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We get our hands on the Dell Inspiron Duo

Dell has captured the imagination of a tablet-crazed public with a new convertible tablet called the Inspiron Duo. We're generally impressed with the design and concept, if less so with the performance.

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Dell has captured the imagination of a tablet-crazed public with a handful of recent photos and details about a new convertible tablet called the Inspiron Duo. A prerelease sample has turned up in the CNET Labs for a hands-on test drive, and we're generally impressed with the design and concept, if less so with the performance.

Unlike traditional convertible tablets, which have screens that rotate 180 degrees horizontally, the Inspiron Duo screen flips 180 degrees vertically--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).

The flipping motion worked well on our demo unit, although the hinge felt a little loose. You 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, the screen occasionally collided with the keyboard with an audible thunk if we weren't careful about opening the laptop body wide enough for proper clearance.

The touch interface has large, finger-friendly icons for photos, video, e-books, a paint program, and more. But the response time when launching tablet-based apps was painfully slow. Thanks to a Broadcom HD chip, video playback was smooth after the first few jittery seconds, but the photo gallery program's pinch-to-zoom function was sluggish.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The interfaces for the different parts of this media hub, however, are pleasingly clean and simple. With zippier hardware it could be a solid multimedia product, and 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 should add around $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 touch-screen music playback. Leave the Inspiron Duo docked for a few minutes and it defaults to a desk clock view, with an animated aquarium background.

Despite the inventive design and decent software interface, 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 painfully slow at times, perhaps exacerbated by the overhead added by the touch hardware.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Those looking for the kind of instant-gratification tactile feedback provided by the iPad shouldn't get their hopes up. Unfortunately, to really be transparent to the user, tablets need either much more powerful components, or operating systems designed for their hardware, instead of touch interfaces slapped over Windows 7.

We'll be running our full gamut of benchmark tests on the Dell Inspiron Duo soon, so stay tuned for the performance and battery life results (according to the built-in Windows battery meter, battery life should last just over three hours).

The system will be available to preorder in about a week, with units purportedly shipping in early December. The base price will be $549, or $649 with the JBL speaker dock.

Related:Dell Duo: Are Windows tablets on the rise?