Dell Inspiron Duo boasts innovative hybrid design -- but little else

Hybrid system slickly morphs from laptop to tablet, but use of Windows 7 and Intel Atom could hinder adoption

Dell today at the Intel Developer Forum unveiled a hybrid computer called the Dell Inspiron Duo that, with a couple of twists, morphs between a tablet and a laptop with a physical keyboard. While the design appears innovative and encouraging -- and may give the iPad some competition -- the Inspiron Duo's announced platform, Windows 7, and processor, the Intel Atom, significantly detract from the overall wow factor.

The Inspiron Duo's ability to switch from tablet to laptop is the exciting bit. A deservedly popular computing device, the iPad has demonstrated that tablets -- which are by no means new -- are finally viable for mainstream adoption. It's well-designed, attractive, and easy to use, but for all intents and purposes, it's an entertainment device, not a productivity tool. Yes, you can conveniently check your email and send messages with it, as well as flip through reports or e-books, hop from Web page to Web page, and otherwise browse and consume to your heart's content.

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But with an iPad (or any tablet), you aren't going to sit down for several hours to write reports, polish presentations, or spruce up your spreadsheets -- unless you're a masochist or you have a keyboard and a stand for propping up the device. On-the-go workers likely won't want to schlep around extra gear so that they can use their iPad for productivity-related tasks.

The Dell Inspiron Duo appears to bridge the gap between entertainment device and productivity tool. You have the tablet portion, which offers a level of simplicity and convenience as you breeze through data and apps with your fingers. But when it's time for work, just flip and rotate the machine; voilà, you have a laptop, complete with physical keyboard and erect screen.

Dell isn't the first company to take a stab at a reversible tablet. But at first blush, the design looks slick and full of potential -- and again, the hybrid's time may have finally arrived now that tablets have become useful.

Hardware design aside, the Inspiron Duo may disappoint. The version Dell unveiled at IDF runs Windows 7 Premium, which doesn't cut it for touchscreen use, especially compared to iOS. Further, it runs on the Intel Atom (specifically the dual-core Atom N550), a processor that has failed to gain much traction and that Intel will almost certainly be phasing out in the near future. As for pricing, Dell has been mum thus far, so it's tough to know whether the device will have a cost advantage over the iPad.

Dell's on the right track, though its foray into the world of hybrid computing likely won't be a huge success due to the shortcomings of Windows 7 and Atom. Still, it signals that we may see promising non-Apple-centric contenders to the iPad emerging that bridge the gap between entertainment and productivity. But Steve Ballmer needs to get his (and Microsoft's) act together if he is ever going to achieve his aspiration of killing the iPad.

This article, "Dell Inspiron Duo boasts innovative hybrid design -- but little else," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog.