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Dell Inspiron Duo

An eye-catching design concept, but who is it for?

by Daniel Rasmus

After spending some time with the Dell Inspiration Duo, what some call a netvertible, I have to start by asking: for which audience did Dell targeted this device? The Duo is an oversized netbook that converts to a tablet, but it is good at neither. As a netbook, it is a bit bulky and over-engineered, and it also lacks some basic mobile needs like video-out and a media reader. For road warriors charged with delivering endless PowerPoint presentations, the omission of video-out makes the device nearly useless. As a tablet, the cool tilt-and-swirl display makes for an intriguing hardware demo, but adds little value, especially after experiencing the real Achilles heel of the Duo: Windows 7. Windows 7 may be touch capable, but that is only because it sits under a multi-touch display. For anyone who has used a SmartPhone of any design, including Microsoft's, Windows 7 is an embarrassing touch environment on a 10.1 inch display.

The Hardware

At first glance, the Duo screams industrial design. Its rotating flip 1366x768-resolution LCD display is a cool addition to many of the clumsier approaches of the past. Unfortunately, the screen inside the innovative swivel hinges comes alive only when perfectly angled. Viewing the screen from the sides produces noticeable darkening of the image, and view top down washed out the image completely. It may not be right to compare the Duo to an Apple iPad, but Dell did enter the tablet market, and the $50-per-unit less expensive iPad produces crisp images from any angle, which makes the Duo an even more personal device than the iPad because it doesn't offer communal viewing angles. And like all glossy touch screens, including Apple's, finger smudge is an issue, so either invest in a matt screen cover or keep a clean microfiber cloth nearby.

Apparently because of the swivel hinges, the Duo is wider than other 10.1 inch notebooks, which is good and bad. On the good side, the keyboard sports more roominess, including well-place arrow keys. The multi-touch touchpad is responsive and large, but I never found myself using its multi-touch features because it was just easier to touch the screen than to figure out the disconnected overtures necessary to get the touchpad to communicate the intended action. Over all it feels less cramped than other netbooks. On the downside, the Duo's extra inches make it too large for standard netbook cases, which means buying a new case if the Duo is an upgrade, or shopping carefully if it is your first. Make sure the case can handle the Duo's 1.13" (28.7mm) H , 11.22" (285.0mm) L, 7.66" (194.5mm) W dimensions.

Unlike most hardware that eschews port covers these days, the Duo covers all of its ports, except power, with hinged flaps. This makes for a more cut chassis, but the look is much less cool in use, with pieces of rubber hanging off of it. The Duo's dual-core Atom N550 processor and 2GB of RAM powers a fairly good web experience, but as the engine for a tablet, the screen refresh on rotation, for instance, felt sluggish, as did the loading of software, especially Dell own Stage (see comments about Stage later). Video, however, was pretty snappy due to the inclusion of a Broadcom Crystal HD accelerator. And to allow the Duo to respond to movement, it also contains an accelerator, which is in on the motherboard, not in the screen, so orientation shifts only work when locked into tablet mode.

The speakers are a bit tiny as would be expected, but unlike some of the less expensive netbooks, the Duo does include two speakers for stereo sound, which is enhanced by SRS surround sound software.

And of course, being a Netbook at heart, the Duo doesn't include optical media, so a network is required for installing software, either from the Internet, or from a shared drive on another device. Surprisingly the Duo also lacks a standard media port, which limits it to USB adapters to load files from SD cards or other portable media (see hardware extras below for more on media ports).

At a little over 3 pounds, the Inspiron Duo is not going to easily rest on a chest in bed or be held in one hand comfortably for very long, again challenging it as a serious entertainment device or as a business data input device. In netbook mode it also seems a bit unstable, easily rocking toward the hinge, so don't leave it sitting near the edge of a desk.

Like most portable computers these days, the Duo includes a front-facing camera coming in at 1.3 mega-pixels. Unfortunately, the camera is only available in netbook mode, as it becomes hidden under the bezel when the screen is flipped.

Finally, on the hardware front, is the battery, which is sealed and only rated at 3.5 hours, which I found optimistic. On my older Acer netbook, I was able to buy a third-party battery that took it to almost 7 hours of run-time. Such options are not available for the sealed-in Duo. And unlike the iPad, which can use various external battery boosters, the Duo is a tablet that requires a standard power supply, not a USB-port, to charge it.

Hardware Extras

Because the Duo is apparently designed as stand-alone entertainment device (again, not clear on the audience for an entertainment device that doesn't connect to a wide-screen TV via VGA or, even better, HDMI) it has a dock that is more about entertainment than functionality. Unlike many docks that provide a host of extra ports for higher end functionality, the Duo's JBL dock is about sound, networking and media. The Dell dock appears more iHome than technology dock, as it is consumed on the front by JBL speakers. The speakers are a good edition as they outshine the Duo's internal speakers considerably, producing better range and depth. The dock also includes an Ethernet port which beefs up the wireless-only Duo. And for those looking to unload photos or fill up SD cards with music, the dock also includes a 7-in-1 media reader/rewriter, along with two USB 2.0 ports.

Don't think for a minute of the JBL doc as a portable solution, unless you are driving. The unit is way too bulky and heavy for the overnight bag.

Another strange design choice comes in the power supply. One cool thing with a dock is you usually end up with an extra power supply. Not with the Duo. For some strange reason, the JBL speaker dock uses a completely different power supply coupling than the Duo.

If you don't plan on mounting the Duo as a personal movie viewer, or need a higher bandwidth connection, for say, streaming video, I wouldn't recommend the dock. For better sound connect the Duo to much less expensive external speakers and sit it in a $12 acrylic plate display.

Hardware Conclusions

Overall I found the hardware a combination of innovative potential and nostalgic throw-back. In clamshell mode the Duo feels a bit like one of the toy computers I gave my children when they were young, with its rubberized exterior and port covers. And that's not all bad because it feel solid and ready to play. The flipping screen demonstrates how convertibles could work in the future--now if only Dell had used components similar to the ones in Apple's Air, they might have done something really impressive. By concentrating at the low end of the component spectrum, they ended up with a device with specs and hardware that prove simply adequate.

The Software

In netbook mode, the Duo's standard Windows 7 Home Premium is also an adequate. Flip into tablet mode and the Duo becomes more prototype than functional device. It is hard to imagine, after a year of iPad market intelligence, a hardware manufacturer, or Microsoft, would tout Windows 7 as a tablet-ready solution.

Unlike software designed for touch, Windows 7 has too many tiny lines and buttons to touch precisely, and outside of documents or the contents of a web browser, zooming on the interface is limited, unless accessibility is invoked. I appreciate Microsoft considering the need for accessibility, but the magnifier should not be a necessity for day-to-day computing. Not Windows, not Office, nor any common third-party app is designed for touch-capable interfaces of 1366 x 768 pixels squeezed into 10.1 inches of screen real-estate (The Dell Inspire One 2305, for instances, spreads its 1920 x 1,080 resolution over 23 inches). I have played with some of the larger touch screen all-in-one desktops, and they work better because they have more real estate to spread the pixels across, creating chunkier, more spread out places to touch and tap. I found myself quickly shifting from tablet back to PC mode because I tired of trying to precisely place my finger on a control just to touch too many things or miss completely.

Another issue is the tablet rotation. On tablets and phones with operating systems designed to be reoriented, rules are in place for developers that force them to recognize and code for the swift rotation of the device, and its reorientation. That is not the case with Windows. Only software specifically engineered understands the sensor inputs and redraw commands sent by the OS. All other software does whatever it does, and usually means apps that don't figure out where they are and shrink to the edge of the display, or end up in some other strange configuration that requires intervention. Bottom-line: Windows 7 is not ready to be a touch tablet experience.

The Software Extras

In order to get around Window's touch faults, Dell has included the Dell Stage suite of tools to create a more touch friendly interfaces for photos, music and video. Stage also includes a basic touch-capable painting program. The Duo starts Stage when it flips into Tablet mode, which seems like a nice feature, until it pops up over your Microsoft Word document and you have to close it to return to editing.

Stage does offer an initial impression that the tablet experience is about to begin. If you start with the Internet though, where most might first click, you realize as Internet Explorer loads that Stage is little more than window dressing. VideoStage, MusicStage and PhotoStage offer a bit more of the chunky experience touch-users require, but fine motor control and a few hits and misses are required to close the window or use the navigation arrows. StageGames, like the Internet, simply points to standard Windows apps. BookStage uses the Bilo reader (http://www.blio.com/), which requires an account to download current titles, but allows for easy download of free titles from places like Google Books. Stage also include Paint, which is clearly a child-oriented app and adds little value, highly disappointing after experiencing some of the excellent drawing tools that have arrived on the iPad, including those from Adobe and Autodesk. Windows needs to attract that kind of creative investment in order prove itself as a viable tablet ecosystem.

Now, being a touch device, Dell did include Microsoft's "Touch Pack for Windows 7," which includes some Microsoft Surface applications like Globe and Collage which still feel more like demos than practical apps, especially after playing with comparable versions, such as Google Earth on the iPad.

In fact, even with Stage, the Duo's software does not match the design or performance of any of the comparable software on the iPad or on an Android Tablet, and Stage only adds value in tablet mode. None of the software is designed in the most remote way to demonstrate the power of a modern, keyboard enabled tablet convertible (e.g., like a word processor with integrated touch mark-up so when you are done typing, you can flip the device into tablet mode and start editing). When in netbook mode users would do better to rely on standard Windows resources like MediaCenter or the Windows Live apps, which offer more functionality and a more polished experience that the custom Dell software.

The Duo also includes a basic subscription to Dell's backup service, DataSafe Online, which would be much nicer if it included a trial with adequate storage for the device out of the box. As it is, the 2GB of storage isn't that useful, especially as most people have found ways through Microsoft Live (pre-installed), Dropbox, syncables (pre-installed) or other services to backup documents. For a hardware vendor, the key should be backing up the system image so the OS and drivers can be restored in the event of disaster, and that amount of storage requires a paid subscription.

Also on the Duo is Office, using Microsoft's new licensing model, ready for a license key to activate it at some level. No activation permits use of Word and Excel starter editions.

Finally, being a Windows device and not a dedicated tablet, instant on, even from sleep, is not an impressive experience. I put that under software rather than hardware, but in reality, it is a combined feature that standard PCs lack, and as much as the Duo attempts to be innovative, it is a standard PC and suffers mightily on this front against dedicated, fully solid-state tablets.

The Conclusion

Out of the corner of an eye, the Dell generates some wonder as its screen flips around, transforming it from netbook to tablet. But like many things caught out of the corner of the eye, closer inspection reveals that the illusion of innovation isn't the same as the reality of execution. If Dell adds a media port, video out (preferably HDMI, but VGA is still the standard for most projectors, so both would be better) and a better LCD to the Duo, they will have a useful netbook. If they really want to wow the market, they should abandon the mid-$500 range, go solid state and go thin, taking on Apple's iPad and Air with one swipe.

But if Dell, its partners, or Microsoft don't make dramatic improvements to the touch experience, a flipping LCD panel will remain more novelty than useful addition. As it stands, the Duo appears to be an experiment that may fail because it doesn't have enough features to make a clear statement.

I end as I began, asking: who is the Duo designed for? I was really hoping that the answer was the creative road warrior like me, but after using the Duo for several weeks, I'm still left looking for an answer.

Daniel W. Rasmus is an independent analyst and strategy consultant. He is a former Vice President at the Giga Information Group and Forrester Research. Dan is the author of five books, including Management by Design (Wiley, 2010) and Listening to the Future (Wiley 2008). He blogs regularly at http://danielwrasmus.wordpress.com. Additional information can be found at http://danielwrasmus.com.

Dell Inspiron Duo Specs:

Added/changed Added 2/2011
Type Convertible netbook computer
Processor Intel Atom N550 dual core processor, 1.5GHz
Chipset Intel NM10 Express
Graphics Integrated, includes Broadcomm Crystal Media HD accelerator
OS Windows 7 Home Premium
Memory 2GB 800MHz DDR3 800 in one slot
Expansion slots none
Display 10.1" 1366 x 768 pixel wide-format LCD
Digitizer/Pens Capacitive multi-touch
Keyboard 92%-scale integrated; touch pad with discrete buttons and multi-touch
Storage 250 or 320GB SATA HD
Housing NA
Temperature NA
Drop NA
Humidity NA
Altitude NA
Enclosure Class NA
Safety NA
Regulatory EnergyStar 5.0, EPEAT Silver, RoHSCompliant, WEEE, EuP
Size 11.2" x 7.7" x 1.13"
Weight 3.05 pounds incl. 4-cell battery pack
Power 29 WHr Lithium-Ion ("up to 4 hours")
Communication 802.11b/g/n WiFi (optional: BT3.0 + 802.11b/g/n combo card and Dell 710 GPS Full mini-card)
Interface 2 USB 2.0, stereo speakers, digital array mic., power, dock, front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera; dock adds RJ45, 2 USB 2.0, 7-in-1 card reader
Warranty 1-year standard
Price starting at less than US$549
Web page www.dell.com