Dell XPS 11 review: Convertible ultrabook is more tablet than notebook

The Dell XPS 11 is a portable Windows computer with a fast processor, long battery life, and a high resolution display. Dell calls the machine a 2-in-1 ultrabook, but emphasizes that it features a tablet-first design.

Open up the lid and you’ve got what looks like a normal notebook. But push the lid back 360 degrees until the screen and the keyboard are back-to-back, and you have a tablet. The idea is that you have the best of both worlds: a touchscreen tablet when you want it and a keyboard for laptop functionality when you need it.

xps 11 glare

But that keyboard is a mixed blessing. There are no moving parts on the keyboard. Instead it’s a touch-sensitive surface that lets you type by tapping your fingers across the rubbery surface. 

The design makes the keyboard slim and it means your fingers won’t brush against moving keys while holding the computer in tablet mode. But typing in tablet mode takes some getting used to, and in tablet mode the Dell XPS 11 is thicker and heavier than many other tablets.

Dell wants you to think of the XPS 11 as a tablet which happens to have a built-in keyboard that’s always there when you need it. That helps set it apart from many other tablets which are designed to work with removable keyboard.

But it’s not just the keyboard that makes the XPS 11 feel like it should be a premium ultrabook: The system has an Intel Haswell processor, 4GB of RAM, a solid state drive, and a starting price of $1000.

For that kind of money, the XPS 11 doesn’t feel like a tablet that happens to have a keyboard. It kind of feels like an ultrabook that happens to have a crappy keyboard… which is a shame, because in pretty much every other way the XPS 11 seems like a great machine.

Dell loaned me an XPS 11 for the purposes of this review.

Overview

The Dell XPS 11 features an 11.6 inch, 2560 x 1440 pixel 400 nit touchscreen display with 160 degree viewing angles (although in my experience colors look better from some angles than others), measures about 0.6 inches thick and weighs about 2.5 pounds.

For a laptop it’s pretty compact. For a tablet it’s kind of chunky.

xps 11 hinge

The computer has a carbon fiber and aluminum case and a silicone palm rest and touch-sensitive keyboard.

At first glance the system looks like it has a normal, backlit island-style keyboard. But while the keys are slightly raised, they’re not really mechanical keys at all. Instead they’re targets for you to hit with your fingers while typing, but they won’t move at all as you type.

xps 11 keyboard angle_04

On the left side of the computer there’s a USB 3.0 port and an HDMI port, a headset jack, AC adapter port, a speaker, and volume buttons.

xps 11 ports

The left side features another USB 3.0 port, an SD card reader, and another speaker.

xps 11 side angle

The power button is placed in an interesting spot. If you hold the computer in tablet mode, it’s right at the top, where you’d often find tablet power buttons.

xps 11 power button_02

But this means that in laptop mode the power button is on the front edge of the keyboard base.

xps 11 power button

Dell’s convertible isn’t the first 2-in-1 machine that transitions from laptop to tablet and back, but this model has a patent-pending hinge design which features two separate hinges that allow you to fold the screen back 360 degrees.

It’s a compact, but sturdy design and it doesn’t feel any more likely to break than the hinges on most normal laptops.

xps 11 netflix

The demo unit Dell sent me features an Intel Core i5-4210y Haswell processor, Intel HD 4200 graphics 4GB of RAM, and a 128 GB solid state drive. It supports 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, an HD webcam and a 40Whr battery.

This configuration sells for about $1300 (or $1184 from Amazon). Dell also offers a cheaper model with a Core i3-4020y processor and 80GB SSD for about $1000.

xps 11 bottom

Dell doesn’t expect you to replace the battery or upgrade the memory or storage yourself. Like most recent thin and light machines, the XPS 11 has a single panel covering the back. This one is held in place by 10 screws — and they’re not designed to be opened using a typical Phillips or flathead screwdriver — you would need a special star-shaped model. If you need more storage space you can use a removable SDXC card.

Performance

Dell designed the XPS 11 as a tablet with the functionality of a laptop rather than the other way around. It’s designed to be thin and light, and while the keyboard is serviceable for light typing duties, you might not want to use this machine to type your next novel.

But thanks to its 11.5 watt Intel Haswell processor, this machine offers the kind of performance you’d expect from an ultrabook along with the kind of battery life you’d expect from a tablet.

xps 11 screen res_02

 

It runs circles around Intel Atom-powered tablets like the Dell Venue 8 Pro or Asus Transformer Pad T100 while offering better battery life than ultrabooks from yesteryear with Intel Ivy Bridge or Sandy Bridge processors… although some of those older models actually offer more raw CPU power than you get with a low-power Haswell system like the Del XPS 11.

While the XPS 11 isn’t exactly the best choice if you’re looking for a gaming laptop, it handles most of the CPU-intensive tasks I could throw at it with ease, including audio and video encoding, file compression. It also scored reasonably well in graphics benchmarks, suggesting you could use it to play some older PC games with ease.

lilbench

While the Dell XPS 11 has a 4th-gen Intel Core i5 processor, it uses a low-power version of Intel’s chipset. So it’s not too surprising that in some tests the XPS 11 trailed behind a Lenovo IdeaPad U310 featuring a 3rd-gen Intel Core i5 chip. It’s worth noting that the Lenovo laptop uses a 17W chip though, while Dell’s convertible tablet has an 11.5W processor.

Still, in those same tests, which involved using VirtualDub to compress a video file, WinLAME to compress an audio file, and 7zip to compress a large number of files, the Dell XPS 11 performed significantly faster than the Asus Transformer Book T100 with its Intel Atom processor and almost as fast as my Samsung Series 9 ultrabook with a 2nd-generation 17W Intel Core i5 CPU.

I’ve been running these same tests for half a decade though, so I recently decided to shake things up by trying a more modern performance test.

handbreak bench

Handbrake encodes the same video file as VirtualDub in a fraction of the time — and makes better use of the Dell XPS 11’s hardware. When using Handbrake’s H.264 video encoder, the Dell XPS 11 was the fastest system in my comparison — and it was more than 3 times as fast as the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Lite, a recent system with an AMD Temash quad-core processor.

I didn’t run the Handbrake test on the Lenovo laptop before sending it back, but the Dell system also outperforms the Intel Atom and Intel Core i5 Sandy Bridge systems in the H.264 encoding test. When using Handbrake’s FFMPEG encoder the Dell and Samsung Series 9 systems are neck-and-neck, but both are much faster than the low-cost Asus Transformer Book T100 or the mid-range Samsung Ativ Book 9 Lite.

3dmark_02

One thing that Samsung ATIV Book 9 Lite does have going for it is its integrated Radeon HD graphics which help it perform reasonably well on graphics benchmarks… but not as well as the Dell XPS 11. Neither machine is designed for playing bleeding edge games, but based on their 3DMark scores, both should be able to handle some older titles and maybe even some newer games.

Sheer horsepower is only one way to measure performance though. In day-to-day use, I was able to surf the web with more than a dozen browser tabs open without encountering any problems. The Dell XPS 11 boots in seconds and resumes from sleep even more quickly. And it launches most applications (including notoriously slow-loading software such as image editor GIMP) pretty quickly.

Despite the energy-efficient processor, the system does have a fan — and you will hear it from time to time. The fan kicked in pretty heavily when I was running 3DMark as it helped keep the system cool.

If the XPS 11 were a laptop with a traditional keyboard, it would be one of the best I’ve used. It’s thin, light, gets decent battery life of up to  7 hours, and while it doesn’t have the fastest processor on the market in early 2014, it’s got an energy-efficient CPU that’s fast enough for most of the tasks I normally throw at a PC. It doesn’t hurt that it seems to have as much CPU power as my 2-year-old laptop while offering better graphics performance, longer battery life, and a higher-resolution display.

But the Dell XPS 11 isn’t just an ultrabook. It’s designed more like a tablet and the unusual keyboard feels like more of an afterthought. If you need a system with a physical keyboard, Dell recommends you look at the Dell XPS 12 instead. That model is also a 2-in-1 that sells for $1000 and up. But it’s a bit thicker and heavier, has a bigger battery, and features a more traditional keyboard.

Dell recommends this model for folks looking for a tablet that can be used as a laptop from time to time, and the XPS 12 for customers that need a laptop that can be used as a tablet… and I get the feeling that Dell is really trying to make that distinction clear after a number of early reviews of the XPS 11 panned the system for its keyboard.

But it’s kind of hard not to — one of the things that makes a Windows tablet attractive as an alternative to an iPad or Android tablet is the ability to run full desktop apps such as Office, Photoshop (or LibreOffice and GIMP for free software enthusiasts). And if you want to run desktop apps, you’ll probably want to use the included keyboard and touchpad. 

The XPS 11 also supports digital pen input, but a pen wasn’t provided with my demo unit, so I haven’t had a chance to test pen performance.

Tablet notes

Open the lid on the Dell XPS 11 and it looks like a laptop. Keep pushing the lid back until it’s behind the keyboard and the system will automatically shut off the keyboard so the backlit keys don’t glow and brushing your fingers against them won’t do anything.

xps 11 kindle

In this mode, you can hold the system like a normal tablet… albeit a kind of big one. At 2.5 pounds, the Dell XPS 11 is 2.5 times the weight of an iPad Air and its 11.6 inch display is big enough to make the tablet a bit more awkward to hold — particularly if you’re trying to hold it in one hand. It works pretty well when propped up against your lap for reading, web surfing, or other activities though.

Windows 8.1 has often been described as an operating system with a bit of a split personality. It supports both touchscreen gestures and keyboard and mouse input. But when you’re using a Windows tablet as a tablet, the operating system actually works pretty well.

Turn on the XPS 11 and you’re greeted with a touch-friendly start screen. Choose some apps from the Windows Store and they’ll show up on your start screen and launch in full-window mode, taking advantage of the computer’s 2560 x 1440 screen to display crystal clear images, videos, and other graphics.

xps 11 on-screen keyboard

Things get a little murkier when you try to load apps that weren’t designed for tablet mode. For instance if you prefer Firefox to Internet Explorer or Chrome, the makers of the web browser have abandoned plans for a Windows tablet app. So you’ll have to launch Firefox in desktop mode — and every time you want to enter text in the browser you’ll have to tap the on-screen keyboard icon to bring up a keyboard, then close the keyboard manually to make it go away.

Meanwhile, if Chrome isn’t set as your default browser, you can only use it in desktop mode… and you have the opposite problem. Every time you tap a text box the on-screen keyboard will pop up, whether you want it to or not. This happens even if the physical keyboard is open and you’re using the XPS 11 in laptop mode.

If you’re only planning to use Windows tablet apps (and are OK with the fact that there aren’t yet as many of these as there are Android or iOS tablet apps), the Dell XPS 11 offers a pretty decent experience.

The Netflix and Kindle apps work nicely — although you’ll want to make sure to position the screen so that colors don’t look washed out.

xps 11 colors_01

Dell says the system has 160 degree viewing angles, but when you tilt the screen far enough the color saturation starts doing strange things.

xps 11 colors_02

Windows tablets have a few nice perks including the ability to run multiple apps side-by-side in separate windows. And you don’t need a keyboard or touchpad to get things done thanks to gestures such as swiping down from the top of the screen to close an app or swiping from left to switch between running apps.

xps 11 multi-app

But $1000 or more is a lot to spend on a system if you only plan to use it to do things you could probably do just as well on an iPad or Android tablet. So what about laptop mode?

Laptop notes

Let’s ignore the keyboard for a second and consider the Dell XPS 11 as a thin and light laptop with a low-power, moderate-performance processor (and the ability to function as a tablet). In that light, there’s a lot to like about this system.

xps 11 angle

It gets decent battery life. It offers decent performance. It has a high resolution display (which is a bit of a mixed blessing at a times, but generally a good thing). And it offers more ports than you’ll find on many ultrathin laptops, including a full-sized HDMI port and a full-sized SDXC card slot.

The machine feels pretty sturdy — although the display does wobble a bit if you reach up to touch the screen while using the system in laptop mode.

The touchpad below the keyboard is nice and wide but I haven’t noticed myself accidentally swiping it and moving the cursor with my palm while typing.

xps 11 keyboard full

And the magnesium, aluminum, and silicone materials used give the laptop a soft, warm feel while the Gorilla Glass screen helps protect the display from scratches.

If it weren’t for the odd keyboard setup, my biggest complaint would probably be that not all Windows apps look great on a display with 253 pixels per inch.

Windows 8 tablet apps run great in full-screen mode. And if you use the “Make text and other items larger or smaller” option in desktop mode you can make sure the taskbar and desktop icons look good and that toolbars for most apps aren’t too tiny to see.

make text smaller

But not all Windows apps have been adapted for high-PPI screens. For instance the main toolbar for GIMP looks fine, but all of the icons in the Toolbox and Layers windows are incredibly tiny on the 2560 x 1440 pixel display.

gimp tiny

As time goes by a growing number of Windows apps do add support for higher pixel densities. But if you’re thinking of picking up a machine like the Dell XPS 11 in hopes of using a 10-year-old Windows app, be prepared for it to look like a postage stamp.

Still, it’s nice to have the option of adjusting the Windows settings from time to time if you want to run a few apps side by side so you can take notes in one window while watching a video or reading websites in the other. This is something that can be tricky to do on a laptop with a 1366 x 768 pixel display. Overall, I’d choose the higher-resolution display and I see Dell’s 253 PPI screen as a plus rather than a minus — it’d just be nice if it didn’t occasionally cause problems with older Windows software.

OK… now that we’re done ignoring the elephant in the room, let’s talk a bit more about the keyboard.

xps 11 keyboard angle_02

Dell isn’t the first company to offer a touch-sensitive keyboard as an alternative to a physical keyboard. Microsoft also offers an optional Touch Cover for its Surface tablets. It’s thinner and lighter than the company’s Type Cover… but at least Microsoft offers a Type Cover.

The XPS 11 doesn’t have an optional keyboard. It has a keyboard that’s always attached. That means you won’t accidentally leave the keyboard at home — which is a good thing if you plan to use the keyboard a lot. But I think it would take a very special sort of person to really enjoy using this keyboard a lot if you plan to do much more than type URLs into a web browser or compose short notes.

Since the buttons don’t physically move when you touch them, it’s not always easy to tell if you’ve pressed a key. This can easily lead to typos — I found I was prone to not hitting the space bar, probably because it blends in with the non-touch-sensitive area above the touchpad.

kb settings

Out of the box Dell attempts to make up for the lack of tactile feedback by providing a bit of aural feedback. Every time you press a key, the computer will play a clicking sound. It’s kind of helpful… but annoying as all get-out. One of the first things I did after discovering the keyboard settings menu (which pops up when you press the F10 key) is to disable the clicking sound.

The same keyboard settings menu also lets you adjust touch sensitivity. I found that switching from Heavy Touch to Light Touch made typing a bit easier. Initially I found myself pressing the keys so hard that my fingers started to hurt after a while. Even with the system set to Light Touch, I probably tap the touch-sensitive keys harder than I would actual keys because some part of my subconscious mind seems to want to make sure the XPS 11 doesn’t miss a keystroke.

xps 11 keyboard angle_03

The fake keys are well spaced, clearly marked, and backlit for ease of use in low-light environments. But typing on the Dell XPS 11 feels like a chore. I’d almost prefer to type using the on-screen keyboard, except it has a habit of covering up half the screen so you can’t see what you’re typing.

The Dell XPS 11 would be an excellent laptop if it had a better keyboard. But it doesn’t. So it’s not.

Verdict

Dell positions the XPS 11 as a premium tablet that has a keyboard as a bonus feature. But I kind of have to wonder how big the market is for high-priced tablets with crappy keyboards. The typing experience is bad enough that the Dell XPS 11 feels like a companion device for your real PC, whether that’s a laptop or a desktop. But the review unit Dell sent me is priced at $1300 which is more money than I’ve paid for a laptop or desktop PC in at least 10 years.

xps 11 buttons

The Dell XPS 11 has the makings of a great machine thanks to its compact design, speedy but low power processor, and high quality display. If it were half the price, it’d be easy to recommend as a companion to your primary PC. But at $1000 and up, it’s tough to recommend.

But if you’re looking for a tablet you might be bet better off with another device like the Dell Venue 11 Pro, which has a 10.8 inch, 1920 x 1080 pixel display and a choice of an Intel Atom or Intel Haswell CPU, a starting price of $500, and an optional Bluetooth keyboard. Or if you’re looking for an ultrabook, there are plenty of other thing and light laptops with touchscreen displays, Haswell processors, and price tags in the $1000 range.

xps 11 side_02

I’m hoping that we’ll see more laptops, tablets, and convertibles with some of the XPS 11’s best features in the coming years. I’ve enjoyed spending time watching videos, reading eBooks, and surfing websites on the high-resolution display and I have no complaints about the system’s performance or battery life. I just wish it was more useful for getting serious work done.

  • tk76

    Sounds lie the worst of all worlds. Not sure who would chose this.

  • free_variation

    Makes using Windows desktop apps nearly impossible — yet that’s the only good reason to take this over an iPad. I wonder how this was greenlighted at Dell.

  • artinvent

    Not sure what on earth Dell is thinking here. Would far far rather have a detachable kb unit – so the tablet is much lighter; and a kb with real moving keys.

    Agree with tx76 – this is the worst of both worlds.

    Weird, because the Venue 11 gets those two things right and looks like maybe the best Windows convertible on the market. Please Dell just keep going with that concept, that’s the money.

  • http://rct.me.ht/ crashsuit

    FYI, the XPS 11 stylus is the same Synaptics one used with the Venue Pro 8 & 11. I agree with you that the Venue Pro 11 is superior to the XPS 11. For the same price as the XPS 11, you could get the Venue Pro 11 with an i5-4300y and its optional extended-battery keyboard dock.

  • http://www.windows8tabletsreview.com/ Windows8Tablets

    This tablet is way over priced. I don’t like the keyboard, at this price it should be a real keys. Come on. Is it me, why does it look so dirty.

  • Will MacCormac

    Dell = shit service!! I ordered an XPS 12 and it never showed up. Order acknowledged and no further contact. Only after I called them to find out where my laptop was did they tell me there was an issue with their system , and to re order. No thanks!