Dell design lead talks carbon fibre, Windows 8 touch and more

11th Jul 2011 | 12:15

Dell design lead talks carbon fibre, Windows 8 touch and more

Testing out new materials and concepts

Dell has worked hard to improve its industrial design in recent times, with design teams given more credence internally.

In addition to the Dell Streak line, the company also released the Inspiron Duo which, although weighty and underpowered, is an interesting convertible with a rotating screen.

We caught up with Michael Smith, Dell's Industrial Design Director to talk a little about Dell's design ethos, how it comes up with new materials and concepts, the forthcoming opportunity of Windows 8 and the challenge of designing PCs and tablets that combine both style and durability.

"The battery life is not as long as it could be, but the biggest feedback we've had is about the processor itself," says Smith, who adds that his department always has plenty of questions to ask itself and Windows 8 is at the forefront of current thinking.

"We're working on a lot of stuff in the lab around mobility, convertibles, where do we take it? What is the processor, where is Windows 8 going?

"Microsoft is redesigning its interface to be landscape, 16:9 with a focus on touch – today Windows 7 isn't the best touch interface in the world, the targets are small.

"That's why we developed our Stage touch software because Windows 7 is difficult to use in a touch environment. We're looking at all types of different form factors. The Inspiron Duo is almost four years old from when we had the first idea."

"We're looking at extending the idea of convertible into the next generation of thinner and slimmer [devices], larger screens. We're looking at everything from ARM processors to… everything."

Cost and materials

One key aspect of PC and tablet design is, of course, cost. Smith talks about the challenge of making the high-end Adamo notebook first introduced in 2009, but then dripping aspects of its design further down the range to the Inspiron Duo.

"The Adamo is 16mm thick but to get there it's all machined out of solid aluminium. That is not cheap to do, but it's a very rigid part. We started this programme before the [similar] new MacBook unibody was constructed.

Dell adamo

ADAMO ALUMINIUM:Expensive to produce

"This is extruded… and then machined with a five axis router and it takes a lot of time to make these parts. You're talking a $2,000 box versus a $400 box [in the Inspiron Duo]."

"We invest in our materials. This is magnesium [shell] right out of the tool," he says, picking up a shell. "It's light, it's rigid, but it's a real pain in the ass to finish. You gotta machine all this away.

Dell adamo

MAGNESIUM SHELL:Before the machining process

"This is a very cheap material, the expense is making it look nice. You'll see one of the clever things we can do is insert moulded plastic, this is puttied and sanded and painted. It's a very lengthy process.

"When you look at our Inspiron stuff, which is all plastic, that enables you to get the price point down."

So what other materials is Dell playing with. He's a bit cagey here, but he does say they're messing around with some pretty cool stuff.

"We're playing with carbon fibre, titanium and others. We have a Surface Studio with a full time team of six people. That's all they do, look for new materials and we do trials.

Screen and keyboard tech

Picking up the Inspiron Duo again, Smith turns to talk about screen tech "We were the first to work with Gorilla Glass in the notebook market." Gorilla Glass is now also used in Dell's tablets and mobiles.

"Originally you could only get it to 0.7mm thickness, this is 0.5mm on both sides, the back is glass as well to handle the wireless LAN. We had to spend time on prototype after prototype and finally found a way to do that.

"Carbon fibre's an interesting one, we're doing a lot of work on that."

Smith is clearly proud of the Inspiron Duo and talks candidly about Dell's efforts in the tablet market. "There were all these convergent devices – what if we could create a device that was about work and play, had a keyboard and became a Transformer, if you will.

"We built lots of different prototypes. One of the early ones we looked at was a slider with a 7-inch screen. We also did a bunch of different form factors and ultimately we ended up with this [final] idea.

Dell 7-inch tablet concept

CONCEPT:This 7-inch concept never made it beyond the model stage

"We wanted something that was robust. If you look at the traditional convertible it has a centre hinge that twists around, but these hinges are notoriously fragile and put in the hands of a 12 -year-old, havoc can happen.

"So we went for an all-magnesium construction, we had to go soft for [wireless] antennas and this whole idea of, 'boom it flips' and then we have a keyboard, trackpad and it turns into a traditional netbook.

"So it has an Atom processor and we designed a touch interface specifically for this product – we extended it into our Stage software. When we showed this to kids they were like 'wow, do it again' – the whole idea of transforming from one state to another."

What about usability, we ask – how much work is done on keyboards for example? Smith looks serious here and indicates that Dell takes keyboards especially seriously, even on a convertible tablet, since it's crucial in both the business and consumer spaces. "We do a ton of work on keyboards. The Inspiron Duo goes to 98 per cent full pitch for what is [primarily a touch device].

"Netbooks are notoriously too cramped, people didn't like that. We took a lot of time trying out different layouts, doing error counts and dialling that all in.

"We probably spend more time than any of our competition on keyboards, especially in the business space where, if you mess up a keyboard, you're done.

"Even for consumers at retail, the first thing they do is walk up and try the trackpad. If that's not a good experience from the get-go, they'll move down the line. It's a big focus for us."

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