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Design, Build, Connectivity and Usability

If you're liking the sound of those specifications, just wait till you feel this netbook/tablet hybrid in your hand. Aside from an attractively-patterned glossy centre section in the lid, most of the Merlin Blue (great-looking colour, by the way) sample we got to play with was covered in a soft-touch, semi rubberized coating that not only made it lovely to hold (especially when combined with its rounded edges) but also gave a very rugged impression. This finish didn't show up any fingerprints, and even the glossy part of the lid did a reasonable job of disguising them.

Build quality overall was exceptional, despite the model we looked at being pre-production. Everything fit together flawlessly, with no flex in the chassis and a sturdy screen hinge. The flipping mechanism to turn the screen around also felt very smooth and assured; the screen stayed at the exact angle you put it at, and once it had completed its flip, a strong magnet pulled it securely into position.

With a weight of around 1.5kg, it's on the light side for a netbook. But though it's very heavy for a tablet, its comfortable curves and finish meant it was never difficult or unpleasant to hold as such. Just like Apple's laptops, the battery is built-in, and with estimated life away from a socket being between four and six hours (depending on usage), this may be a significant limitation for some. We'll have to see how long it actually lasts once we get it in for review.

Enforcing both its design and ruggedness, most of the Inspiron Duo's connectivity was hidden behind two hinged flaps. Unfortunately, that connectivity is where we come across our first major gripe with Dell's hybrid. At least on the model we played with, it had only two USB ports, a headphone/microphone jack and a docking connector. Admittedly the device's HD screen and its tablet nature mean you're less likely to hook it up to a monitor or TV than the average netbook, but we would at least have liked to have seen the option.

Still, while poor even by netbook standards, compared to many tablets this connectivity is actually pretty much standard. The optional speaker dock (which Dell has grandly named the Audio Station) also adds a memory card reader, a further two USB ports, 3.5mm line-in and an Ethernet port.

Usability was generally good. The isolation (chiclet-style) keyboard features a good layout and decent though shallow feedback, while the well-positioned and responsive multi-touch touchpad offered a smooth surface and individual buttons with a positive click.

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