The Dell XPS 11 Hardware Review – “Can you have your tablet and your laptop too?”
I bought a MacBook Air and a Lumia 2520 last year. I didn’t plan on buying both, but the MacBook Air was only great for certain things. It had arguably one of the best mobile keyboards and trackpads, amazing battery life and solid performance. However, the screen resolution and quality were both subpar. At 1366×768, and without any extra technology thrown at it, it simply looked dull and lifeless. The Lumia 2520 had a great 1080p screen and Nokia’s ClearBlack technology. Outside of some light bleeding, it was near perfect. However, adding the Nokia Power Keyboard would substantially increase the overall weight. And performance, although good, was nowhere near a Haswell ultrabook like the MacBook Air.
The 2520 was the better consumption device. I enjoy the Modern UI and Windows 8.1 via a touch interface. The MacBook Air was solid for getting work done, and knowing you could watch 3-4 movies back to back and still have battery life to spare. I don’t like having too many devices lying around, so I started planning a change. I went to my local Best Buy, Sony Store, Microsoft Store and Apple Store. I checked out the Sony Vaio Flip 11A (11.6” 1080p Pentium-class Haswell with Active Digitizer Pen for $799), the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus (13” 3200×1800 i5 Haswell at 3-pounds for $1099 on sale), the Surface Pro 2 (which I would have later added a Power Cover too which would have run $899 plus $199) and a couple other random machines not worth mentioning. Once I played with the Samsung ATIV Book 9’s amazing “retina” class screen, I couldn’t stand looking at anything 1080p. However, I didn’t need 13” and I’m just not a Samsung fan (although this was the nicest product of theirs I have ever touched).
I was unexplainably reminded of a carbon fiber and aluminum made Dell I heard about late in 2013. It was a “retina” class ultrabook in a smaller and lighter package. At 11.6” with a 2560x1440p resolution, it offered one of the best pixel densities around. With “Yoga” like capabilities (laptop, stand, tent and tablet modes) it out did the Lenovo Yoga line by being thinner, lighter and not made of plastic. I just spent 5 days using it heavily, so the question is… does it live up to my goal of replacing both a tablet and a laptop?
I used the Dell XPS 11 for a little more than five days. The first day I basically just setup the machine from scratch, as I didn’t carry over any settings or apps from OneDrive. A few software updates were available, and I entered my previously obtained Office 2013 Pro Plus product key. Everything installed quickly and easily. I updated drivers from Intel’s site for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Rapid Start. New GPU drivers were available from Intel but wouldn’t install and directed me to Dell. Dell’s site didn’t have any newer drivers. I used the device on the couch, on my lap, and in bed until the battery drained all the way. Laptop mode, stand mode and tablet mode were tested. The next day, it came to work with me and was used primarily as a laptop. Usage was heavy, and after a full work day it was down to 20%. I plugged it in to the charger and went to dinner. It was fully charged after my two hour dinner. Over the weekend, I used it around the house and charged it whenever it got down to 20% or I was going to sleep. The battery is rated at 8-8.5 hours. I saw as little as 4-4.5 under very heavy productivity usage while using High Performance mode. Balanced mode yield 5-6 hours with moderate productivity to heavy consumption usage. Only in Power Saving mode and used primarily as a consumption device would one approach the 8 hour mark. The last couple days I used to device to perform an monitor a SQL Server DB upgrade and send out regular communications using Outlook. The device was used from 1am-8am before it had to be shutdown. I tend to switch frequently between laptop and stand modes.
Experience – Hardware
I’m blown away. I know many people enjoy PC laptop-like hardware from various vendors. For years, only Apple impressed me. That statement might anger a few readers, but it is the truth. A few Windows tablets like the Surface and Lumia 2520 have shown signs of high build quality. I saw some nice Lenovo and Acer laptops in the hands of friends, but nothing made me feel like I had to own it. Reading that the Dell XPS 11 was made from carbon fiber and aluminum, I was more inclined to give it a chance. The materials are high quality, yet don’t force the dense, weighty feel that a MacBook can have. There is a rubberized feel to the keyboard and surrounding trackpad area. It makes it easy to clean. There are no gaps or openings deep enough to hold any dust, crumbs or other materials. You can literally wipe it clean. The trackpad is good, but not glass trackpad good. It is better than expected, and way more useful than the tiny one on the Type/Touch Cover 2. Scrolling horizontally works better than vertically.
The keyboard is the worst reviewed and underappreciated feature of the XPS 11. Not one reviewer seemed to like it. Until now. I love it. Since I keyboard hop so often, using an Apple Wireless Keyboard at home, a Microsoft Wireless Keyboard at work, a Nexus 7, a Lumia 720 and many more… I never type perfectly. I know the less device hopping I do, the better my typing will be. Since I tried to use the Dell as much as possible over the review period, I know that improved my typing ability. It is not a regular keyboard. It is an enhanced variant of the original Type Cover, just without the fabric and with bigger keys. The most challenging keys for me have been the Backspace and Spacebar. I don’t know what people expect an 11.6” device to have, keyboard wise. Yes, the MacBook Air is better, but not that much better. This keyboard is usable, and perfect to fold back and use during stand and tablet mode.
I previously owned a Surface and Surface 2, and folding back the covers were never a great experience for me. It always felt wrong, where this does not. The backlighting is awesome, and the font and style comes across as very modern. Settings allow you to change the touch sensitivity of the keyboard along with the ability to toggle on and off keyboard clicks. I turned it off, as I do with the touch screen keyboards of my tablets and phones. Your mileage may vary, but don’t believe everything you read. To me, I wouldn’t like this device with any other keyboard. I must note that I look at the keys while I type, and apparently this makes a huge difference in the success one has with a non haptic, zero travel keyboard.
The display is why I picked the device over the many others available today. The display, paired with the tablet first design of this machine makes it stand out. The display is a Sharp IGZO 11.6” 2560×1440 panel. Picture AMOLED color saturation with the brightness of a Super LCD. It is the best of both worlds and I know now why we keep hearing more and more rumors about vendors trying to launch products with this technology. Blacks are black, colors vibrant, text clear and motion is fluid. Watching low resolution content can be disappointing. However, watching 1080p or higher content is a dream. Netflix, Xbox Video, Vevo and YouTube HD look amazing. I prefer watching videos on this device over any other that I own. Colors, specifically red, were a bit oversaturated. Lucky, Intel provides useful tools for modifying red, green, blue or all colors together. Dropping saturation by 20% made the display perfect in my eyes. Desktop scaling is set to 200% by default and I prefer it. 11.6” is too small to handle the full native resolution of the panel. Dell handles this like Apple does, and simply presents a 720p sized image with twice the amount of pixels pushing it. But you can run the native resolution or with 125% or 150% scaling instead of the default 200%. Brightness is very good overall, and compensates for the glossy Gorilla Glass 3 used above the panel. Another high quality material that will keep the screen from scratching.
Touch response is as good if not better than any Windows 8.1 device I have used. And since the device is the right size, you can easily transition from keyboard/trackpad use to touchscreen while in laptop mode. But for the best experience, I prefer switching to stand mode. Stand mode offers the ultimately in lapability. I just perform a quick fold of the keyboard, and I can rest the device on my lap, chest or any nearby surface. No case and definitely no kickstand has provided this sort of flexibility. At 2.5-pounds it is just slightly heavier than a Surface Pro 2 with a Touch Cover 2 attached. In other words, you can hold it and use it just as well as you can a Surface. Being larger than a Pro 2, it feels less dense and therefore lighter than it really is. Thanks to the carbon fiber and aluminum, you can pick it up with on hand, in any mode, and not hear or feel a creak or flex. The device is rock solid in any form.
Audio performance was found to be surprisingly clear, full and loud. Believe or not there is actual bass. Maybe because the keyboard area is sealed? But everything sounds amazing, and Dell offers an app to tweak the sound tons of ways. You can boost bass, treble, dialog, surround and volume. Separate audio profiles can be created, but you’d have to manually change them. 20% volume sounds great while working in laptop mode and listening to Xbox Music. 50-70% is good for me while the device is in stand mode and on my bed. In stand mode, the speakers are further away from you. There are a plethora of microphone settings as well, and the stereo mics perform admirably. I did notice an odd audio bug that appears to correct itself when audio settings are reset to default. Audio would become highly distorted for a few moments until the audio settings were reset.
I don’t want to get started on software in this review. If you are reading this, you are likely aware of Windows 8.1 and the way desktop and Modern UI apps perform. I plan to visit the software experience when I review Windows 8.1 Update next month. I would like to point out that Modern UI apps look great and scale better than their desktop counterparts. Office scales very well, and VLC works fine, but the on screen buttons and control bar appear very small. I’ll have more to come, but no showstoppers have been found yet. In general, everything looks good, sounds good and feels good. The industrial design allows you to look good using the device in any mode you choose.
Coworkers were impressed by the build quality and design Dell applied here. This device is a standout wherever I take it. At home, at work and out and about, the XPS 11 looks modern. Luckily, underneath the premium finish is power. The Haswell i5 with 4GB RAM and 128GB SSD inside has quickly become a standard. It allows enough performance for most tasks, and the efficiency to last anywhere between 4-8 hours. Usage definitely affects how well a device like the XPS 11 holds up. For my use cases, I couldn’t be happier. It replaces two devices, and offers a superior audio, visual and productivity experience. Starting at $999, my unit’s configuration runs around $1249.