Dell XPS 12 – The Windows 8 Flagship?

Regular readers of my blog (all two of you) may recall the “series” I started this fall on Windows 8 launch devices (concerning the HP Envy X2 and the Samsung SmartPC Pro 700t). These devices both had strengths, but failed in other ways that made them difficult or impossible to support in an enterprise environment. This month, I got my hands on a device that breaks though that barrier and satisfies in a big way. The new Dell XPS 12 finally arrived on our campus about two weeks ago. We immediately were taken with its light weight (3 lbs.), sleek styling, and novel materials (full carbon fiber base, carbon fiber and aluminum lid, and that unique flip-over touch screen). The 8-second boot time is another impressive feature. A longer battery life would have been appreciated, but I can live with it. Other helpful enhancements would be the inclusion of an active stylus. I also would appreciate slightly more resistance in the keyboard.

Others have weighed in on the appearance, performance, and usability of this fancy Ultrabook, though, so I will forgo further commentary on those aspects of the XPS 12. What most concerned us was the ability to support OS redeployment, BitLocker encryption, and hardware servicing on our Campus.

We unboxed and re-deployed the computer with Windows 8 Enterprise within one day. There were a few deployment hiccoughs, but in general re-deployment was what we have come to expect from Dell. All required drivers for the XPS 12 were made available in a single downloadable CAB file. We extracted this CAB to our MDT/LiteTouch Deployment Share, rebuilt our boot media, and initiated a LiteTouch deployment. There was a brief problem getting LiteTouch to start… we needed to disable the “Safe Boot” option in EFI/BIOS, and we needed to set the EFI boot mode to “Legacy” to allow our boot media to operate. Once those changes were made, the XPS 12 booted to our USB WinPE media without complaint. Upon completion of deployment, all devices in the device manager reported as functioning. There were no “poorly-behaved” drivers that required un-scripted installation. We did find that the track-pad was behaving strangely. Investigation revealed that the PnP process had grabbed a Windows 7 track-pad driver from our deployment share. We corrected this manually, then separated our Windows 8 drivers from our Windows 7 drivers in the Deployment Workbench… this should prevent the problem from recurring in future deployments.

BitLocker was easy to implement. The TPM chip readily was recognized by the OS, and TPM-with-PIN encryption was accomplished in minutes. I spent half a day trying to encrypt an older Dell Latitude E6500 a few months back. This was a breeze by comparison.

On the servicing front, we have good news. Dell now is allowing on-site servicing for all XPS models, with full reimbursement for parts and labor for qualified technicians. Physical serviceability is a big concern for newer Ultrabooks. A troubling trend in tablet and notebook design is the use of solder on drive mounts and glue to hold batteries in place (the latest “Retina” MacBooks and the MS Surface tablets suffer from these problems). Fortunately, it appears that all major components of the XPS 12 can be removed and replaced without the need to re-solder or remove glue. The most frequently swapped components such as the battery, mSATA drive, and memory chips look pretty easy to access. The keyboard is a bit of a pain to get to, but at least it can be serviced.

If only more Windows 8 launch products had been this good… I hope we see more products of this quality coming from Dell (and other vendors) in the near future.

Update:  2013-11-1

Five months into using the XPS 12, I started to have trouble with the trackpad.  It would not click anymore!  Since we are working with an evaluation unit, I do not have warranty coverage, so I figured I had no warranty to void by attempting to repair it on my own.

Some digging in the Dell support site revealed that the so-called XPS 12 “User Manual” is actually a service manual!  The readily available PDF document illustrates step-by step how to remove the carbon fiber base plate and the battery in order to get to the track pad.  (The only challenging part was locating a #5 Torx screwdriver to take off the base plate.)  Within 15 minutes I had removed the click pad, and cleaned the trapped grit out from under it.  (Within a half hour I had the unit re-assembled.  In another 15 minutes I had taken the base plate back off, reconnected the battery power connector, and re-attached the base plate, again.)  The unit powered back on as normal, with the track pad working like new.

At a time when consumer devices are moving towards non-serviceable designs (think MacBook Retina), it is nice to see a device that is thin and light while still maintaining serviceability.  Perhaps the track pad on the MacBook Retina is less prone to trapping grit, but imagine if it did?  With all the components glued together, you might be out $2000 because of a bit of sand.  I really have to hand it to Dell.  These XPS Ultrabooks are really nicely engineered.

 

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