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An Architect's View

Dell XPS 12 Convertible & Windows 8 - First Impressions

December 19, 2012 ·

Some Background

No doubt much to many people's surprise, I recently bought a Windows machine. I've used every version of Windows since 3.1 but I've always preferred Apple's offerings, both in terms of hardware and software. Before OS X, I ran a BSD variant alongside System 6 and System 7, so my Macs have always been *nix plus a nice GUI. I've found that to be a good balance for developer machines. Having moved to a powerful desktop Mac several years back, I bought a Linux netbook for $400 so I had a small, lightweight developer machine for when I was on the road. Two years later, the netbook has gotten flaky in several ways, it's always been underpowered and the tiny screen has annoyed me more the longer I've used it.

I've also become increasingly jealous of my wife's iPad for the convenience of a casual Internet device for social media, email and web browsing - coupled with an eBook reader, as I've built up a substantial library of technical books in PDF form.

So I really wanted a tablet that was powerful enough to use as a full development system, running Apache, Tomcat, Railo, Clojure, MySQL, MongoDB and a custom search engine. A 64-bit Intel core i7 with at least 8GB RAM. The obvious observation is that Apple don't make sure a device. They make a MacBook Air that satisfies some of those criteria and they make an iPad that satisfies some of the other criteria. I didn't want two devices tho' and, besides, that was going to blow my budget (about $1,500).

The new flood of Windows 8 machines appearing did satisfy my criteria, however, and having played with Windows 8 in prerelease form in a VM on my Mac, I felt it could be a reasonable touch O/S and might also be an acceptable development machine, given enough *nix utilities loaded (or, heck, I could just run VirtualBox and CentOS or Ubuntu for development).

Ordering From Dell

I'm used to buying all sorts of things online so buying from Dell wasn't really any different to buying from Apple. I ordered the XPS 12 Convertible with an Intel core i7 processor, 8GB RAM and 128GB SSD. Dell estimated delivery on 12/7, about 2-3 weeks out. As the date neared, the estimate changed to 12/14. Annoying but not unexpected - it looked like a popular machine and it was new. Then I received an email alert saying that instead of being delivered in January, it would be delivered as soon as 12/24. I replied, asking for clarification, since I had received no indication of a January delivery date. A few days later, Dell called me directly to apologize profusely for the delay and confirm that my machine would be delivered before Christmas. They assured me the website would be updated shortly to correct the delivery date. I didn't really get the clarification I wanted - it was Indian support - but the apology was sincere. In the "learn something new every day" department, if a company changes delivery date more than once, the Federal Trade Commission requires the company get permission from the customer to accept the new, delayed date, otherwise the order must be canceled. The 12/24 delivery date became a 12/20 delivery date and then it shipped on 12/14 with delivery scheduled for 12/17. It arrived just after 2pm.


I'm used to Apple's very elegant boxes and the delight of unwrapping well-designed packaging and equipment. How does Dell compare? Three layers: a plain brown outer box, a briefcase-like carrying box and inside that, a nicely designed presentation box containing the laptop, the power supply and a small box containing a simple "Getting Started" brochure. Clean and elegant. Encouraging. Time to plug in and power up.

Powering Up

When you first power up an Apple machine, it connects to your network, updates its software and takes you thru a personalization process, followed by an optional walk-through of basic usage, and then you're off to the races. In the past, Windows machines have been a long way behind the slickness of the Apple welcome process. With Windows 8, Microsoft has caught up and the experience is every bit as smooth as Apple's. Network connectivity, personalization and updates are all processed in a straightforward manner. It's not as flashy as Apple, but it works well. It does seem to take quite a bit longer than I'm used to with Apple tho'.

Initial Usability

Windows 8 is going to take some getting used to for a lot of people. The tile-based start page and the standard applications are all very clean and fairly consistent. Once you've learned the basic gestures, everything works the same way. Drag from the right, you get the "charms" menu with search and settings etc for all apps. Drag from the left to return to the previous app. Drag from the left and back to the edge to get a menu of recent applications. Drag from the top or bottom edge to get the in-app context menu. The design is bare, with slabs of plain color, and simple back / forward buttons. Then there's the "Desktop" application which offers a Windows 7 style desktop with a taskbar and "regular" Windows applications. The start menu has gone but I'm a Mac guy so I don't miss it - you might. What I really do like about Windows 8 which I think is a huge improvement in usability is that when the start page is displayed, you can just start typing the name of a file, application or setting and results are displayed as you type. Changing system-wide environment variables was always a pain on Windows as far as I was concerned. With Windows 8, it's as simple as typing "env", pressing down arrow twice (applications, then settings), pressing return - which brings up two options - pressing down arrow to select system-wide environment variables and pressing return to open that dialog. No more hunting around in menus, no navigating thru the Control Panel, just obvious typing and arrow keys. Setting up my basic development environment on Windows 8 was a breeze and almost entirely keyboard-driven - I liked that a lot!

I'll blog later on the tweaks I've made, based on recommendations from folks like Matt Harrington of Microsoft and Scott Hanselman.

The Dell Hardware

What about the machine itself? In laptop mode, it's a nice, lightweight machine with a decent backlit keyboard, a reasonable trackpad with left/right clickable zones, and a 1920x1080 display (compare that to the MacBook Air - 1440x900 on the 13" model!). A gentle press on the screen releases it from its frame and it pivots so you can fold it flat, at which point you have a slim, high-resolution tablet with a responsive touch screen. The on-screen touch keyboard is a little weird - it wasn't long before I enabled the "standard" keyboard layout in order to be more productive - but mostly it works pretty well. I'd be interested to hear how touch typists get on with the split keyboard ("thumb mode") but it doesn't work for me. The carbon-fiber casing is plenty cool enough to sit on your lap all evening - an improvement on "hot" Apple laptops. It's a little heavy to hold in your hands as a tablet (no surprise) but it's still very usable in that form factor. It is substantially heavier than an iPad - but it has a much bigger screen so the trade off seems reasonable to me.

What Next?

I have some basic development software installed to provide a reasonable Clojure / Haskell environment. I have some way to go before I can run my entire "work" stack locally. I'll blog about this in more detail over the coming weeks.

Overall I am very pleased with this machine (and operating system) so far!

Tags: dell · personal · windows8

9 responses

  • 1 Kerr // Dec 19, 2012 at 5:35 AM

    Good to see your Windows 8 experience has been positive, especially through the lens of a longtime Mac user. For Mac users, it's obvious why Microsoft made this change in direction. Longtime Windows users tend to get up in arms about losing things like the Start button, but a design idiom from the early 1990's is bound to make an exit at some point.

    I'm interested to hear hour your full development stack runs on this new machine. Given the specs, it sounds like you'll be all right.
  • 2 David McGuigan // Dec 20, 2012 at 8:44 AM

    I'm actually a little bit startled at how overwhelmingly postitive your first impression has been. Sounds like an impressive machine.

    You'll have to comment specifically on whether you feel more productive developing on Windows. I know that in my experience any Win laptop I've used whatsoever has been more performant and responsive feeling than my macs have and it ends up creating a sense of increased productivity and ease in developing. Better database tools, the IDEs ( even identical ones like Sublime Text 2 ) feel more precise and enabling, and everything just seems snappier and more instant. Excited to read the follow ups.
  • 3 Sean Corfield // Dec 20, 2012 at 10:15 PM

    @David, with a core i7 and 8GB RAM, I expected it to be fairly high performance - I'm used to a core i7 with 16GB RAM on my desktop. The SSD makes a big difference to a lot of operations, compared to a regular HD. When I installed the Java 7 JDK, I was amazed at how fast the installer completed - and other installations have been similarly impressive.

    As for general productivity, my tool chain is exactly the same on the Dell to what I use on my Mac: Java, Leiningen for Clojure, Emacs for editing, Ant for automation, Tomcat, Railo, Apache, MySQL, MongoDB etc. I'm still working on getting it all to run smoothly since our tool chain has been designed for Mac and Linux :)
  • 4 Jeromy // Feb 21, 2013 at 8:56 AM

    Ok, it's been a couple of months. How do you like Windows 8? The XPS-12? Is it holding up as a development environment?
  • 5 Sean Corfield // Feb 21, 2013 at 2:34 PM

    @Jeromy, you're right, I owe folks a follow up after a couple of months of use... I'll write that up when I get a chance. I'm still enjoying the machine but it does have a couple of annoying quirks:

    The touch screen sometimes just randomly stops working - a known Dell issue, apparently. Sometimes it just stops working in one app, sometimes in all apps. Sometimes switching apps makes it start working again, sometimes you have to put it to sleep and wake it up to restore touch.

    The touchpad is slightly too sensitive and often does a click-drag when I just want a drag - or two separate clicks. I'm used to using my left thumb to click and my right fingers to drag, which is part of the problem :)

    Otherwise, it's a nice fast machine and eminently usable for development. Java startup seems slower than on my i7 non-SSD desktop Mac tho' - I notice that mostly when starting a REPL in Emacs, and git integration seems slower in Emacs too so maybe it's just a lag starting a shell process? On screen fonts are less readable than Mac fonts (that's always been an issue with Windows, IMO). I have Java, Clojure, Groovy, Scala, Node.js, Racket, Standard ML, Haskell and a few other language environments on it now. It'll have Ruby on it soon as well.

    One blocker so far is Ant which behaves differently for variable substitution on Windows to Mac/Linux... A problem I'm still debugging.
  • 6 Simon Smith // Apr 21, 2013 at 10:42 AM

    I thought you might find this video I did regarding the XPS touch pad and touch screen issue. I'd be interested to know if you find the earthing has an effect too.
  • 7 Sean Corfield // Apr 21, 2013 at 7:07 PM

    @Simon, interesting. I have noticed some funkiness occasionally with the touch screen and touch pad but hadn't made any connection to a potential earthing issue. I'll pay attention to it next time I have a problem and see if that is related...
  • 8 Simon Mark Smith // Apr 22, 2013 at 12:12 AM

    Thank you Sean, I look forward to hearing about what you find.
    Best wishes
    Simon Smith
  • 9 Sean Corfield // Apr 30, 2013 at 8:39 PM

    @Simon, over the last week I've paid careful attention to when the touchscreen / touchpad are playing up and...

    For me, it's just as likely to happen when I'm not plugged in as when I am - and it also doesn't seem to have any correlation to whether I'm touching another metal part of the computer or not.

    So I think I would conclude that you are definitely suffering from an earthing problem, based on your video evidence, but it is not a universal problem.