Walt Mossberg

Dell Laptop Does Flips to Try to Be a Thick Tablet

Welcome to another in our series of reviews on efforts by Windows PC makers to make laptops that are also tablets, with very little success. This time, the attempt comes from Dell and is especially creative, and even kind of cool. But as with many other convertible laptops, it still results in a computer that’s a perfectly fine laptop, but a thick, heavy tablet.

Dell has been in the news lately mainly due to a proposed corporate restructuring, but that topic won’t be addressed here. The company still makes PCs for consumers. So I have been testing its flagship convertible, the XPS 12, a Windows 8 Ultrabook that starts at a pricey $1,200, and has a vivid, bright 12.5-inch touchscreen.

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To turn the XPS from a laptop to a tablet, push the bottom of the screen from the back and spin it around to the opposite direction.

What makes the XPS 12 notable is the method Dell has chosen to enable it to morph from a clamshell laptop to a tablet. While other companies have resorted to slider mechanisms, or hinges that require bending or twisting the whole lid, Dell has created a flip screen. The screen pivots within the frame of the lid to either face toward the keyboard, or away from it.

When the XPS 12 is in the classic laptop position, you just push in at the bottom of the screen from the rear and it spins around so the screen faces in the opposite direction. You then close the lid and the touchscreen is facing up, ready to be used as if it were a tablet. To return to laptop mode, you open the lid and reverse the screen-flipping process. When you flip the screen from one position to the other, it snaps back into the aluminum frame of the lid firmly and reassuringly.

I found this method easy and reliable, and commendably innovative from a company that hasn’t historically been hailed for industrial design. I found it a bit quicker and less of a hassle than some of the other mode-shifting techniques I’ve tested.

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Then, close the lid so the screen is facing up.

However, as with all of its competitors I’ve tested that don’t completely separate the screen and the keyboard, the XPS 12 doesn’t make for a very usable tablet, both for hardware and software reasons. The hardware weighs 3.35 pounds, more than double the weight of the heaviest iPad. At its thickest point, it’s twice as thick as an iPad. It’s also much larger.

The XPS 12 was uncomfortable to use as a tablet, in my hands or lap, for long periods. Like its convertible rivals, it is, at best, a standard laptop that can be occasionally used in tablet mode, preferably on a desk or table.

And then there’s the software. Although it’s now six months old, Microsoft’s Windows 8, in my view, hasn’t made much progress in improving its tabletlike aspect, the Start Screen. Its core Start Screen apps, like email and calendar, while improved, are still crude. The latest insult: You can no longer directly sync Google calendar data to the new Windows 8 calendar app. And its store still lacks key apps common on Apple and Android tablets, such as an official version of Facebook, or the popular news app, Flipboard.

As a traditional laptop, the XPS 12 does better, but still has drawbacks, especially when it comes to battery life.

Its strongest point is the screen, which is especially bright, crisp and very responsive to the touch. It has a sturdy body, partly made of carbon fiber. It was able to run everything I threw at it, handily and speedily. This included not only Microsoft programs, like the latest version of Microsoft Office, but traditional desktop programs from competitors, such as Adobe Reader, Google’s Chrome and Apple’s iTunes.

On the Start Screen, it ran tablet-type, full-screen apps like Twitter, Kindle, The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Dell has cut way back on the amount of craplets — unwanted software or trials and come-ons — it preloads on this machine.

However, partly because of the flip mechanism and the hidden components needed to make it work, the XPS 12 is heavier and thicker than the largest MacBook Air, which starts at the same price and has a bigger screen, at 13.3 inches.

Battery life is a big downside on this Dell. In my tough laptop test, where I turn off power-saving software, crank up the screen to 100 percent, leave the Wi-Fi on to collect email, and play a continuous loop of music, the XPS 12 lasted just 3 hours and 31 minutes. That’s awful compared with the 6 hours and 13 minutes I got on the 13-inch MacBook Air in the same test.

In more normal use, with power-saving on, I suspect you could get 4 to 5 hours on the XPS 12, but that’s still nothing to write home about.

And there’s one more issue with this Dell: Available storage. Of the 128 gigabytes on the solid state drive, only 102 were available to me out of the box. Dell explains this is because of things like the space claimed by Windows 8, and an Intel system that guarantees fast starting and resuming.

One consideration for consumers buying any Dell product is the company’s proclaimed strategy to cater mainly to business customers. But Dell executives insisted they remain committed to the consumer market.

Dell deserves credit for a clever flip screen design in the XPS 12. But it’s very hard to make a computer that’s both a great laptop and a great tablet, even if the operating system contains elements of both.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.


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