On the Road with Dell’s XPS11 Convertible

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  April 2, 2014

Like many people who travel a lot for work, minimizing the size and weight of personal technology tools is important to me. So the continuing evolution of smart phones has been a major boon—I find I perform more and more business and personal tasks on my Nexus 5 phone every day. But though I’ve used various Windows-based notebooks (currently a Dell XPS13) as my primary business PC for years, I haven’t yet found a Windows-based tablet that really offered the tools I need.

However, I was recently asked to test Dell’s XPS11, a convertible 2-in-1 (notebook/tablet) that the company announced in October 2013 and which Dell claims is the market’s lightest, thinnest 2-in-1 Ultrabook. I’ve been using and traveling with the XPS11 for the past few weeks—long enough to develop an appreciation for its fine points and some opinions on how it could be improved. Here are a few thoughts on my experience.

Starting Out

First off, something to consider regarding 2-in-1 convertibles is just how many are designed to work primarily as notebooks which can undercut their tablet functions. There’s a clear competitive issue at work here among vendors who regard 2-in-1s as products mainly for notebook owners who will occasionally use the tablet mode to read ebooks or watch a video. But that leaves aside the requirements of those who prefer tablet functionality but occasionally need full laptop features for productivity applications and similar solutions.

Rather than picking one approach or the other, Dell has chosen instead to develop discretely different products for each group. For the notebook-first crowd, the company’s XPS12 provides first rate laptop functionality, as well as full-sized keyboard and a somewhat larger display than the XPS11. But it’s also 30% thicker and nearly 1 pound heavier.

Meanwhile, the XPS11 is designed to appeal to mainly tablet/occasional notebook fans with a slim form factor and overall weight coming in at 2.5 pounds (about half a pound less than competing 11” 2-in-1s). Plus, its 0.6” thickness appears to deliver on Dell’s claim of the XPS11 being the market’s thinnest convertible Ultrabook.

Like many of the XPS11’s I’ve seen in the wild, mine arrived with a 4th gen Intel Core i5 1.5 GHz CPU, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, and features Dell’s 11.6″ UltraSharp QHD touch display (2560×1440 or 3.5X times the resolution of HD). Similar to the XPS13, the XPS11 features a narrower than usual bezel which results in the display having more viewable real estate than comparable notebooks and tablets. Like many other touch-enabled solutions, Dell uses Corning’s Gorilla Glass, a practical choice that adds to the displays’ durability.

The XPS11 case also features a carbon fiber composite that provides the case both notable rigidity and lightness. That black carbon fiber composite also lends the XPS11 a professional look that is also quite distinctive. The productivity and web-based applications I depend on performed crisply (including in touch mode), and the connectivity options (two USB 3.0 ports and a full sized HDMI port) are more than adequate to my business needs.

The Dell QHD display is gorgeous visually but also highly reflective, meaning fingerprints tend to show up quickly and often. For my money, the superb image quality makes up for what I consider a minor shortcoming.

Design Choices

The XPS11 gains its “convertibility” from a 360º hinge similar to Lenovo’s Yoga that allows the display to be opened 90º to laptop mode, 270º+ to tent or stand mode (for media viewing/consumption) or all the way back to tablet mode. This makes the XPS11 significantly different than the XPS12, where the display pivots 180º to lay flat on the keyboard. The hinge on the XPS11 feels solid & stable, and likely to stay that way over extended use.

Like other notebooks with 360º hinges, Dell had some serious choices to make regarding keyboard design. Lenovo originally used a traditional mechanical chicklet keyboard for the Yoga but that added both thickness and weight, as well as a danger of keys catching on clothing in tablet mode. The newest generation Yoga sports a mechanism that retracts and flattens the entire keyboard when folded back into tablet mode. It’s a slick piece of engineering but makes me wonder/worry about the likelihood of breakage.

In contrast, Dell chose to use a backlit, solid surface touch keyboard for the XPS11 that’s similar in look/feel to the add-on keyboards many people use with tablets. From an engineering perspective, it an elegant approach that allows Dell to achieve notable thinness and lightness in its overall design (enhancing tablet mode use) and also benefits other key performance features. But the keyboard has been one of the XPS11’s most problematic features, at least among reviewers. More on that later.

For me, battery life is the most important single notebook performance metric and in that the XPS11 delivers the goods. Intel promised when it launched its Ultrabook initiative in 2012 that the goal was to deliver notebooks with all-day battery life and we’re finally seeing that fully achieved in Dell’s XPS11 and a few other current Ultrabooks.

Conversely, I’ve also noticed an increasing attentiveness to mobile computing users among air carriers, hotels, convention facilities and others in terms of power connections and wi-fi access. That’s fine but it’s also great to know that I can use the XPS11 unplugged without worry or concern.

Problematic Issues

As noted above, the XPS11’s solid surface keyboard has been problematic for reviewers who found it erratic and unresponsive—bad qualities in a device that depends so much on touch quality. Since testing isn’t my primary job I tend to use systems longer than many reviewers with the result that I sometimes find solutions that aren’t apparent on first pass.

In the case of the XPS11, I discovered that maximizing the keyboard sensitivity setting (F10) helped enormously. Don’t get me wrong—the keyboard doesn’t reward sloppy typing—a personal failing of mine—but I’m achieving far better results now than I ever originally expected.

Two other problems I found are design-specific. First, the metal/carbon fiber edges of the clamshell halves add to the XPS11’s overall rigidity but they have little if any purchase on slick surfaces, like airplane tray tables. That makes using tent mode all but impossible without a tablecloth, desk blotter or similar material.

Second, the XPS11’s on/off switch is a simple pushbutton on the front edge of the lower half of the clamshell, making it possible to accidently switch off the XPS11 in tent mode—a complaint of several reviewers. I didn’t have a problem with this issue but I could replicate it. Neither of these points is fatal and both could and should be addressed in future XPS11 generations.

Final Analysis

Dell defines its XPS product line as “thin and sleek with premium design and performance, and superior craftsmanship.” The new XPS11 hits all those points with a package that should help to cement Dell’s leadership in Ultrabook design and mobile computing performance. But perhaps more importantly, the XPS11 and the companion XPS12 demonstrate that Dell’s view of 2-in-1s is anything but one dimensional, and that the company is quite willing to adapt its product family and strategy to the convertible needs of individuals and organizations.

That said, some elements and features of the XPS11 could be improved. Neither the lack of purchase on slick surfaces and placement of the on/off switch are deal-breakers but they detract from an otherwise innovative, excellent design. A more critical issue is the solid surface keyboard. Though the performance can certainly be improved with the sensitivity adjustment, I expect many users will have trouble getting past their initial frustration. Bottom line—unless its shortcomings are addressed quickly and adequately, the XPS11’s keyboard could negatively impact sales.

Those points aside, the Dell XPS11 is an attractive, innovative product that comes closer to achieving the fundamental 2-in-1 goal—to work practically and aesthetically as both a notebook and tablet—than any other solution I’ve used. People looking for an ideal combination of compute performance and minimum weight in a distinctive convertible package would do well to consider Dell’s XPS11.

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