Dell Inspiron Duo Hybrid Tablet / Netbook Review

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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.


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