Dell is making a bold move on the emerging tablet market by getting the inventive new Inspiron Duo into consumers' hands just as the holiday shopping season kicks into high gear.
Unlike traditional convertible tablets, which have screens that rotate 180 degrees horizontally, the $549 Inspiron Duo screen flips 180 degrees vertically; it's hinged in the middle of the lid. When the screen is flipped over and the lid closed, the system launches a touch-friendly interface for interacting with photos, videos, and music (and returns to the basic Windows desktop when the transformation is reversed).
Despite the inventive construction and decent software design, the Duo is far from perfect. This is essentially a Netbook, and even though it has the latest dual-core Intel N550 Atom CPU and 2GB of RAM, it feels slow at times, especially in tablet mode, perhaps exacerbated by the overhead added by the touch hardware.
The system works best when paired with its optional dock, which provides better speakers for music and video playback, useful ports, and holds the system upright for use as an Internet appliance. Thanks to a middling battery, however, it doesn't meet our needs as a portable go-anywhere laptop.
|Price as reviewed||$549|
|Processor||1.5GHz Intel Atom N550|
|Memory||2GB, 1333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||320GB 7,200rpm|
|Graphics||Intel GMA 3150|
|Operating System||Windows 7 Home Premium|
|Dimensions (WD)||11.2 x 7.7 inches|
|Height||1.0 - 1.1 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||10.1 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3.0/3.5 pounds|
At first glance, the Duo doesn't look all that different from other Netbooks in Dell's Inspiron line, except for a thick line around the display, inset about an inch from the edge of the lid. That's the cutout for the rotating screen, and this final hardware version had a swiveling hinge that felt tighter and more secure than on an earlier prerelease demo unit we tried.
You still have to take care to turn the screen only in the correct direction, essentially pushing the top of the screen back through the lid. Also, when flipping the screen back, it's important to make sure the system is open wide enough so you don't smack the bottom of the screen into the keyboard.
That flat-topped island-style keyboard is typical for Dell and other PC makers, and works fine for light typing, but Dell's keys differ slightly from most in that they have gently rounded corners. Our main complaints about the keyboard are its cramped arrow keys and smallish space bar. The touch pad, indented directly into the plastic wrist rest (which has a faux bushed-metal finish), is a decent size for a Netbook, and fortunately has separate left and right mouse buttons.
When flipped into tablet mode, the screen switches to a touch interface, although you can close that and go back to the Windows 7 desktop at any time. The touch interface's large, finger-friendly icons launch custom apps for photos, video, e-books, a paint program, and more.
The apps themselves are laid out well and have big buttons for easy finger-tapping, but each one took an uncomfortably long time to initially launch. Perhaps most importantly, video playback was smooth, thanks to a built-in Broadcom HD chip, but the photo gallery program's pinch-to-zoom function was sluggish. The book reader included several reading modes that zoomed and repaginated pages in different ways but didn't seem designed with this 16:9 display in mind.
Overall, you'll end up waiting too long for these tablet-style programs to launch or respond, and likely won't use them too often, which is a shame, as the design and layout are very nice.
The 10.1-inch display has a native resolution of 1,366x768 pixels, which is what we'd expect to see on a more upscale 10-inch Netbook. Video and images looked decent, but off-axis viewing was an issue. Passable from the sides, it wasn't much worse than many other low-cost laptops, but the image faded quickly when viewed from even slightly above or below (which could be an issue with a screen that swivels up and down).
The built-in speakers were surprisingly loud--good enough, at least, for movie playback to a small audience. But even better-sounding was the optional JBL speaker dock accessory. It adds $100 to the cost of the system, but it also holds the Duo at a good angle for video viewing, or use as a digital photo frame or for touch-screen music playback. Plug the Inspiron Duo into the dock and it asks you if you want to display a digital photo frame mode or switch to a desk clock view, with an animated aquarium background.
|Dell Inspiron Duo||Average for category [Netbook]|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 2.0, SD card reader||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
The Duo is surprisingly thin on ports and connections, choosing to offload many of the standard features one would expect to the optional $100 docking station (which makes it much less optional). This includes an SD card slot and Ethernet jack, which are both found on the dock but not on the system itself, and any kind of video output, which is missing from both the Duo and the dock.
There's one other odd accessory note. The built-in Webcam is part of the screen bezel, so when the display is flipped into tablet mode, the camera disappears and is unusable.
With a 1.5GHz Intel Atom N550 processor, we'd expect performance about on par with other 10-inch Netbooks. The dual-core version of Intel's Atom, though long-awaited, hasn't completely lived up to our expectations, and in the systems we've reviewed that feature it, performance isn't noticeably better in many circumstances than the single-core Atoms, which have been seeming a bit long in the tooth lately.
We could normally get away with it for basic computing tasks, but when you consider that the Duo has to power a higher-resolution touch screen with only the Atom N550 and basic Intel integrated graphics (although there's a Broadcom video chip to help with video playback), the sluggish performance makes sense. That said, when set up as a traditional laptop, the Inspiron Duo performs about as well as other Netbooks. It's only the touch-interface tools that seem especially slow.
Those looking for the kind of instant-gratification tactile feedback provided by the iPad shouldn't get their hopes up. Tablets need either much more powerful components, or operating systems designed for their hardware, instead of touch interfaces slapped over Windows 7.