When Dell first demoed the Inspiron Duo and its vertically rotating screen on stage at IDF in September, our mouths nearly hit the floor. It looked like a plain old netbook until its 10.1-inch capacitive touchscreen did a magical backflip and folded down over its keyboard to morph into a tablet. It was like nothing we'd ever seen before. And we actually figured it would be the sort of system that would stay locked up in Dell's labs, but when its specs were revealed -- a dual-core Atom N550 processor, 2GB of RAM, and Broadcom Crystal HD accelerator -- it became evident that the netbook / tablet hybrid was the real deal. Running Windows 7 Home Premium and Dell's new Stage interface, the $550 netvertible has the potential to successfully straddle both the netbook and tablet world. It also has a real shot at being the perfect device for those wavering between buying a netbook and a tablet. Indeed, the Duo is filled to the brim with potential, but what's the thing really like to use? We've spent the last few days with the Duo (and its Duo Audio Station) to find out, so hit the break for the official Engadget review!
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.
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.
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.
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. %Gallery-108440%
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
The DuoStage software definitely slows down the entire system, but when just running Windows 7 Home Premium the Duo's 1.5GHz dual-core Atom N550 processor, 2GB of RAM, and 320GB 7,200rpm drive keeps things running fairly well. The everyday performance didn't feel as fast as some other dual-core Atom netbooks we've tested over the past few months (i.e, the HP Mini 5103, ASUS Eee PC 1015PN, or the Jolibook), but we were content with the performance while simultaneously writing this review in WordPad, checking our Twitter feed in TweetDeck, and running Firefox with multiple tabs open. The small system also had no issue rocking 1080p video clips in Windows Media Player and 720p YouTube HD videos, thanks to its Broadcom Crystal HD accelerator. Again, it's not the fastest netbook we've handled, but it's clear that the software layer is mostly to blame for the Duo's sluggish performance.
Dell Inspiron Duo
Toshiba Mini NB305
ASUS Eee PC 1015PN (Atom N550, Ion 2)
ASUS Eee PC 1215N (Atom D525, Ion 2)
ASUS Eee PC 1015PE (Atom N450)
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.
Duo Audio Station
The Duo's two built-in speakers are adequate for a netbook, but Dell's hoping you will pony up an extra $100 and buy the accompanying Duo Audio station. But should you? We can't say we were all that impressed with the JBL speakers -- they were loud enough that we could hear Rihanna's "Love the Way You Lie Part 2" from across a very large room, but the sound quality wasn't particularly full and certainly nowhere near as detailed as the JBL speakers on Dell's XPS line. The dock does have two USB ports, a Ethernet jack, media card reader, and an additional audio line-in socket, which may make it well worth the purchase. However, there's no VGA or HDMI port, so there's absolutely no hooking up the machine to external display at this point. We also have to say docking the system in tablet mode props it up quite well and positions the screen at an acceptable angle for seeing what's on the display.
It makes us sad, but the Inspiron Duo is far from being that perfect tablet / netbook hybrid we've been waiting for. As a netbook, it has a number of redeeming qualities, including a stellar keyboard and solid build, but it's heavy and its battery lasts half as long as some $299 netbooks out there. And then there's the Duo as a tablet, where it not only lacks a decent LCD, but the software and its sluggish performance make it incredibly frustrating to use. Don't get us wrong, the Inspiron Duo's form factor and swiveling screen are still incredibly intriguing, and for $550 we expect some will pick it up for that novelty alone, but the Duo ends up being pulled in too many directions and suffers from its own unique mobile identity crisis. Ultimately it feels like Dell should have continued to tease the Duo at a distance while refining the concept in its labs -- but then again, we suppose there's always generation two.