Dell is hoping to cater to netbook and tablet fans alike with the Inspiron Duo, a Windows 7 machine with a swivelling, 10-inch display that allows for touchscreen antics. When it arrives on 2 December, it'll set you back £400. Dell gave us the chance to play with a pre-production Duo, so read on for our first impressions, but bear in mind that the final machine may differ in some respects.
Flip your lid
Stylistically, the Duo very much takes its lead from other Dell machines, sporting rounded edges and large, chunky keys. The interior is typical netbook fare, although the keyboard seems well spaced-out, and the trackpad is pretty large. That's good news, because most netbooks offer infuriatingly tiny mousing surfaces.
We've seen machines before that transform from a laptop into a tablet, but Dell's approach is rather innovative. Here's how it works. The Duo's display is only held in place by two joints in the right- and left-hand sides of the bezel. When you apply some pressure to the screen, it flips backwards, turning a full 180 degrees and snapping into position the other way around. If you then shut the Duo's lid, you'll find you've got yourself a ready-made tablet.
Dell's missed a trick, however. If you have the Duo deployed in laptop mode and then swivel the display around, there's no way of rotating the on-screen image. It's a shame because, if you were able to rotate the image, you could use the Duo to watch movies without having to stare at the keyboard, which would act as a stand.
The build quality of this mechanism seems sturdy. It doesn't feel cheap or plasticky. Swivelling the display around will undoubtedly turn a few heads, and, in terms of pure design, it's a really neat feature.
The whole package feels pretty weighty, and it's hardly slim. That means it doesn't offer the same elegance as an iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab when used in tablet mode. That said, it's not overly cumbersome. We'll have to carry it around with us for longer before we can make a definitive judgement, but it didn't feel unbearably heavy or bulky to us.
The display itself is a mixed bag. On the plus side, it has a 1,366x768-pixel resolution, whereas most netbooks have a 1,024x600-pixel resolution. On the other hand, we noticed some viewing-angle issues. Tilt the display away from yourself only slightly, and the colours quickly go wonky.
Dell has made some compromises in terms of connectivity. Aside from the power port, the Duo offers only a 3.5mm headphone jack and two USB ports down its left flank. That's pretty Spartan stuff. We couldn't find an Ethernet port or any kind of video out, although there is a docking port on the Duo's underside, so potentially the Duo's display could somehow be exported using that. This is far from even standard netbook connectivity. But, even with so few ports, the Duo still offers more connections than the Galaxy Tab, the iPad or the Dell Streak, for example.
The Duo runs Windows 7, which features a reasonably intuitive touch interface if you're used to the Windows operating system in general. You tap the screen to click and hold your finger to it for a moment to right click. In our experience, however, the touch interface isn't as slick as that offered by Apple's iOS or Google's Android operating systems, both of which are intended for use on mobile touchscreen devices.
Inside, the Duo sports an Intel Atom N550 CPU clocked at 1.5GHz and backed up 2GB of RAM. As such, we don't expect this machine to run particularly quickly, and, indeed, during our brief time with the Duo, we noticed some sluggishness.
Dell estimates that you'll get 6 to 8 hours of battery life out of this machine. Because the Duo is closer to a laptop than a tablet, we wouldn't expect it to manage the epic 10-hour battery life of the iPad.
The Dell Inspiron Duo runs the risk of falling between two stools. It could prove less useful than a netbook, and less slick and portable than a tablet. One thing we can't deny, however, is that the screen-flipping mechanism is really cool, and it seems well designed. At £400, it doesn't seem like you're paying too hefty a premium for the touch option either. Stay tuned for the full review soon.
Edited by Charles Kloet