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Dell Inspiron Duo Preview

Dell's iPad wanna-be, the Inspiron Duo, arrived at the Thurrott household today, and while it will be some time before I can provide a thorough review of the unit, I wanted to at least show you what it looks like and provide some initial thoughts. The rationale here is simple: There's a vocal contingent in the Windows camp who believes that Microsoft and its partners need to respond, sooner rather than later, to the iPad "threat." And while the iPad has been around for 8 long months, the response from the Windows camp so far has amounted largely to silence.

Until now, that is. The Dell Inspiron Duo is, to my knowledge, the first post-iPad Tablet PC to ship from a major PC maker. (I don't believe the HP Slate is currently shipping, but if so, these two devices represent together the first official Wintel response to iPad.)

The device itself features a fairly unique design, assuming you don't recall the Vadem Clio Windows CE device from 1999. (And let's face it, most don't.) That is, it's a convertible tablet, with a screen that rotates within its bezel so that the PC can be used in two ways: As a slate PC, with the keyboard hidden in the middle, or like a traditional notebook computer.

Excuse me, not a traditional notebook computer, but rather a traditional netbook. The Duo is, as it turns out, a netbook-class PC, both in its internals--a dual-core Atom CPU, 2 GB of RAM, and integrated graphics--and in its physical form factor, which includes a not-quite-100-percent-sized keyboard, a smallish (for a PC) 10-inch display, and no optical drive.

Compared to the iPad, the Duo is pretty portly, about 11-inches by 8-inches by 1-inch thick and about 3.5 pounds. This compares to the iPad, which, at 9.6-inches by 7.5-inches by .5-inches thick and about 1.5 pounds, is considerably smaller and lighter. I've complained that the iPad is too big and heavy to be used one-handed, as you would want for reading and other uses. But the Duo isn't even close. (Maybe "Duo" is Italian for "twice as big as the iPad.") So you can scratch those goals from the Duo want list.

The Duo does feature a much higher resolution screen (1366 x 768) than the iPad, however, and it's got the desired widescreen aspect ratio, which should make for good movie watching. (I'll report back on that in my eventual review.) So that's one win for the Duo. But the battery life, as reported by Dell, is just 3.5 hours. Are you kidding me? The iPad gets 8 hours without breaking a sweat. It's no contest.

Speaking of the screen, some have commented that it doesn't offer the same wide viewing angles as the iPad, or of other laptop screens. I'm seeing this as well, though I'm not sure yet if it's going to be a problem as I don't normally share such a small screen with others anyway. It's definitely not as bright as the iPad, but then maybe that will work to its advantage. The iPad, after all, is overly reflective. (That said, I've seen plenty of reflection in this screen already. Again, some testing is in order here.)

The out of box experience is typical PC--which is to say terrible and time consuming--and you actually have to enable the accelerometer sensor (it does ask you at least) before it will auto-realign the screen based on how you're holding it. The performance of this action, however, is quite slow, not instantaneous like the iPad. (Actually, the iPad is almost too fast in this regard, but whatever.)

Dell provides a custom, touch-based interface called duo Stage that lets you interact with media, Internet, and other features while in slate mode. And of course, it's a full-fledged Windows 7 PC, so you can run normal software and interact with it via a decent (for a netbook) keyboard and what isn't (but feels like) a glass trackpad. A minimal number of ports--including two USB ports--are available under some rubber flaps. I hate flaps.

Overall, the Duo looks like a pretty tepid response to the iPad, which is what I've been expecting. But don't jump to any conclusions yet. I'll spend some serious time with this thing and report back in a full review as soon as I can. In the meantime, my advice on tablets remains unchanged: If you are serious about wanting a tablet, try to wait until next year. At that time, you'll have many more devices to choose from, and they'll all be superior to today's offerings. These include new tablet PC designs based on an upcoming Intel chipset, a second generation iPad, the RIM Blackberry Playbook, new Android tablets, and of course HP's webOS-based offerings. This is not the time to buy such a device.

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