|Introduction and Specifications|
The Dell Inspiron Duo is an impressive sight. It's not often that we're this enamored by a device's physical design, but the Dell Inspiron Duo simply does it for us. The machine is a feat of engineering, and it really redefines the convertible laptop segment. This 10.1" machine is part netbook, part tablet, but unlike many rivals, it doesn't compromise much in terms or portability and form factor to be both. When you open up the package, it looks like a Mini 10 or any other 10" netbook.
But once the lid is open, a simple press on the LCD allows it to swivel around and lock into place, in reverse. Close the lid back down atop the keyboard, and you're now looking at a tablet. It's one of the more innovative notebook designs we've seen in recent memory, and we cannot applaud Dell's engineering team enough for both thinking of this implementation and nailing it with such precision.
Outside of the crazy design, the machine is a rather standard netbook on the inside. There's an Atom CPU, a chiclet keyboard and a 32-bit copy of Windows 7 Home Premium. The Duo starts at $549.99, making it one of the more affordable convertible tablets out there. Let's take a more detailed look at the specifications:
As you can see here, the $549.99 price tag ($50 more with the JBL docking station, which adds two more USB 2.0 ports, an SD card slot and Ethernet port) is largely due to the relatively slow specifications. It's pretty much the only way Dell could make this machine somewhat attractive from a pricing standpoint, but did they cut too many corners in terms of horsepower? The design is only able to be truly appreciated if the hardware is there to make the user experience a good one, so join us in the pages below for our full review, benchmarks and all.
|Design and Build Quality|
Like we said in the opener, the design of the Inspiron Duo is second to none. It has won a number of design awards, and deservedly so. The flip/swivel screen is excellent. What's even more impressive is just how solid and fluid the swivel feels. You can really tell that Dell poured a lot of time and effort into perfecting this piece. It locks into place when you want to, and the swivel is extremely smooth when you want it to flip. There are no loose hinges; everything is perfectly tight and perfectly engineered. It's just great to play with. We found ourselves enamored with the panel, and just flipping it from netbook to tablet mode was entertaining in and of itself.
At 3.39 pounds, it's hardly any heavier than your standard netbook, and the 10.1" screen provides a standard 1366x768 screen resolution and enough room for a nicely sized chiclet keyboard. Dell has also done a good job keeping the bezel thin and the line between the swiveling LCD and the plastic remarkably thin. You can barely tell that it's there. The textured lid was nice in our estimation, and the trackpad was nicely sized for a netbook. We liked the fact that it was texture-less; perfectly smooth and easy to navigate. The separate left/right mouse buttons were also very much appreciated, and the click travel was ideal. It's rare that we get to say both of those things in a netbook review.
Dell also kept the palm rest stickers to a minimum (only 3!), and there's also very little going on around the edges. While the machine looks a lot like a netbook, the port selection resembles that of a tablet. There are no ports on the front and back edges, and the left edge is only home to a headphone jack and two USB 2.0 ports (all of which are covered by a plastic shield that can be popped up when you need access).
There are no ports at all on the right edge, only a power button. Tucked just under that edge is a speaker. On the bottom, there's a subtle docking connector which allows the machine to sit upright in the JBL speaker dock (a $50 option). This means that you can dock your machine for use with a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard since a BT module is included, and that dock also provides an Ethernet jack, SD card slot, two more USB 2.0 ports and another audio jack. There are separate AC inputs on the device itself and on the dock, and the AC updater for each is differently sized. So forget about carrying only one cable when you travel; you'll need both.
There's no optical drive, and surprisingly, no media card slot on the Duo itself. There's also no video output. We cannot recall another 10.1" netbook that lacks a video output port of some kind; even the optional JBL dock doesn't have a video output. This fact alone leads us to believe that Dell intends for this to be a tablet first, and a netbook second.
However, there's a full copy (32-bit) of Windows 7 Home Premium, so don't worry about limited functionality from the software side. The keyboard and mousepad were both very rigid and solid, and overall, we felt that this was one of the more solid netbooks on the market. At $550, we didn't expect anything less, but it's always good to see a company live up to expectations.
This is a bit of a heart-breaker, but we have to be honest. For as awesome as the Inspiron Duo is on the outside, the amazing design simply cannot make up for its performance shortcomings. We understand that there's a lot of pricing pressure out there, particularly with 10" netbooks and tablets. However, Intel's 1.5GHz dual-core Atom N550 by itself is simply unimpressive at producing a consistently enjoyable user experience, at least with a standard hard drive serving up data access and with the Duo's higher resolution display (1366x768).
From the moment the machine boots, there are performance issues. Loads of bloatware clutter the desktop loading process, and a "Bing Bar" makes Internet Explorer torturous. Our first two attempts to launch IE led to us having to force close the app; we finally switched to Chrome, but the sluggishness continued. Even opening a single app works the machine hard, and serious multi-tasking isn't met with responsiveness. We were attempting to install a program while also watching a 720p movie clip, and it took well over 20 seconds for the clip to even launch. The Duo gets things done, sure, but in its out-of-the-box configuration it is on the slower side, even by netbook standards. Without question this netbook would benefit greatly from an SSD upgrade and a vigorous clean-up of installed bloatware.
There's a 7200RPM hard drive in here, which is pretty quick as far as 2.5" HDDs go, but the drive performance benfits aren't always realized. We have noted that Intel's Atom line was lacking on the multimedia side of things, but we honestly haven't dealt with a machine as overloaded as this one in a long time. Even simple tasks like booting and checking email requires patience. With AMD's Fusion APU now a reality, along with plenty of dual-core Atom/Ion combinations to choose from, there's no reason to settle for below average performance in a netbook anymore, though we can't blame the processor completely. The overhead of Dell's installed software on the machine definitely takes its toll as well.
The benchmarks tell even more of the story. The low "2.7" achieved on the Windows 7 Experience score tells you a lot, and the poor 144 3DMarks that it racked up in 3DMark 06 is lower than any other netbook we've ever tested. We don't expect netbooks to perform like desktop replacements, but the Atom N550 and integrated graphics in this machine doesn't hold its own very well at all.
We will say that typing on the keyboard is extremely comfortable, and the trackpad is one of the best in the netbook space. But that can't make up for the low performance of the machine. We also longed for a backlit keyboard, but that's just not a common option on notebooks of this caliber.
This is only half of the story. As a netbook, it's slower than some but nicely designed. As a tablet, it's worse, however. The LCD itself has poor viewing angles. Compared to the IPS panel on the iPad (and even the display on the Galaxy Tab), this panel is weak in comparison. You seriously have to eye it straight-on; otherwise, the colors are progressively washed out. That's not ideal for tablet usage.
The fact also remains that Windows 7 just isn't a tablet operating system. No amount of fancy design can fix it. The fact that you have to manually pull out the on-screen keyboard whenever you want to type in a URL or in Word is a real bummer, and there's no easy way to scale the Microsoft virtual keyboard to something larger and more suitable for tablet use. The full version of Windows 7 is definitely not tailored for tablet use, and while the touch response was decent, we had issues with the screen picking up contact accurately every time.
Overall, we were pretty let down on the performance front, especially given just how beautiful the machine is. It's a great design, but it needs more powerful hardware (and ideally, a different OS for the tablet side) to be really useful. There's also Dell's Duo Stage software layer for one-touch access to media, games and books on the tablet side, but it's not exactly sophisticated, and can be a resource burden at times as well.
|Futuremark 3DMark 06 & PCMark Vantage|
The Futuremark 3DMark06 CPU benchmark consists of tests that use the CPU to render 3D scenes, rather than the GPU. It runs several threads simultaneously and is designed to utilize multiple processor cores.
It's sort of unfair to compare the 3DMark06 scores here, but we ran this test just to give you some numbers to glance over. Dell never intended for this machine to be a graphical powerhouse, and it's definitely not. Atom's integrated graphics core is powerful enough to play back HD multi-media, but that's it. Gaming is pretty much out of the question.
We ran the system through Futuremark’s latest system performance metric PCMark Vantage as well. This benchmark suite creates a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads including High Definition video and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity. We like the fact that most of the tests are multi-threaded as well, in order to exploit the additional resources offered by multi-core processors.
The scores here are in the same class with some other netbooks, but clearly show that the Inspiron Duo is not a processing powerhouse. The numbers show that the machine is plenty capable of handling everyday computing duties, but it won't be a speed demon when it comes to completing them.
|SiSoftware Sandra & Multimedia Benchmarks|
We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2010, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic,
CPU Arithmetic Test; Click To Enlarge
CPU Multimedia Test; Click To Enlarge
Memory Bandwidth Test; Click To Enlarge
Physical Disc Test; Click To Enlarge
Our gauntlet of SiSoftware SANDRA tests show decent performance for its class, but nothing world-beating. The Atom N550 just isn't as powerful as we would like given the day and age and the increased competition. Last year, these results would feel more in line with expectations. But these days, we're aiming for a bit more, even in the netbook sector.
To test multimedia capabilities, we attempt to play back a 720p WMVHD clip, a 720p H.264 clip and a 1080p clip. We've also included a screenshot of the 1080p clip from the Mini 311 (which uses the first gen NVIDIA Ion GPU) to give you a better idea of CPU utilization from a different type of system.
Despite having weaker numbers in overall benchmarks and gaming, the Duo does manage to play back both 720p and 1080p content smoothly. We wouldn't recommend multi-tasking while playing video, but if you're dedicating the machine to playing back content, you should be fine. Our machine got a bit warm when cranking 1080p clips, but there weren't any notable stutters, despite seeing the resource meter come dangerously close to peaking on occasion.
Click To Enlarge; 720 H.264 - Dell Inspiron Duo
Click To Enlarge; 720p WMVHD - Dell Inspiron Duo
Click To Enlarge; 1080p - Dell Inspiron Duo
Click To Enlarge; 1080p on HP Mini 311 w/ Ion
To touch on gaming
We've seen sub-$500 netbooks handle these two titles fairly well, but those netbooks had discrete GPUs or chipset IGPs, that the Inspiron Duo lacks. Then again, we've never even attempted to run these two titles on a tablet, so when you realize that at least it'll run these games at all, it's somewhat impressive from that point of view. It's really in how you look at it. The bottom line, however, is that the Duo isn't cut out for gaming, and you should look elsewhere if you need a highly mobile machine that can play first-person shooters. Perhaps a role playing title or online game could be in order but nothing too fast-action.
If there's one thing a netbook (or a tablet) needs to be really competitive, it's great battery life. No matter how great the software or the hardware, an ultra-mobile machine needs great battery life to be really useful in the field. Unfortunately, the 4-cell battery in the Inspiron Duo isn't quite potent enough to pass muster. It couldn't even last three hours on a full charge in our testing, which is low for a netbook, and very low for a tablet. Many of Asus' netbooks last well over 4 hours, and the iPad can easily last 8, just for comparison. BatteryEater Pro is our go-to testing program, which continually loops a 3D graphic and taxes the CPU until the battery runs dry. It's sort of a worst case scenario but the playing field is level.
|Summary and Conclusion|
Performance Summary: In our SiSoftware Sandra tests, the Inspiron Duo put up some decent scores, but compared to what we're seeing from AMD's Fusion processors and other ULV CPU options, the Atom N550 seems somewhat pokey. It didn't shatter records in any department, and it performed particularly poorly in gaming-related tests. The integrated GPU isn't cut out for any kind of gaming, though the system managed to push through 720p and 1080p video playback (albeit with near-maximum resource usage) without incident.
We were honestly hoping for something awe-inspiring with this machine. The design is just amazing. The swivel LCD is incredibly smooth, and being able to convert from tablet to netbook with a simple flip like this is really a game-changing feature, though perhaps not a new design idea. But unfortunately, the slow internals coupled with a sluggish OS/software layer leads to a subpar user experience. Compared to the iPad and Galaxy Tab, the Duo isn't even in the same class in terms of speed, despite having a more powerful CPU. The reason is Windows 7: this is a full-scale desktop OS that's being planted into a netbook/tablet convertible, and it's just not a perfect fit.
Click To Enlarge
The Duo's build quality is excellent, however, and the keyboard/trackpad are among the best we have used in this class of machine. Dell's quality engineers deserve a lot of credit for getting the chassis right. But this machine desperately needs longer battery life, a discrete GPU and a more powerful CPU if Windows 7 is going to function to its fullest potential. And honestly, Win7 just doesn't work well in the tablet environment. It was never designed for tablets, and even typing on its virtual keyboard is a terrible experience in comparison to the virtual keyboards on iOS and Android. Finally, the Duo's LCD has poor viewing angles, which hinders your ability to freely use this as a tablet. Viewing the device straight-on is a pleasure with its high resolution display, but maintaining that viewing angle under in a tablet usage model, isn't always the easy thing to do.
At $550, the Duo is still a compelling product, however. The price is somewhat high, but its quality is outstanding. However, a unique design isn't enough. The overall user experience is sluggish, and to have a netbook/tablet that can't even last three hours on a charge isn't very useful outside of the home -- where it's most expected to be used. We really hope that Dell continues with this design, and incorporates a better performing and more power efficient GPU/CPU setup in the next revision. It has the potential to be an amazing product in Dell's portfolio, offering something that no other company does currently, but there's a lot missing from this first attempt that's hard to ignore.