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Dell Inspiron Duo review: Dell Inspiron Duo

Dell Inspiron Duo

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
7 min read

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.

Dell Inspiron Duo

Dell Inspiron Duo

The Good

Inventive design; finger-friendly touch interface; reasonably priced.

The Bad

Sluggish software; no SD card slot, Ethernet jack, or video output; unimpressive battery life.

The Bottom Line

With zippier hardware and a better battery, the flip-screen Dell Inspiron Duo could be a solid multimedia tablet/laptop combo.

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
Chipset Intel NM10
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
Category Netbook

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]
Video None VGA
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
Expansion None None
Networking 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive None None

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.

Juice box
Dell Inspiron Duo Average watts per hour
Off (60%) 0.6
Sleep (10%) 0.83
Idle (25%) 6.13
Load (05%) 16.49
Raw kWh number 24.53
Annual power consumption cost $2.78

Annual power consumption cost
Dell Inspiron Duo
Samsung NF310-A01

Any Netbook worth a look should run 4 or more hours on a single charge; after all, these portable systems are designed to travel with you all day, and use very low-power components. However, in our video playback battery drain test, the Dell Inspiron Duo ran for only 2 hours and 18 minutes. Even making allowances for the power overhead the touch screen requires, that's not nearly long enough for a 10-inch laptop.

Dell includes a very basic one-year warranty with the Inspiron Duo. Adding in-home service costs $50, and expanding that in-home service plan to three years is $239 (or for $250, you can include accidental damage protection). Dell's Web-based tech support sections are generally easy to find and well-organized, with driver updates, FAQS, and online chat.

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Dell Inspiron Duo
Samsung NF310-A01

Jalbum photo conversion test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Samsung NF310-A01
Dell Inspiron Duo

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Dell Inspiron Duo
Samsung NF310-A01

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Samsung NF310-A01
Dell Inspiron Duo

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Samsung NF310-A01
Dell Inspiron Duo

Find out more about how we test laptops.

System configurations:

Dell Inspiron Duo
Windows 7 Home Premium; 1.5GHz Intel Atom N550 Dual-Core; 2048MB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz; 256MB (Shared) Intel GMA 3150; 320GB Seagate 7,200rpm

Samsung NF310-A01
Windows 7 Starter; 1.5GHz Intel Atom N550 Dual-Core; 1024MB DDR2 SDRAM 1066MHz; 256MB (Shared) Intel GMA 3150; 250GB Hitachi 5,400rpm

Gateway LT3201u
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 1.7GHz AMD Athlon II Neo K125; 2048MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 384MB (Dedicated) ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4225; 250GB Hitachi 5,400rpm

Acer Aspire One D255-1203
Windows 7 Starter; 1.5GHz Intel Atom N550 Dual-Core; 1024MB DDR3 SDRAM 1066MHz; 256MB (Shared) Intel GMA 3150; 250GB Western Digital 5,400rpm

Asus Eee PC 1015PN
Windows 7 Starter; 1.5GHz Intel Atom N550 Dual-Core; 1024MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 512MB Nvidia ION; 250GB Western Digital 5,400rpm

HP Mini 5103
Windows 7 Professional; 1.5GHz Intel Atom N550 Dual-Core; 2048MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz; 256MB (Shared) Intel GMA 3150; 160GB Seagate 5,400rpm

Dell Inspiron Duo

Dell Inspiron Duo

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 6Battery 5Support 7