Dell XPS 12 (2016) review: A classic laptop, ruined

Price when reviewed

The original XPS 12 stood apart in a crowd of carbon-copy Ultrabooks. Back in 2012, it fused cutting-edge hardware with a novel design: the screen “flipped” 180 degrees within the frame of the lid. Fast-forward to 2016, and Dell has given the XPS 12 a radical, ground-up redesign. Taking inspiration from Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4, it’s now tablet first, laptop second.

Dell XPS 12: Design

In fact, with the two generations side by side, new and old, few would guess they were made by the same manufacturer, let alone share the same name. The XPS 12 of 2016 is a pleasingly dinky, matte-black tablet paired with a matching keyboard dock, both covered in a stylish soft-touch metal.

The XPS 12 is remarkably slim and compact for a 12.5in tablet. The bezels beneath the protective layer of Gorilla Glass are obvious, but Dell has somehow made it a touch smaller than the Surface Pro 4 and pipped it for weight – at 716g, it’s 70 grams lighter. Clip on the rather weighty “Premier Keyboard”, however, and the pairing tip the scales at a more portly 1.26kg.Dell XPS 12 dock slot closeup

If that sounds too much, then note Dell offers a slimline alternative, but there’s much to like about the Premier Keyboard. For starters, it’s far more solid and sturdy-feeling than the Surface Pro 4’s Type Cover. There’s a little flex if you go hunting for it, but I can’t quibble with the build quality, and the keyboard and touchpad are superb as I’ll discuss a little later. It’s only a shame there isn’t a battery in there to help justify the 525g weight.

The final part of the package is the folio cover. This clips magnetically to the rear of the tablet and base of the keyboard. Its fabric-like outer is designed to help fend off knocks and scrapes, as well as preventing the XPS 12 from sliding around on your lap. There’s also a loop of fabric on the edge where you can stow the Active Pen – which, sadly, is a £57 optional extra. The downside is that the folio cover adds another 250g to the all-in weight. Pop the whole kaboodle in a bag, and you’ll be carrying around 1.51kg of hardware. That’s not even including the USB Type-C charger.Dell XPS 12 folio cover

Dell XPS 12: Display & tablet

The cheapest XPS 12 makes do with a Full HD display, but the pricier two models push the pixel count sky-high with a glorious 4K display using IGZO technology. Crammed into a 12.5in diagonal, the pixel density soars to 352ppi – dramatically higher than its Microsoft rival. The sharpness is astonishing, but with a maximum brightness of 418cd/m2 and a contrast ratio of 1,283:1, the quality is pretty good too.

The only downside is that colour reproduction tends towards exaggeration. As the panel is capable of producing colours that lie beyond the sRGB gamut, reds, greens and purples take on an unnatural intensity, and whites often look slightly yellow. Dell would be wise to follow Microsoft’s lead and calibrate the XPS 12’s panel more stringently before leaving the factory.Dell XPS 12 tablet and keyboard

As a tablet, though, the XPS 12 is quite lovely. The weight is balanced just right, so it doesn’t feel unwieldy when you hold it one-handed, and the pinpoint-accurate touchscreen makes it feel exactly like a high-end tablet should. Dell didn’t send me the Active Pen for this review, but the Wacom digitiser promises 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, so going by all the other Wacom-powered devices I’ve tested, it should be pretty darn good.

Dell XPS 12: Keyboard, touchpad and design issues

In laptop mode, the tablet clips into the keyboard base with an audible click and leans backwards against a slight lip at the rear. This presents the first major issue with the XPS 12’s design: you can’t adjust the angle of the screen at all. And if you’re thinking you can just wedge something behind the tablet, think again: moving it even slightly forward breaks the connection to the keyboard, rendering it useless.

The second glaring fault is that if someone knocks the tablet from behind, the magnets give way, the tablet undocks completely, and then flops loosely onto the keyboard with a discomforting thwack. Unlike the Surface Pro 4, which holds its Type Cover firmly in place with two rows of magnets, you need to physically unlatch and carefully place the XPS 12’s tablet face down on the keyboard. Knock it loose in laptop mode and you risk it diving floorwards. Elegance isn’t the first word that springs to mind.Dell XPS 12 keyboard and touchpad

To be fair, the design isn’t completely unhinged. For instance, you can pick the XPS 12 up by the display and carry it from one room to another without worrying about the keyboard falling off – I spent all day doing just that and didn’t drop it once. Having said that, I probably wouldn’t be quite so brave outside the office.

What’s more, the keyboard and touchpad are fantastic. There’s oodles of travel to every keystroke, and the extra weight to the base gives it a firm, solid feel. The touchpad is superb, too, with the glass lending a silky feel to every prod and brush of the pad.

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