Can’t decide between a tablet or a new laptop? Dell is hoping so, having combined both to make the Inspiron Duo. As party tricks go, the Duo’s rotating screen is up there with balancing a broom handle on your nose. With a bucket of custard on top.
To maximise the wow factor you have to start from a standard laptop form. Sit opposite a friend across a table, plonk it down and open it up as normal. Launch a browser, feed something into Google to demonstrate its type-friendly keyboard and click around until you find a video of a dancing cat. Now, affect a corny laugh and say “You’ve got to see this...’ upon which you push the top of the screen and flip it round like a secret door in a stately home to face your compadre.
Once the applause has died down you can go in for the kill. Fold the lid back onto the keyboard to turn it into a touchscreen tablet. At this point, poke it briefly, take a bow and get out while the going is good, because it’s downhill from here.
A touchy subject
Smart as that trick is, the tablet side of things relies on Windows 7. Yes, it supports touch input, but the main environment is still tailored for use with a mouse. The main advantage of running Windows 7 over Android or iOS is that you get access to a mountain of full-bodied desktop applications. The downside is that your fingers are far less precise than a pixel-perfect mouse pointer.
Now that we’re all used to swiping and scrolling through icons on our phones, the process of stabbing at the ‘close’ buttons and fishing around for the frames of windows on a PC feels incredibly dated. Dell has made an attempt to improve this with its own front end that pops up in tablet mode, offering shortcuts to a few touch-oriented apps, but frankly the Inspiron Duo just doesn’t work as a tablet.
Docking all over the house
There is a glimmer of hope though: for an extra £80 you can buy the Duo in a bundle with a bespoke dock. This hook up with audio specialist JBL has spawned a neat cradle that props up the tablet-form Duo, giving it speakers that are more than ample for convincing playback of movies and streamed TV, and do a fair job of playing music. With Spotify installed, you’ve got a tidy little kitchen multimedia jukebox.
That dock also adds an Ethernet port and an SD card reader, and duplicates the now concealed pair of USB 2.0 ports and audio in/out socket, as well as charging the battery. Unless you want to pay over the odds for a quirky netbook, it’s less and option than a necessity.
It’s a shame that there’s not quite enough power under the hood to make the most of it. The Atom N550 processor copes well with anything that doesn’t involved visuals (so audio apps are fine), but the reliance on integrated graphics hardware compounds its struggle to replay iPlayer at optimum framerates. It’s watchable, but even hooking it up via Ethernet or playing files from the hard drive won’t smooth things out as you’d hope.
As a netbook, the Inspire Duo is actually rather good. It’s fat, and compromises involving that screen action have lead to a smaller display than would otherwise be the case, but the keyboard is comfy and accurate and it’s an attractive little package. The glossy lid is smart and the slightly rubbery finish to the shell gives it a mildly ruggedised feel.
If money was no object or Windows 7 wasn’t the world’s most challenging dexterity test, the Inspiron Duo would be a hit. As it is, the Duo’s market is limited to those who want to combine an adequate netbook with a fidgety internet TV and casual music streamer.