Dell Inspiron Duo review: first look

We're used to thinking of Dell as a supplier of PCs that are so reliably dull you can buy them without seeing them. The new Dell Inspiron Duo breaks that tradition. It's a netbook that you really need to get your hands on, so that you can feel its smoothly rounded contours, swivel its screen to turn it into a tablet, and drop it into its inviting dock. If Dell sells the Duo at retail, it's the sort of thing that should do well at the better department stores, such as John Lewis. It might even pull a few buyers away from the Apple iPad.

The Duo is a convertible netbook with a twist. Normally, to convert a laptop into a tablet, you rotate the whole screen on a hinge before folding it over the keyboard. Instead, the Duo's screen swivels inside the lid. This is very quick and easy to do, and there's a hint of magic about it. The screen has to be connected to the motherboard somehow, but the Duo hides it completely. It's smoother and quicker than the only similar system I've tried, a Vadem Clio smart netbook from 1999.

The Duo also has a third set of capabilities as an entertainment centre. Drop the tablet into its JBL Audio Station dock and it works as a digital picture frame, movie player, Skype video phone and bedside alarm clock. It also would look good in the living room, or on an executive desk. More than anything, the Duo comes across as an attractive and functional appliance, almost to the point where you stop thinking about the electronics inside, or even the price.

Fortunately, the Duo is competitive in both areas.

At heart, the Duo is an Atom-based PC running Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium. It's a cut above the average netbook in having a 1.5GHz dual-core Intel Atom N550 processor, 2GB of DDR3 memory, and either a 250GB (5,400 RPM) or 320GB (7,200 RPM) hard drive. The 10.1in high-def screen offers capacitive multitouch operation and shows a full 1,366 x 768 pixels, like a typical 13.3in laptop. There's a built-in 1.3-megapixel webcam and a digital array microphone, so it's easy to use for video calls. Colour choices are Foggy Night (standard), Fastback Red and Marlin Blue. Yes, someone gets paid to think up these names....

Limitations? The memory isn’t expandable, there’s no optical drive, and the battery isn’t removable. Dell's Will Koch told me the battery life would be "about 4 hours, based on a range of uses".

The Duo also has two USB ports hidden under a flap, plus sockets for headphones and a power adaptor. It's designed to connect via Wi-Fi, and if you want an RJ-45 Ethernet port for wired broadband, there's one on the optional dock. The dock also has two more USB ports, a 7-in-one card reader, speakers and volume/mute controls, and it works as a charger.

Snappy performance

The Duo that I tried was a pre-production prototype, and therefore not a reliable guide to the final build quality or performance. However, the keyboard was good for its size -- much like the Dell Mini 11z -- and performance was snappy with Windows 7. The dual-core Atom puts it a step above today's netbooks, if still slightly short of dual-core CULV chips. It played HD videos without any problems, though it was running pretty much flat out.

Drawbacks, there are a few. Windows 7 has touch capabilities, but that doesn't mean it works as easily as an Apple iPad. You can use your fingers to operate software designed for the greater precision of a mouse pointer, but it's not really comfortable on a 10in screen. It's OK for web browsing in couch-potato mode, but you'll often want to swivel the screen and use the keyboard instead. That's why the easy conversion is so important.

We know Microsoft can do multitouch well, because the Microsoft Surface does it, and that runs on top of Windows Vista

The Duo comes with Dell's Stage interface software, which is also used on the Dell Streak and Inspiron One all-in-one PCs. This provides a touch interface that seems mainly intended for playing music and movies and browsing through photos, though it also includes StickyNotes, YouPaint and Touch Instruments apps. It looks more child-friendly than sophisticated. The prototype also had movies downloaded from CinemaNow, which is a US-based service: Dell hasn’t announced a UK or European equivalent. The prototype lacked the Microsoft Surface software bundle that is sometimes shipped with touchscreen all-in-one PCs.

We know Microsoft can do multitouch well, because the Microsoft Surface does it, and that runs on top of Windows Vista. The Dell Duo really needs something like that to compete with the iPad as a tablet, and it's not there.

That means the Dell Duo is, at the moment, still more of a convertible with a twist than an iPad replacement. However, it is both functional and chic, and it could therefore attract people who value the functionality of a real computer that offers things such as a physical keyboard, full Microsoft Office, Adobe Flash, multi-tab browsing and fast switching between different user accounts.

And that's how Dell has priced it in the UK, at £449 including VAT and delivery. It's competitive with Apple iPad prices that range from £429 (16GB) to £599 (64GB) with Wi-Fi only, plus £55 for a keyboard. The Duo's relatively modest premium over a high-end netbook buys you the touchscreen and slick conversion to the tablet format, as well as full Windows 7 and a decent hard drive. If you were thinking about buying either a netbook or a tablet, the Duo does both, though it doesn't do the tablet bit as well as an iPad.

If you were thinking about buying a portable video player, digital picture frame, videophone or bedside entertainment system, the Dell Duo does those as well. The Audio Station dock, at extra cost (to be announced), makes for an unusually attractive and versatile system.

At £999, the Dell Duo would be an innovative and interesting curiosity. At £449, success isn't guaranteed, but it's in with a chance. A future version with Surface-like tablet software or a one-button switch that toggled to Android 3.0 might be a killer product.

UPDATE: Dell has now confirmed that the Inspiron duo weighs 1.54kg, and its measurements are 285 x 194 x 26.2-28.7mm (WDH).

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