With the popularity of Apple’s iPad it’s easy to forget that most tablet computers used to be laptops with a hinge that allowed the touchscreen display to be swiveled around and folded down over the keyboard. Such designs are still available today but have had their thunder (and much of their market share) stolen by the touchscreen-only designs like the iPad. Recognizing that there’s still plenty of people who prefer the functionality of a full QWERTY keyboard, Dell has introduced the Inspiron Duo with its new flip-hinge design that allows users to switch from touch to type mode with a flip of the screen.

In type mode the Inspiron Duo looks just like a regular netbook computer with its chiclet keyboard and 10.1-inch display. Once you’re done composing emails or penning your latest novel you flip the screen, almost like flipping those stand-alone school blackboards, and fold it down to transform the unit into tablet mode. Using Dell’s duo Stage software, users are able to access music, video, games, the Internet and an e-Bookstore using a touch interface.

The Inspiron Duo comes preloaded with Windows 7 Home Premium and is powered by a 1.5 GHz dual-core Atom N550 processor and 2GB of RAM. Other specs include 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, two USB 2.0 ports, a 3.5 mm headphone jack, integrated 1.3 MP webcam and digital microphone. The 10.1-inch capacitive touchscreen has a resolution of 1,366 x 768 pixels and HDD options include 250 GB, 5400 RPM or 320 GB, 7200 RPM drives. The device measures 285 mm wide x 194.5 mm deep (11.22 x 7.66-in) and from 26.2 mm (front) to 28.7 mm (back) high (1.03 – 1.13-in).

Although Dell has given its new computer the Duo moniker, the company actually says it has tri-mode functionality through the optional Audio Station dock, which includes a built-in media card reader, JBL speakers, two additional USB 2.0 ports, an Ethernet adapter and battery charger. In dock mode Dell says the Inspiron Duo can act as an alarm clock, digital photo frame or music player.

The Inspiron Duo can be ordered from Dell now with prices starting at US$549.99 and a preliminary shipping date of December 14, 2010.