tablet mode, which I have mixed feelings about. On one hand, it’s nice and responsive and I had no problems typing with it. On the other hand, like the iPad keyboard, it shunts numbers and lots of punctuation to a secondary keyboard, which deeply limits its usefulness for actual work.
Reviews of the XPS 12 note that the computer in tablet mode is heavy, and I suppose it is, but honestly, three and a half pounds isn’t exactly a horrible burden. I noticed that to the extent I’ve used it in tablet mode I’m typically sitting or lying down and have the thing propped up on my knees. Whether I’m subconsciously tailoring my use of the tablet to compensate for its form is an open question, but even if I am it’s not really a problem.
At the moment I see the tablet mode more as a nice little extra than a genuinely useful part of the computer, and that’s fine since I bought it to be a laptop, not a tablet. It’ll be nice if the tablet aspect becomes more useful over time.
* This is a Windows 8 machine and I have to say I am still pretty ambivalent to Win8’s user interface for people who use their computers to do actual work. As some of you might remember, on my desktop I’ve banished the Win8 “Start Page” by using Stardock’s “Start 8” program, which causes the computer to go directly to the desktop screen, and allows me to get to work without having to step out of my process. I speculated at the time that the Start Page might make more sense on a smaller screen, say, the one I have on the XPS.
Well, now I have the smaller screen and I’m still not terribly convinced of its utility; I mostly still find myself blowing through the start screen to get to the desktop. Again this is more of a reflection of my own workflow than anything else; if I was largely using the computer for recreational activities I might have a different reaction. I’m going to stick with the start screen for at least another week, but if it doesn’t start making sense for me (rather than being just another bit of work I have to do to get to the work I have to do), then I’m gonna buy another copy of Start 8 and drop it onto this machine as well (note that once I get to the desktop, I like Win8 just fine — it actually is an improvement on Win 7).
So: I like the XPS 12 so far, and for those folks looking for a Win8 Ultrabook, I think it’s well worth your consideration, so long as you’re aware of its quirks.