Though the Dell XPS 11 may look like an Ultrabook hybrid in the same way that Lenovo’s Yoga series is, to fully appreciate Dell’s premium offering you must understand Dell’s design philosophy behind this sleek, sophisticated tablet. Unlike systems like the Yoga and the recently unveiled HP Pavilion x360, Dell has crafted its XPS 11 a tablet-first Windows system that can do double duty as an Ultrabook, rather than being laptop-first. This idea behind the design of the XPS 11 places this unique hybrid in the same category as Microsoft’s Surface Pro 2, a tablet-first convertible 2-in-1 Ultrabook with detachable keyboard design.
At a glance, the XPS 11 looks just like most other Ultrabooks on the market today, bearing a wedged shape clamshell design that was popularized for the category by Apple’s MacBook Air design.
The Dell XPS 11 feels premium and to keep a high-end look, Dell constructed the XPS 11 out of mostly a carbon fiber design with a strategic aluminum bezel to give structural integrity to the inside of the top and bottom lids of the clamshell.
Overall, it’s a very understated design, and one that makes the XPS 11 a pleasure to hold instantly as the carbon fiber shell gives a nice warmth that welcomes you to grab it, unlike machines that are constructed out of solid aluminum.
Additionally, the carbon fiber construction helps Dell keep the weight to a minimum. At around a 2.4-pound weight, the XPS 11 is instantly heavier than Lenovo’s Yoga and Microsoft’s Surface Pro 2, but the weight is actually on par with the Surface Pro 2 when you attach a keyboard to Microsoft’s tablet. In its clamshell state, the Windows 8-powered Ultrabook has a gorgeous Quad HD display with a very high 2560 X 1440-pixel resolution on an 11.6-inch panel, besting the Surface Pro 2′s mere 1080p full HD resolution on a 10.6-inch panel.
The screen is magnificent to look at, and images and text appear sharp and crisp on the high resolution display. Viewing angles were great too as Dell utilized a nice IPS panel. Though brightness of the display of the XPS 11 was generally good for an Ultrabook, the Surface Pro 2 is still a little bit brighter than the Dell offering. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the XPS 11 will fare worse even as higher brightness is favored for screens that are utilized outdoors under the harsh and bright sun.
In fact, the XPS 11 did fine outdoors, and Dell attributes this to maintaining a decent, rather than cranked up screen, brightness while at the same time working to reduce glare and reflectivity of the screen. For consumers, this means a generally well balanced display, though one that could be brighter indoors, that works well under the sun and will lead to good battery performance.
The magic behind the XPS 11 is in the articulating screen. With a 360-degree rotating hinge, the screen of the XPS 11 can rotate back onto itself to convert from a standard Ultrabook or laptop form factor to tablet mode, leaving the keyboard exposed on the outside.
Though this form factor was initially pioneered by Lenovo with its Yoga series of devices, Dell went with a slightly different route. Whereas the Lenovo Yoga series uses a traditional laptop keyboard, typically with an island-style arrangement, focusing more on use as an Ultrabook, Dell opted to go with a more membrane-style keyboard, which makes the XPS 11 a tablet-first device. When the XPS 11 ships, out of the box, Dell is showing off the tablet-mode, rather than having the hybrid closed like a laptop, so it’s apparent where the focus of this system is.
As a tablet, Dell’s use of a flat, membrane-style keyboard arrangement makes a lot of sense. The keys do not protrude out and it’s a lot more comfortable to hold. When in this mode, the keys de-activate so there is no chance you’ll inadvertently hit the keys or the trackpad and activate a command. Additionally, you’ll feel that the system is more sturdy and less likely to break without any moving keys to worry about. As an Ultrabook, it’s nice that the keyboard is always there. You don’t have to worry about removing and re-attaching the keyboard cover like Microsoft’s Surface Pro 2 series, and the always-present keyboard is more akin to the Touch 2 cover than the Type 2 cover as there is no moving parts.
Like the Touch 2 Surface Cover, the keys on the keyboard on the Dell XPS 11 don’t actually move. Constructed of a rubberized membrane material with a glossy surface separating each individual key to give the keyboard an island-style layout, the keys are generally comfortable to type on in Ultrabook mode while in tablet mode the rubberized coating makes it easier to grip. When the volume is turned on, there is an audible key noise that’s generated by the keyboard to emulate the feel and sound of a key click, which helps reassure typists that they are actually pressing a key. Additionally, the keys have a nice backlight to them.
In general, thanks to an increase of 1-inch in diagonal screen real estate, the keyboard on the XPS 11 feels less cramped than the Touch 2 Cover of the Surface Pro 2, but I find that the Surface Pro 2 was easier to adapt to and I had less typos or typing errors with faster typing speeds. With an accuracy level of about 80-90 percent on the XPS 11, it wasn’t a bad experience, and Windows’ built-in spell checking helps out to identify spelling errors.
The biggest issue with the keyboard is that Dell was a little bit too conservative with the sensitivity of the keyboard to avoid accidental key presses. In reality, this means that accuracy was down a bit and the keyboard generally missed a key or so for every ten words typed. Additionally, without keys that move when pressed, typing for long duration on the keyboard was hard on the fingers as there was a lot of impact.
If you’re generally a tablet user who occasionally need the keyboard, then the XPS 11 will fit the bill just fine, but if you’re mostly an Ultrabook user who occasionally may need to use the device as a tablet, an XPS 12 or even the Venue 11 Pro may be a better bet.
The beauty about having a keyboard that’s always attached compared to the converting Surface Pro 2 design is that the XPS 11 will be more comfortable to use on a cramped airplane tray table or on your lap. You can adjust the screen to any viewing angle and you won’t have to fumble with a kickstand and trying to balance a top-heavy tablet with an attachable keyboard. It just feels better in laptop mode than the Surface Pro 2 can feel as it’s a more solid design in this configuration.
In addition to the keyboard, which comes with a very bright backlighting, which will make it easier to type in dark areas, there is also a roomy trackpad. The glass trackpad combines a single button into the design to maximize the area for scrolling and touching. To select, you can click down on the entire trackpad, not unlike the experience of Apple’s MacBook Pro designs in recent years.
The area surrounding the trackpad and blending into the keyboard is fashioned out of the same soft-touch rubberized material. This makes the area around the trackpad comfortable as a wrist rest whereas on the machined aluminum MacBook Pro, the metal feels cold and uncomfortable, especially when you first turn on the system in the early morning.
Surrounding the tablet convertible, on the left hand side is bevy of ports. A charging port sits closest to the hinge, and moving forward you have a powered USB port, HDMI port, a 3.5 mm audio jack, one of two stereo speakers with the second speaker on the right side, and the volume up and down keys.
Interestingly, the power button, which glows white when the power adapter is plugged in, is located to the front of the Ultrabook. In Ultrabook mode, this means that the power button is in front on the lower portion where the keyboard deck is situated. Though the placement is a little obscure and hard to find when you first begin using the XPS 11, it feels more natural to have the button there as it’s easily accessible in either Ultrabook mode or in tablet mode.
On the right edge, you have a port for a lock, another full-sized USB port, as well as an SDXC card slot to augment storage. The second stereo speaker on the system is located on the right edge as well.
The XPS 11 starts at $999, which includes the keyboard. As such it feels a bit more affordable than the Surface Pro 2. The base configuration starts with a fourth generation Intel Haswell Core i3 processor and an 80 GB SSD. Moving up to the $1250 configuration, which we’re reviewing, brings us to a Core i5 processor, 4 GB RAM, and 128 GB SSD. A top-end $1450 configuration ups the storage to 256 GB.
Performance of the XPS 11 was speedy and falls in line with other premium Ultrabook systems running the latest Haswell series chips from Intel. With Haswell, the XPS 11 benefits from great performance and good battery life, generally lasting around 8-9 hours on a single charge. Battery life of the XPS 11 was generally a bit better than Microsoft’s Surface Pro 2.
Keep in mind, with a Haswell processor, you’re capable of doing photo work on Adobe’s Creative Suite with Photoshop on Microsoft’s Windows 8.1 platform. This brings a lot of power and productivity into a very slim and elegant package weighing in at just under 2.5 pounds.
And with Windows 8.1, you’re able to run both legacy programs in classic Desktop mode as well as the new finger-friendly apps designed for the Metro UI. Booting up, the XPS 11 shows the familiar Windows 8/Windows 8.1 Live Tiles screen, and out of the box a minimal number of additional pre-installed apps are found. In addition to pre-loaded apps from Microsoft like OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive), Skype, and he usual suite of Calendar, Mail, and People apps, you also have a few apps from Dell.
Multimedia features on the XPS 11 were generally quite strong with a capable Intel HD graphics processor, a vibrant and high resolution display, and stereo speakers that were capable of delivering a surprisingly loud volume despite the system’s rather compact 0.6-inch height at its tallest point in the rear, which tapers down to an overall thickness of just 0.4-inch in the front.
In the XPS 11, Dell has crafted a very sophisticated and refined system with a very polished build quality. The XPS 11 isn’t your father’s old Dell black box, but a very modern machine that’s attuned to the design trends of the day.
With a very premium finish and strong hardware specs, the Dell XPS 11 is very competitive against other tablets, Ultrabooks, and convertible systems in this category. A high resolution screen, long battery life, stereo speakers, and powerful Haswell processor makes this system a standout in a crowded space.
The only downside is that the keyboard is a little hard to adjust to, but for those who want a tablet-first experience with the occasional need for a keyboard, this system delivers quite the punch.