Dell XPS 18

If three examples of the same thing marks a trend, then we’re almost guaranteed to see more systems like the Dell XPS 18. Like the Sony Vaio Tap 20 and the Asus Transformer AIO, the XPS 18 is a hybrid of the all-in-one desktop and the large-format tablet.

In practical terms, that means this is an all-in-one PC with a built-in battery that detaches from its included stand. You can keep it docked, in which case it’s virtually indistinguishable from other AIO systems, or pick the 18-inch display up and go from room to room, or farther if you’re feeling bold.

Why would you want to do that? We’ve found existing tablets to be very useful for quick information gathering or showing off photos and media, but too small for really sharing efficiently with a group (say, a family).

Unlike a large all-in-one desktop screen-stand combo that needs to be lugged from room to room, the 18-inch touch-screen display on the XPS 18 is easy enough to pick up and carry around. It even has two flip-out feet for standing up on its own, although I wouldn’t count on them as stable enough for permanent use.

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The second major use for a system such as this is as a tabletop PC. That top-down view still smacks of retro-futurism, an idea most at home in ’80s sci-fi movies or else reminiscent of cocktail table arcade cabinets. In anecdotal use, we had some fun with the XPS 18 lying flat on its back, facilitating some basic two-player touch-friendly games — although the Microsoft app store doesn’t make games of this ilk easy to find, and the screen’s top coating had too much finger drag to really work for fast-packed air hockey/Pong-style games.

Behind the 18-inch, 1,920×1,080-pixel screen, you’re dealing with an Intel Core i5-3337U processor, which is a laptop CPU, plus a 500GB hard drive/32GB solid-state drive (SSD) combination, and 8GB of RAM. A perfectly usable configuration, but not what one might expect for $1,350 from a standard all-in-one desktop. These all-in-one/tablet hybrids still command a price premium, especially considering that you don’t get an optical drive or GPU beyond Intel’s integrated HD 4000.

Less expensive configurations include $1,000 for a Core i3 version and $900 for a Pentium-class CPU version, the latter of which I can’t imagine recommending under any circumstances. Both of these sub-$1,000 configurations omit the system’s docking stand, which can also be used as a charging base, but all three include a basic wireless keyboard and mouse.

The Dell XPS 18, at least in its too-expensive higher-end configuration, is the best (and best-looking) of the current crop of big-screen tablet/all-in-one PCs, though keep in mind Lenovo and other PC makers have new versions on the way. Its practical applications are debatable, and will be more obvious to some (families and students, perhaps) than others, but it’s certainly fun to play around with.

Design and features
The XPS 18 looks like a smaller all-in-one desktop at first glance. Sitting on a hefty industrial-looking stand is a featureless black screen, with only a Dell logo in the upper left corner and a Windows 8 flag logo below the screen. From the side, it’s as thin as or thinner than most non-tablet all-in-one systems, and feels designed to fade nicely into the background. An 18-inch screen is on the small side for an all-in-one, but conversely it’s large for a tablet, making this either bigger or smaller than you might expect, depending on whether you’re viewing it primarily as a desktop or portable device.

As mentioned above, other examples of this hybrid genre so far have been the 20-inch Sony Vaio Tap 20 and the Asus Transformer AIO, which has an 18.4-inch display. Each of those systems has a near-fatal flaw, making the Dell XPS 18 the best of this new breed. In the case of the Vaio Tap 20, the slightly larger tablet display weighs nearly 12 pounds, while the 18-inch Dell tablet weighs closer to 5 pounds. As you can imagine, the Dell lends itself to casual household carry-around sessions much more easily.

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The Asus Transformer model sits on a gigantic stand, with a full back plate behind the tablet, so it has a giant footprint even in tablet mode. The Transformer is an unwieldy combination of operating systems, switching over to Android and an Nvidia Tegra CPU when detached from its dock. Windows is only available via a virtualized interface, beamed from the base to the tablet. If you think that sounds overly complicated and less than ideal for household use, you’d be right.

That leaves the XPS 18 as the tablet/all-in-one that best represents both sides of its dual nature. Upcoming systems, such as Lenovo’s 27-inch Horizon 27, will challenge it, but we’ll have to wait and see if consumers prefer a large lap-size tablet or a giant tabletop-style one.

The screen of the XPS 18 has a small rubberized border around its outer edge — a nod to the heavily hands-on way Dell expects people to interact with it. Two rubber-and-plastic feet fold out from the rear panel as a kickstand, holding the screen at about a 100-degree angle. It’s reasonably stable, but I wouldn’t use it full time. Unfortunately, anyone buying something other than the top-tier $1,350 configuration will have to shell out another $99 for the metal docking stand.

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That stand is weighted for stability, and has a rotating cradle to hold the actual PC, allowing you to adjust the angle. The system’s power cord can snake into the dock’s hinge and connect, providing power via a connector built into the cradle. Much like the connector on Microsoft’s Surface Pro, it’s a line of raised copper dots that matches up with its counterpart on the bottom edge of the tablet. When it’s connected, a lighted strip on the dock activates, letting you know a connection has been made, which is important, as a little nudging back and forth was often required to seat the tablet on the stand properly.

You can also connect the power cable directly to the tablet, and the power port sits on the left edge, alongside two USB 3.0 ports, a headphone jack, and a volume rocker. The XPS 18 also has a front-facing 720p Webcam, and support for 802.11n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0, and Intel’s Wireless Display.

Included are a prepaired mouse and keyboard. These look like standard Dell pack-ins, and not particularly customized to match the industrial design of the XPS 18. The large plastic mouse, with its arched back and large scroll wheel, feels especially out of place (read: cheap) when placed next to a $1,350 computer. The compact keyboard fares better, with widely spaced, flat-topped keys and a full number pad. The individual keys, slightly rounded at each corner, were clacky under the fingers but offered no flex, even under heavy typing.

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