Look and feel
The Inspiron Duo hides its secret power extremely well, which means that when you glance at it from afar you're likely to mistake it for an average clamshell netbook. But, of course, it's much more than that, and a closer look at its lid starts to reveal its hidden talent. The cover is made of two materials: the border is adorned in a soft rubberized plastic, while the back of that rotating display is covered in a glossy coating with a subtle pattern. As the pictures reveal, we were sent the ruby red version, but it will actually only be available in a grayish black at first -- the red and blue colors will follow some time in January. The whole rotating process is better seen in the video above, but when you open the lid and push the top of its glossy display, it vertically rotates within that aforementioned rubberized bezel. Oddly, it's not a bi-directional hinge, so it will only rotate backwards. When the glossy red part of the lid is facing you, you can "close" the netbook, and well, then you've got a tablet!
We had reservations about the rigidity of the entire rotating mechanism, but it's actually quite well constructed. The screen doesn't wobble much either -- when you flip the screen from laptop to tablet mode or visa versa, magnets on the sides of the display lock in with others on the interior of the bezel. And that's actually one of the biggest attractions of the Duo -- the entire thing feels really solid for a netbook. In fact, the rubberized bottom and edges provide a more solid core than most of the netbooks we've handled in the past few years. If only we could give such praise to its measurements and weight; the 1.03 to 1.13-inch thick / 3.4-pound netbook is much chunkier than most, which is really disappointing considering you'll want to pick this one up more than the others out there. In tablet mode we found it best to prop it up on our legs or cradle it in the crook of our arm -- unless you've got mitts like Shaq, you won't be using this thing with one hand.
You'd think the extra edge space would mean there'd be plenty of room for ports, but the Duo only has two USB ports and a headphone jack. Nope, there's no VGA, Ethernet, or SD card slot on the chassis itself -- if you want some of those you'll have to snatch up the speaker dock for an extra $100. More on the dock to follow.
Keyboard and touchpad
In clamshell mode, Dell got most things right with the chiclet keyboard and touchpad. Similar in styling to the keyboard on the Dell Inspiron M101z
, the panel is void of any flex and the matte keys are a real pleasure to type on. We wrote the brunt of this review on the system, and found ourselves typing at an extremely decent clip for a netbook. However, our one complaint about the keyboard is that the plastic surrounding the keys is very glossy and attracts fingerprints. Still, let it be known: the keyboard on this system is now one of our favorites on a 10-inch netbook.
The touchpad, which is carved out of the metal-looking plastic palmrest, is fairly roomy -- not to mention quite comfortable thanks to its two dedicated right and left mouse buttons. The buttons are a tad mushy, but we'll take them over the Inspiron Mini 10's
stiff, plastic ClickPad any day. You'll also notice that there's a bit of leftover space below the buttons and the front edge of the system, so you can't really rest your thumb on the edge. It's an odd design move, but we didn't find it to be problematic when navigating. The pad does support multitouch gestures, and while they were responsive, two-finger scrolling was far from accurate. Lightly swiping to fingers downwards took us right to the bottom of this very technology site rather than halfway down the page or down a post or two.
The swiveling, 10.1-inch, 1366x768-resolution display on the Inspiron Duo is the system's main attraction -- or at least it should be, right? Obviously, we're impressed with the unique convertible form factor, but flat out, the quality of the LCD doesn't match the Duo's top notch industrial design. That's not to say the screen itself isn't bright or crisp -- it is, and watching a 720p clip of Tangled
looked mighty good, but only at certain angles. And as they say, therein lies the rub. The horizontal viewing angles aren't terrible, but they aren't good by any means. We were able to share the display with a friend when it was in tablet mode, but the vertical angles are so incredibly bad that it affects seeing the screen at almost all angles. Now, because the screen vertically rotates, the poor vertical viewing angles are extremely noticeable, and while you're not going to be looking at anything on the screen at an 90-degree angle, even at about 35 degrees colors start to fade and distort. That means when you hold the device in tablet mode at an angle, you're lucky if you can even make out shapes of what's on screen. The result is having to hold this thing pretty close to upright at all times. You can see a lot of this in the hands-on video above, but it's truly disappointing and unacceptable. We imagine Dell had to use a substandard display here to keep the price down, but there's really no excuse for this sort of poor LCD choice on a system that quite literally revolves around its screen.
"There's really no excuse for this sort of poor LCD choice on a system that quite literally revolves around its screen."
The Duo has an accelerometer, though interestingly not in the display itself. This means that when you flip the screen the orientation doesn't actually change until it is locked over the keyboard. It isn't really all that problematic, but if you want to flip the screen around and use the base / keyboard part as a stand (like so
), you have to manually adjust the orientation in the Display Properties. It's a pain, but other than that, the accelerometer was relatively quick to adjust the orientation of the screen. We should note that there's that noticeable black flicker we've been seeing on other Windows 7 tablets in between rotations. There's a 1.3 megapixel camera on the top of the bezel, and while it was fine for video chatting in clamshell mode there's no camera when in tablet mode as it's on the opposite side of the bezel. We can just picture the Dell engineer responsible for this saying, "Uhh, whoops."
Don't worry, there's better news about the capacitive touchscreen. While the glossiness naturally causes it to be smothered in fingerprints by day's end, it's quite responsive, and light swipes / taps was all it took to get through menus. But, of course, a responsive touchscreen is only half the battle and it's the software underneath that will ultimately make or break the Duo's tablet experience.
Dell Stage / Windows 7
As we mentioned in our original hands-on, Dell's gone beyond the stock Windows 7 Premium experience and added its very own DuoStage software layer, which automatically launches once the screen is snapped over the keyboard. The goal of the layer is similar to the Stage layer on the Streak
-- it aims to bring in multimedia from other sources, including your social networks -- but here it also attempts to make Windows 7 more finger-friendly. As you can see up there, the main menu consists of large shortcuts to photos, video, music, internet, games and paint apps. Here's a quick breakdown of each.
: As you'd expect, this one is your portal for everything music. It pulls in album art / tracks from your locally stored music, but also has tabs for Napster and Radiotime. The Radiotime is actually very visually appealing -- radio stations are overlaid on a globe and you can twist and turn the globe as you'd like.
: Similar to the music app, PhotoStage pulls in pictures that are stored on the hard drive, but also lets you access images from your Facebook and Flickr accounts right from the interface. The ability to select which friends' albums get pulled in is a nice touch. Tapping the play button transforms the tablet into a digital photo frame as images can be set to cycle on different time intervals.
: The main interface on this one pulls in thumbnails of your locally stored video, but also recent rentals from CinemaNow. The player is basically a skinned version of Windows Media Player, but there's an option to select TrueTheater quality, which seems to just brighten up the images. While a 1080p clip played smoothly within the app, we preferred WMP for speed reasons, which we will be getting to momentarily.
: Have you read our review of Blio for PC
? If you're wondering what Dell's e-book implementation looks like that's all you have to do. The Books shortcut launches that very reading program, which currently has about 50,000 paid titles from Baker & Taylor -- there are over a million titles if you include free books. You'll want to download Kindle for PC if you're looking for a broader selection.
Games, Paint and Internet:
These three don't link to Dell's own programs. The games shortcut just brings up the Windows games folder, which consists of Hearts and FreeCell. The paint app launches CyberLink's YouPaint application and the Internet icon just launches Internet Explorer 8. We don't want to turn this into an IE8 rant, but we don't like the browser on any system, nevertheless a tablet. Firefox is always the first program to be downloaded on a Windows 7 tablet. It really would have been nice to see Dell do some work on top of Microsoft's browser, and that's ultimately how we feel about these last three apps -- it just feels like Dell gave up when it came to customizing 'em for tablet use.