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Posted on November 18th, 2010 by Jack Schofield

Dell Inspiron Duo review: first look

Dell Inspiron DuoWe’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.

Dell Inspiron Duo handThe 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….

Dell Inspiron Duo laptop

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.

Dell Inspiron Duo tabletThat 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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31 Responses to “ Dell Inspiron Duo review: first look ”

  1. Nic Says:
    November 18th, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    My next laptop could be something like this. Dual book Ubuntu netbook edition and/or Android and we’re all set (not sure if Android is possible but assuming it is- but feel free to correct me).

  2. MDillenbeck Says:
    November 18th, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    Did a scan… so I take it no wacom digitizer and thus no inking? A shame, as I do prefer to hand write my notes in class (ever try to take calculus, biology, or physics notes with a keyboard? Much easier with inking). Also, why bother with Windows 7 if it doesn’t have inking… might as well stick with Android or iOS at that point and make it a glorified smart (a smart phone without the phone).

  3. stasi47 Says:
    November 18th, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    No touch-point = No buy.

    ..yes i know, I’m boring. But I must keep repeating myself to be finally heard.

  4. WebFilterPro Says:
    November 18th, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    Great innovation by Dell!

  5. PM Says:
    November 18th, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    Yes, a Ubuntu netbook version would be make this an ideal mobile platform.

  6. Nick22 Says:
    November 18th, 2010 at 7:01 pm

    Looking great, might snap one for xmas if I find a sale deal or something.

  7. Dale Says:
    November 18th, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    4 hours of battery life. Not worth it.

  8. Chris Says:
    November 18th, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    It’s more expensive… but I like the concept of tablet being dockable… not flippable.

    I mean I don’t want to carry a keyboard and then not use it.. I want to leave it at home.

    With the “dock” mentality that means you would prob have a decent dock for use as a desktop PC or Home Theater PC also.

    Even if the dock you design for a tablet is nothing but a keyboard, touch pad, and batteries rather than an extra HD etc… it’s still a handy thing to have.

  9. Me Says:
    November 18th, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    What I’m most interested in is how well Linux is supported on this device.

  10. Chris G Says:
    November 18th, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    Hmmm…a tablet review (well semi-tablet) and not a word about the Dell’s weight. I bet with a hard disk and everything it weighs a lot more than the Ipad. I don’t own an Ipad, but if that’s its competition, it needs to weigh close to the competition or it’ll be awkward to use.

  11. Aiden G Says:
    November 18th, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    Yumm… Yes please :)

  12. PeterA Says:
    November 18th, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    It is competing with the iPad only in so far as the iPad is competing with netbooks. Remember, this is a full PC, with “iPad mode”. It won’t be that heavy I am guessing, around what the current netbooks weigh. (maybe with the larger batteries though who knows…).

    It isn’t a tablet only Chris G. And it has a full copy of windows 7 running on it. My only complaint is the built in battery. First thing to die on every laptop I’ve ever owned.

  13. Tim Ewing Says:
    November 18th, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    I like the look of this. deffinately going to get one for when i go travelling

  14. cindydtx Says:
    November 19th, 2010 at 1:20 am

    That is lousy battery life. I know of soooo many people who consider 4 hour battery life a deal breaker.

    Too bad, I really like what I see otherwise. There’s always another gadget coming along.

  15. RobElcombe Says:
    November 19th, 2010 at 1:28 am

    I want one, maybe two!

  16. Sash Says:
    November 19th, 2010 at 2:07 am

    Touchscreen check
    Windows 7 for compatibility check
    webcam check
    wifi check
    Only need to know if this will play all froms of video including HD x264 video files in mkv format?

  17. Chumomo Says:
    November 19th, 2010 at 4:28 am

    no digitizer? so sad about these manufactures that stick to Win7 but ignore Wacom

  18. Josefov Says:
    November 19th, 2010 at 9:27 am


    But the battery IS a let down :(

  19. Marky Says:
    November 19th, 2010 at 5:15 pm

    Looks gret but needs longer battery life, Touch Point, SD card reader and…..Android (or sonmething that actually adds to the Windows experience)!
    What about 3G access?
    How long to boot??????

  20. John Says:
    November 19th, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    A bet that battery life would leap upwards with Android or any Linux variant on there. Could be worth investigating.

  21. bobby Says:
    November 21st, 2010 at 10:17 am

    I have an iPad and just bought an Asus Eee PC 1005PE for $219. 250GB drive, Atom 450, 10″ screen, 11 hrs battery life. That’s a deal. I also have an HP TX 2500 tablet PC 13″ screen (supports pen AND touch). The HP rocks, but runs too hot. The Asus Eee PC is amazing, quick enough, and does full sppech recognition with Win 7 Speech Recog software built in. The Eee boots to web access in 5 seconds. The iPad is the best touch interface currently available. Would love all this in one device, but at this point there is no perfect solution. Current travel solution is to take iPad AND Eee, and small folding bluetooth keyboard for iPad. Then I have Windows, Office, App Store, iTunes music and movies, Flash, iBook store, Netflix, Kindle reader, Dragon dictation on iPad, and real speech recog on Eee. Total weight <7 lbs. iPad runs 15 hrs, Eee runs 9-11. Too bad the Duo has a weak, unreplaceable battery.

  22. Anthony Says:
    November 24th, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    You might as well buy a desktop PC, the screen and keyboard are already seperate :)

  23. Marky Says:
    December 3rd, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    The device may be OK but I warn you DEll telesales is apalling-Absolutely apalling. they wouldn’t quote a delivery date without placing an order. they then gave a delivery date pre Christmas but placed the order and confirmed a delivery date in the new year. I cancelled the order before production began but they ignored my mail for a day then said it couldn’t be cancelled because it was in production. I ‘ve used them before but this is as bad as telephone sales gets!!!!!!!!!!!

  24. Amber Says:
    December 3rd, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    I saw it at the Microsoft Store here in the US and have now preordered mine.

    I was waiting for exactly this…tablet with reasonable keyboard solution. There were other reasons too, but the number one reason I decided not to get an iPad was that without haptic feedback there was no good way to type fast on it, so for me it was just an oversized toy (iPod Touch ++ perhaps). Heck, even my android phone has haptic feedback!

    I am a part time student who travels a lot for work and I’m hoping this is an ideal solution for me. The OneNote (with purchase of Office 2010 which they had on the one on the store) means I can take handwritten notes (but will have to get/make my own capacitive stylus since it doesn’t come with one) but can flip open they keyboard if I want to type instead.

    Running office and internet means I can do homework and personal email while on travel which I can’t do easily with my work laptop and the small weight means it’s not very big/heavy to lug around, which is why I hate packing my personal laptop and usually don’t even when it would be really handy.

    Plus the dock means it’s a portable movie viewer too (too bad it can’t take DVDs but that’s what digital files are for…) so I can use it for that.

    The feel of it is quite solid as the review here says.

    My only real disappointments were the speakers on the audio dock (they really didn’t go that loud), no HDMI option, and that it is a capacitive instead of resistive screen. Many people prefer capacitive (especially the Apple nuts who will hate this anyway) but resistive gives a WHOLE lot more options for stylus use.

    Also, I can’t decide if I’m happy or sad that right now it only comes in black…

  25. David Says:
    December 16th, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    The idea of the tilting screen is nice, but personally I don’t think it will last. We’ve had these gimics from other manufacturers, but they never stand the test of time.

    The device is also too heavy to be a tablet.


  26. Paul Says:
    January 28th, 2011 at 11:10 am

    I purchased 1 of these a month back, personally its a great little unit as I work away from home alot and have to carry a work PC aswell. the only problem Ive had with it is that i purchased the Laptop on its own then while i was away started useing it as a TV aswell to watch Sky, and thought ill go and get the docking station, only to find its not available to purchase as a stand-a-lone unit in the UK. Eventually I used the chat facility on the Dell Website only to find the 4th chat advisor i used could sell it to me from the chat system even though it wasnt on the website. the price was way up concidering on the US site you can buy it for $99.00 to purchase from DELL uk its £107.49 :/

  27. Robert Says:
    February 1st, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    You people are all saying the battery life is terrible, could then someone design an external battery that connects to the normal charging port then Voila a new battery.

  28. Stuart Says:
    February 15th, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    I saw this idea being demonstrated back in 1998 (the difference then was the lid rotated round and then closed back to front). Has it really taken that long for people to become excited about it?

  29. Heidemarie Says:
    February 20th, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    So how is the battery replaced? Does it have to mailed in to DELL?

  30. Leslie Says:
    April 20th, 2011 at 8:43 am

    Just got mine; battery life is only 2 hours, even when I start with it fully charged. Getting movies and music onto the thing is a drag, but it can be done without going through iTunes or similar, but you have to rip from cd to mp3 on another box, then transfer (via dropbox, for example) to do so… I love gadgets, and I love this gadget, but I bought it for a long plane trip, and so far for that it’s not been worth the purchase.

    I’m def. going to have to look into that external, auxilliary battery idea that Robert proposed, but that will add to the overall cost of the thing too…

  31. zahraa wilson Says:
    August 14th, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    i loved it when i got it but a few days on i realised it was really slow and i’m not talking about the internet , it’s the programs that’s the problem. then when i type using the keyboard, some of the letters i typed got missed out. it suddenly shut down on me one day too. so it’s a total thumbs down for me!


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