Rating: ★½☆☆☆

When I undertook a month period without a laptop – only using an iPad – the most difficult readjustment when I returned to my laptop was to stop touching the screen. On the iPad, it’s very convenient to just flick the screen or click on links instead of using a mouse. The Dell Inspiron Duo offers a similar feature, utilizing a capacitive touchscreen capable of bringing together the best of both tablets and netbooks. Does it succeed, or fall flat on its face?

Dell’s Inspiron Duo is a netbook with a capacitive touchscreen meant to bridge the gap between tablets and netbooks. Many people, myself included, have been looking for a laptop solution with tablet qualities (or vice versa), but the major setback has been with Windows. Microsoft has consistently built operating systems capable of supporting tablets and touchscreens, but those controls have always been secondary to standard computing UI, the keyboard and mouse. Of course, Apple changed tablets forever by succeeding with the iPhone, and then the iPad.

The Inspiron Duo, behind the iPad and Galaxy Tablet

Netbooks are known for being slow, but are also capable of running Windows 7, though generally they run the lightest version, Home Starter. For touchscreen functions to work, Dell was forced to use the heavier Home Premium version of Windows on the Duo. Dell’s own software for touchscreen functions is always on by default, in case users flip the screen around and want those extra features. And, of course, Dell included bloatware like McAfee, a highly-rated but top-heavy virus protection application.

The Duo comes with a 1.5GHz dual core Atom processor, 2GB of RAM and integrated graphics. This may sound fast for a netbook, but as described below the Duo is actuallysluggish. When I first started the Duo, it booted so slowly that my initial thought was to reformat the netbook, thereby wiping out all bloatware and speeding up the machine. But I couldn’t because I needed to test the laptop as is. In addition, doing so would remove the necessary touch software.

Inspiron Duo on the bottom is easily 3 times as thick as the iPad, and heavier than both true tablets

After shutting down most of the unnecessary applications (through MSconfig), the Duo ran much better, though it’s still slow. Saving Word documents takes 5-7 seconds, some 480p and 720p streaming video stutters uncontrollably, even after fully buffering. General computing is a pain. All testing was performed after the Duo had been cleaned and the slow software had been shut down without actually uninstalling or removing any applications.

Touchscreen

The first thing I noticed about the touchscreen is that it needed calibration. Unlike most tablets, Windows requires calibration to read touch presses accurately. Dell even saw fit to enlarge the display 125% so that users would be able to use the touch display more precisely, which also stretches everything displayed. Images and text are all skewed and pixelated in the default view, and I immediately reset the screen to 100%.

Once calibrated, the touchscreen works extremely well. Its pinpoint accurate, the 10.1” screen is smooth and flows easily. The technology behind the touchscreen seems to work as well as any other touchscreen but the software behind it is a big letdown.

This doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Anyone familiar with Windows-based touchpads knows that the software was built specifically for two things: to be used with a keyboard and mouse with touch gestures the secondary option; and to be used with a stylus for touchscreens. This was how Bill Gates envisioned it over two decades ago and how Windows 7 was built. That is, in my experience, the core of Windows for touch controls.

Knowing this, Windows 7 on a machine like the Duo makes the Duo suffer. In many respects, I could never replace an iPad with the Duo. In other words, the Duo may look and act like a tablet, but it isn’t a tablet. It uses software that’s still based on a premise that no longer exists today. The Duo will always be a “tablet PC”, which business people bought ten years ago and never used. Anyone interested in replacing their current tablet, or anyone who wants to get a tablet with all the added benefits of a full-fledged laptop, needs to define what it is they want in a device before making that purchase decision.

Aside from the touch capabilities of the screen, the viewing angles on the Duo are awful. Built with tablets in mind, it’s a no-brainer that viewing angles should be a highlight for the Duo, but no. Tilt the screen too far or sit at too high an angle and the colors invert. Turn it a bit too far to the right or left and the screen, or at least part of it, will appear with faded colors. Just getting the sweet spot on the Duo is a problem, especially when holding the laptop like a tablet. It doesn’t just work ?????, and that’s a huge problem.

The whole issue with the screen is far worse when thinking about sharing pictures or video. I once used the iPad for a presentation instead of a projector and the results were exceptional. I would never even consider using the Duo in a similar fashion. The viewing angle is too poor to take into the field. Business users interested in wowing their audiences will not find that oomph in the Duo.

General Use and Performance

When Dell first announced the Duo, I told my brother to hold off on buying an iPad. He wanted to buy one to stream video comfortably, but wasn’t interested in paying for Hulu+. The Duo is a smart choice for such users because it’s still a laptop, and will stream any media no matter what major media conglomerates say or do. That is perhaps the best thing about the Duo, that users can watch streaming video on it as if it were a tablet, with all the benefits of using a laptop, and none of the extra cost.

The left side of the Duo, which has the flip-open USB and 3.5mm auxiliary ports…

And the right side, even emptier than the left with just the power button

As explained earlier, the Duo has a few major setbacks when it comes to general use. First is how bloated it is, which can only be partially corrected. If interested users have no qualms about skipping the included Dell Stage software, it would be smart to reformat, as long as you do so with a copy of Windows 7 Home Premium or better. I can’t guarantee that setting up the Duo as a Tablet laptop will be easy, however, as I didn’t do so for this review.

The Duo has2 USB ports, a single 3.5mm auxiliary port for stereo sound, and the power connector. No VGA/HDMI out, no Ethernet port, no media card reader…we get bubkis. On my first day playing with the Duo, I wanted to stream video to the big screen and couldn’t. “Wi-Fi only” means that even at home data transfer speeds are throttled(limited to) to whatever your wireless network can handle. Furthermore, the connectors have flip-open plastic covers for protection, which just gets in the way.

Using a laptop fulltime with just 2 USB ports is difficult, though having access to the touchscreen does eliminate the need for a dedicated mouse. As I did months ago with the iPad, I could now scroll – albeit less comfortably- by dragging the scroll bar up and down – instead of relying on the middle mouse scroll wheel. In fact, all of the main mouse functions can be achieved using the touchscreen. Right clicking uses the same three-second gesture to activate as it does on Microsoft’s Kinect: hold for three seconds and the left click becomes a right click. This is a slow process, and it’s more convenient to just use the touchpad’s buttons instead.

Even an episode of Castle is ruined thanks to the poor viewing angles on the Duo

The keyboard is decent, even good when compared to netbooks. The keys are small and easy to press, but at the same time there’s too much space between the keys which makes it too easy to misfire. The touchpad is frighteningly small. The surface is rough and it’s so tiny that it almost looks like Dell wants people use the touchscreen instead. As admirable as that may be, Windows 7 is just not built for it.

One larger concern in general use is not the screen size, but the multiple bezels. Like all smartphones, the glass and screen are separated by a slight black region of glass. On the Duo, that amounts to another square inch added to the entire glass plate. Then the actual frame, the true bezel, adds another square inch. The 10.1” screen looks tiny when compared to the laptop’s body; there’s a 10” screen on a 13” case. This gives users a larger perceived size for the display, in effect making the computer appear bulky and the screen tiny.

Forgive me for sounding like Jeff Foxworthy, but you can tell a computer runs slowly when it takes a full 10 seconds for the Windows search bar to find Word. There are load times for everything, from Office applications to loading webpages. Yes, even some heavier websites run slowly because the hardware needs extra time to process it. Physically turning the Duo to portrait mode takes anywhere from 4-7 seconds to switch over completely. Saving documents takes just as long. Some high quality 480p video and average quality 720p video will stutter, and are unwatchable.

If you require the performance an average netbook can offer, the Duo is on par with last year’s high-end models. If, however, you plan to use it as a media and viewing device, as long as you don’t expect anything better than DVD quality video and never have to share, there won’t be a problem, just some lag.

Battery Life

Performance on the Duo is mediocre, and sometimes tragic. Netbooks, in my opinion, don’t offer enough to warrant a purchase, especially when compared to recent inexpensive ultraportable notebooks. However, the key differentiator between the two is battery life. No ultraportable can boast the 8-12 hour battery life some netbooks can, and a 10-15% drop in performance is worth the extended use. Who wouldn’t want to compute throughout an entire transatlantic flight?

The Duo fails on both sides of this argument, taking the maximum drop in performance and offering a sad joke for battery life.

The average tested battery life of the Duo is between two to three and a half hours, depending on use. I can’t sit in a café and watch a whole movie over Wi-Fi. It couldn’t last through the entire Superbowl while word processing. Battery life just stinks. Everyone claims they buy tablets and netbooks for the apps, the small size, usability…but the reality is we want great battery life. Swap ten hours with five and nobody will buy that netbook or tablet. So what the hell happened with the Duo?

The main point for battery life is this: the Duo has a fraction of what tablets and netbooks offer. At best, you’ll be able to squeeze out three and a half hours with minimal Wi-Fi use and the lowest screen brightness. At worst, with heavy Wi-Fi and media use (such as streaming video) and average brightness, you’ll get two hours. For a netbook or tablet, battery life on the Duo is an absolute failure.

Docking Station

The Duo has an accessory docking station from JBL, which is sold with the Duo for an additional $100. It acts as both a speaker system for the Duo and a dock, with an Ethernet port, two additional USB ports, an auxiliary port and a media cart reader. The dock, as you can see in the image above, is made specifically for the touchscreen design, so you won’t be plugging it in and typing away when connected.

The JBL dock is a convenient way to plug in the Duo while showing off the touchscreen. The irony in this case is that, as mentioned earlier, Windows 7 just doesn’t successfully handle a touch-only interface which limits the Duo when solely using the touchscreen.

As a speaker dock, it will play any music or videos and produce better sound than the average laptop speakers. The sound quality from the JBL speaker dock is decent. Sound isn’t rich – the dock isn’t always pitch-perfect in the mid-range and high notes are a bit sharp – but the audio is clean. The dock also does a good job of acting as a sort of stand and speaker so that you can view media on it. If Dell’s software supported it, it could make a good digital photo album. Right now, however, using the speaker dock for anything other than a music player seems farfetched.

If the Duo is going to be your sole laptop and you’d like better audio when at home, get the docking station. If not, pass on it. The extra USB ports and memory card reader don’t help without external monitor support, and having a faster internet connection through cabled Ethernet is not worth the $100 laptop stand.

Conclusion

The Dell Inspiron Duo has a lot of promise. So much promise that I told my brother and some friends to wait for it before deciding on a tablet-like device. And it does have many great uses. It’s impossible to watch a plenty of streaming media without paying on a tablet, while the Duo has no such restrictions. I like using the touchscreen and being able to scroll, to quickly tap on windows, and to use certain gestures. It’s a brave new world and Dell has certainly pushed forward in an excellent direction.

But the company bit off more than it could chew. Windows 7 simply isn’t ready to compete with Android and iOS, let alone other upcoming mobile operating systems and hardware, like the Blackberry Playbook tablet or Android’s soon-to-be-released Honeycomb firmware upgrade specifically for tablets. Just comparing Windows 7 against the three year old iOS puts Microsoft’s beloved operating system to shame. Dell clearly had little choice if they wanted to include the best features of a regular netbook with the touch capabilities of a tablet.

Dell is, however, responsible for the preposterous battery life and slower-than-life processing. At $550, the Duo is certainly competitively priced with tablets, but if anyone walked into a Best Buy and tried the Duo, they would walk away instantly. The Duo isn’t smooth, it isn’t fast, and in nearly every way it pales in comparison to older, less powerful hardware. There are plenty of people who would be happy to pay double the price for a more powerful, faster machine, but it’s clear the company was aiming for a certain price point. Because of this, the Duo is seriously handicapped against even the weakest of competitors.

All that would be secondary if the battery life were at least three times as long as it’s current minimum of two hours. With at least six hours of battery life, the poor performance could be overlooked. After all, we all want to continue typing or touching away. But the Duo can’t even stream a 2+ hour movie. Slow performance and awful battery life are such major setbacks that it makes the terrible viewing angles almost insignificant.

I have no doubt that the Dell Inspiron Duo will live on as a stepping stone for other, similar devices in the future. Even today, as I type this review using the Duo, passersby are stunned by the rotating screen and ask how it works. There is something magical about it that attracts the eye. For now, however, it’s best to leave it as a fond memory and to look forward to what the future will bring.



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.