Dell’s sleek, carbon fiber-clad XPS 11 is a hybrid convertible laptop that attempts to marry the best of a powerful Ultrabook and a performance tablet in a slim package. Rather than start with a tablet and then add a keyboard dock like in Asus’ Transformer series, the Dell XPS 11‘s form factor is more conservative, bringing business-like aesthetics, the power and performance of Intel’s fourth generation Haswell processor, and the versatility of a tablet or a notebook form factor.
Processor: Intel Haswell Core i3 or i5
Graphics: Intel HD4200
OS: Windows 8.1
RAM: 4 GB
SSD Storage Capacity: 80 GB with i3 ($999), 128 GB with i5 ($1,199), 256 GB with i5 ($1,399)
Display: 11.6-inch touch-enabled QHD 2560 X 1440 LED screen
Battery: 40 WHr, 4-cell integrated
Dimensions: 11-15mm height X 300mm width X 201mm depth
Weight: 1.13 kg; 2.5 lbs
Though the Dell XPS 11 may resemble an extremely thin Ultrabook at first glance, especially with its wedge-shaped design, Dell told us that the XPS 11 was created as a tablet-first. In particular, Dell intends that users of the XPS 11 to use it primarily in tablet mode and fold out the keyboard, essentially turning it back into an Ultrabook or notebook form factor, when the need arises to type a lengthier email or a note. It’s definitely an interesting design decision, but given that Dell had opted to create thinner membrane keys for the keyboard rather than physical keys like on a standard laptop, it makes sense: weight and size is kept to a minimum while ensuring that the keyboard is always present and usable when needed.
Industrial Design: Stylishly Slim
When the XPS 11 is closed, it is completely encased in black carbon fiber. The wedge-shaped design where the rear is slightly thicker and the tapered front is slightly thinner reminds us a lot of the excellent XPS 13 Ultrabook, though the 11 is both slimmer and lighter. Yet despite being light, at least for an Ultrabook, the 2.5-pound XPS 11 feels extremely solid thanks to machined aluminum frame that surrounds both the display and the keyboard deck, adding rigidity and structural integrity to the sleek design.
When you open up the notebook, the hinge swivels a full 360 degrees in a design that resembles what Lenovo had been using with its Yoga series of convertibles and what HP did on the recently introduced X360 laptop.
This means that you can use the XPS 11 as an Ultrabook when you open up the lid like you would a laptop, flip the screen back and stand it up in presentation mode, or rotate and stand it up like a tent card, and then you can also rotate the screen fully back and transform the XPS 11 into a tablet.
As an Ultrabook, the XPS 11’s 2.5 pounds of mass are actually on the lighter side of things, though as a tablet the device is a little heavier than we’d like. It’s actually 0.5 pounds heavier than Microsoft’s hefty Surface Pro 2 making the XPS 11 2.5 times the weight of Apple’s iPad Air tablet. Despite those numbers, in use, the XPS 11 tablet doesn’t feel bad–the weight distribution was even and the slim form factor made the device feel lighter than it actually is.
The most unique thing about the XPS 11 is its keyboard when used as a laptop. Rather than having physical keys like on a traditional laptop, Dell opted to go with a membrane-style keyboard that’s more reminiscent of Microsoft’s Touch Cover 2 for the Surface line. The keys don’t move in and you’d tap on the keys like you would typing on a virtual software keyboard on an iPad. This low profile design allows the XPS 11 to be slim, and it’s a nice trade-off if you’re a tablet-first user.
The upside to the keyboard is that the keys are backlit, making it much easier to type in the dark, especially if you’re trying to input passwords. The keys sit flush with the keyboard deck and the whole deck is covered in a nice matte soft-touch finish. Separating each key on the keyboard deck are lines of glossy piano black plastic.
The bottom of the XPS 11 is just as elegant as the top. Encased in carbon fiber and coated with a soft touch finish, the bottom feels good on the lap and doesn’t slide off your pants when you’re using the XPS 11 as a laptop. Additionally, Dell kept the design sleek by placing all the stickers required of a Windows machine in a compartment on the bottom of the laptop.
Just to the bottom of the keyboard is a glass button-less trackpad–you’ll push in on the entire trackpad to click. The trackpad itself is comfortable to use and roomy enough so that gestures will work if you don’t want to reach and use the touchscreen.
The XPS 11 is relatively light on ports. The tablet comes with stereo speakers, one housed on each side of the device. On the left hand side, you’ll find a USB 3.0 port, HDMI port, headphone jack, and volume buttons. On the right, you’ll locate the Kensington lock port, a second USB port, and an SD card reader. The power button, interestingly, has been located in the front. Though the placement of this important button seems odd, it makes sense as you can have easy access to the power button whether you’re in laptop or tablet mode.
As a tablet, the Dell XPS 11 really shines. Sporting a QHD resolution on its bright 11.6-inch display, images and videos displayed rich and bright colors while text looks crisp and sharp. Though Google’s Chromebook Pixel and Samsung’s premium Galaxy Note Pro and Galaxy Tab Pro tablets sport similar resolutions, systems with QHD screens are still more rare in the Windows ecosystem.
The XPS 11’s touchscreen display is bright and vivid. In use, the display is brighter than many other notebooks in this class and the display is easily readable outdoors under sunlight.
Keyboard and Trackpad: Mediocre
The XPS 11 may look like an offspring of the Microsoft Surface with Type Cover mated with a Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga, and there’s good reason for that. With a backlit membrane keyboard, the keyboard deck does look like the Surface’s Type Cover 2. Eschewing traditional keyboard keys from the Lenovo-styled unit, the membrane keys work better in tablet mode for the XPS 11. Like the Yoga, Dell’s tablet-first hybrid will deactivate the keyboard when you fold it back to hold it in tablet mode; this way your hands won’t activate any commands or type characters accidentally.
Where the XPS 11 shines is that the keys don’t protrude up as do the mechanical keys on the Yoga. This makes the XPS 11 much slimmer and much more solid and comfortable to hold as a tablet than its counterpart as you’re not pressing into the keys when you’re gripping the tablet.
In Ultrabook mode, touch-typists may take some time getting used to the membrane keyboard. Though the keys are clearly delineated on the deck and in the dark a backlight glows so that you know which key you’re pressing on, the typing experience here is more similar to tapping on a touchscreen keyboard on a tablet. The soft-touch rubbery material that coats the keys and the keyboard deck makes it more comfortable to type on than touching on the glass of an iPad’s display, but the feeling is essentially the same.
So while the keyboard is built from the perspective of a tablet–it’s there and easily accessible in a cinch–the typing experience in Ultrabook form factor is sub-par. Flat keys made it hard to type on, though we were able to achieve about 70 percent of our normal typing speed on the XPS 11 once we got used to the keyboard and trusted it more.
The XPS 11 runs Microsoft’s Windows 8.1 operating system, which gives you access to two different operating environments. A more modern touch-friendly Metro interface gives you access to Start screen with Live Tiles and apps that were designed for tablets while entering the Desktop mode brings compatibility to legacy programs designed for Windows 7 or earlier.
At first, this is a jarring environment, but most likely if you’re primarily using the XPS 11 as a tablet, you’ll find that the Start screen and Metro-styled apps will suit a majority of your computing needs. As such, most users will likely not enter the classic Desktop mode unless they are running legacy prograns, like Adobe’s Photoshop or Creative Suite.
However, for those who need legacy compatibility, the Desktop mode opens up the doors to even more programs. The drawback is that many of these programs are not designed with touch in mind and users will need to deal with small menu buttons rather than large clickable icons.
In addition to the standard preloaded Windows apps–like Skype, Windows Mail, Calendar, and the People hubs, Dell also preloaded the XPS 11 with a few software of its own. Unlike many other tablets and laptops out there, bloatware is kept to a bare minimum and Dell only pre-installed a few essentials out of the box, like a backup and recovery tool to restore the system should anything go wrong.
Designed with portability in mind, the XPS 11 will not be the performance workstation intended to replace a desktop. That’s not to say that performance was bad. Chrome and Internet Explorer pages loaded quickly and there wasn’t much of any delay in launching Microsoft Word or Excel on the XPS 11. Tablet-centric Metro UI or Modern UI apps launched instantly and the system did not hesitate in simple edits made in Paint.
When we’re looking at the numbers, using 3D Mark’s graphic test, a score in the high 400s and low 500s means that the XPS 11 trails the 2014 XPS 13 slightly. This is to be expected as the graphics engine, Intel’s integrated HD 4200 module, is working harder to push out more pixels on the XPS 11’s higher resolution screen. When compared to the recently reviewed ATIV Book 9 Plus, both XPS units trailed behind. Again, Ultrabooks aren’t meant to be gaming rigs and their performances in tests will reflect this. If you want to run more graphics-intense games, you’ll likely be looking at Dell’s Alienware lineup.
In terms of how the Intel Core i5 processor delivers against others in the category, the XPS 11 fell in line with the XPS 13 and many of its competitors.
For the home user who will be streaming videos, playing music, browsing the web, and perhaps checking sports and stocks scores, the XPS 11 will give you plenty of power for its compact size.
Battery Life: Average
Battery life for the XPS 11 is on the high end of the Ultrabook spectrum. Continuously surfing the web over WiFi, we averaged around 6 hours of battery life on a single charge. This is about on par with the category average, though we’re seeing stronger battery performance on some of the XPS 11’s rivals.
When you’re streaming video or performing more taxing functions, battery life will be reduced. We averaged just under 5 hours streaming videos over WiFi on a single charge.
This is quite a bit lower than Apple’s iPad, which hovers between 8 to 10 hours of battery on a single charge. Though the XPS 11 can do more than the iPad with the full Windows ecosystem behind it, Dell’s tablet-first approach warrants some comparisons with the Apple tablet as well as Samsung’s Galaxy Note and Tab lines, all of which garner slightly better battery performance than the XPS 11.
The XPS 11 tries to reinvent the wheel in an attempt to stand out in a crowded and competitive market of both Ultrabooks and tablets. As a tablet, it can do more than your standard iPad or Android tablet, but then you will encounter Windows’ issues of not having a cohesive touch experience when you migrate into the Desktop mode along with a power hungry processor that is harsher on battery life. As an Ultrabook, the membrane-styled keys make typing more laborious than comparable Ultrabooks with more traditional keys.
At the end of the day, the XPS 11 is a device of compromises, and it’s up to you to decide which compromises you’re willing to settle with. In a sea of tablets and an even larger ocean of laptops, the decision to buy an XPS 11 is a hard one. If you need an Ultrabook with a touchscreen, Dell’s XPS 13 is a far superior option, though you won’t get the versatility of the XPS 11. As a tablet, we can’t help but wonder if Microsoft’s Surface Pro 2 or even the Venue 11 Pro will be better options as those devices come with options for better keyboards with physical keys that will make typing easier.