Editor's note: The review unit Dell sent us was a hardware production unit, but we were told the software was about 95 percent done. We will update this review with our impressions of the final unit when we receive it.
This review was updated / edited on 12.8.2010 to include impressions of the final production level Inspiron Duo.
Dell Inspiron Duo reviewSee all photos
Look and feel
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
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.
"There's really no excuse for this sort of poor LCD choice on a system that quite literally revolves around its screen."
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
MusicStage: 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.
PhotoStage: 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.
VideoStage: 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.
Books: 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.
Dell DuoStage screenshotsSee all photos
The DuoStage interface does make getting to some shortcuts easier and Dell's own programs are quite the eye candy, but chances are you won't be spending much time in the interface. Why not, you ask? Because the DuoStage software is incredibly, painfully slow. Even after a cold boot with nothing running in the background, it took 15 seconds to open Blio and just about 30 seconds to open PhotoStage. And even when finally in the apps, scrolling through the thumbnails was incredibly jittery. You can see this all in the video, but DuoStage requires the utmost patience. As we said earlier, our review unit was running software that was about 95 percent done, and we will update this review when we receive the final production unit, but Dell has told us that the updates consist mostly of tweaks to the Blio program and Broadcom drivers. Sadly, we anticipate that this is what the final software experience will look like since this isn't the first time we've seen these Windows 7 layers function so slowly (see HP's TouchSmart, ASUS' TouchGate and 2goPC's QuickBits) -- we're not sure if the software or the hardware is to blame or if it's a combination of them both, but this just seems to be an unfortunate constant now with Windows 7 tablets.
Update: The software on the production level Duo was slightly improved, but we certainly wouldn't describe it as a snappy experience. The Photostage software has been sped up -- it takes closer to 25 seconds to open it after a cold boot and then about 9 seconds after that. The music and video apps trail behind that with the former taking about 35 seconds after boot and the latter about 26 seconds. Like we said, the load times are improved, but the experience still isn't ideal. Within the apps, PhotoStage seems to be the most responsive and the different tabs were relatively quick to load with images. Still scrolling through images is jittery and pinching to zoom is just slower than in the native Photo Gallery program. On that same vein, in MusicStage we found ourselves waiting close to 10 more seconds to bring up the Radiotime app.
So, how's the standard Windows 7 touch experience? Pretty much what you'd expect. We were able to get comfortable surfing the web with a finger in Firefox and stretching the on-screen keyboard across the screen to input URLs. It's definitely not as sluggish as the Stage UI, but it still didn't feel as peppy as some other Win 7 tablets we've tested. With that said, WIndows Media Center was very responsive to touch and menus loaded almost instantly. Regardless, it's still Windows 7, which as we all know, wasn't created strictly for finger input. Obviously, that's the Duo's saving grace since its keyboard and touchpad are always just a flip away!
Performance and battery life
Dell Inspiron Duo
|Toshiba Mini NB305||1272||---||156|
|ASUS Eee PC 1015PN (Atom N550, Ion 2)||---||1785||151/1495|
|ASUS Eee PC 1215N (Atom D525, Ion 2)||---||1942||181/2480|
|ASUS Eee PC 1015PE (Atom N450)||1365||---||154|
The Duo's crappy screen and sluggish software are met by one additional weakness -- its battery life. The 29Whr four-cell battery isn't user replaceable, which will be an issue if you want to use it out and about since it won't last for longer than three hours on a charge. On our video rundown test, which loops the same standard definition video with WiFi turned on, the Inspiron Duo lasted only two hours and 44 minutes. When we actually used the system to write this review and surf the web we got closer to three hours of usage. The final production unit may last a bit longer as we were told the battery on our unit had been recharged quite a few times, but we still don't expect that you'll be able to squeeze more than three and a half hours out of this little guy. The final production unit lasted two hours and 28 minutes on a charge, which is actually less than our original test.