The Dell Venue 8 pro is a balanced, well designed PC companion device running the much-improved Windows 8.1, which has been optimized for such mini-tablets. The only thing holding it back is the lackluster Windows Store ecosystem.
If you've been reading along, I've already spelled out my general thoughts about this device, in turn, in Dell Venue 8 Pro: First Impressions and Screenshots, Dell Venue 8 Pro: What's Missing, and Dell Venue 8 Pro: What Dell Got Right. Between writing these posts over the past few weeks, I've been using the Dell in a variety of ways around home, though I've not yet traveled with it. And I've been comparing it to the some of the other mini-tablets I own, like the Google Nexus 7 and Amazon Kindle Fire HDX.
It's an interesting comparison. Like many of you, I've been waiting on a good Windows mini-tablet, and the only previous Windows mini-tablet, the Acer Iconia W3, is not that device thanks to its lackluster build quality and terrible screen. But how about the Dell Venue 8 Pro? Does this one finally measure up?
I think so, though there are clearly some issues—even major issues—that make this device a bit less interesting than its Android- and iOS-based competitors. But to understand how—or whether—the Venue 8 Pro is a viable contender, you need to consider many things.
First, start with Windows 8.1...
Microsoft has often described Windows as the most versatile software ever invented. And it's fair to say that Windows has been bent, folded and spindled to work in an amazing variety of scenarios, from embedded systems to traditional PCs to the biggest servers in the world. Windows withstood the netbook threat by getting smaller and lighter, and it is pushing into the smart phone and tablet markets as you read this.
But the real value of Windows, real Windows, the Windows you and I run on our PCs every day, is its versatility. This is a system that is not hard-coded or optimized for particular uses, but is rather an excellent general purpose platform that can do it all, and do it well. One of the reasons that so many have reacted negatively to Windows RT is that this system looks and feels like real Windows but is constrained in some areas that really matter.
Windows RT, of course, has its place. But in keeping with decades of tradition, Microsoft has now molded its traditional Windows product, real Windows, to work with a new and important type of personal computing device, the mini-tablet. In doing so, it has provided PC makers with a crucial piece of the puzzle, letting them create actual devices—that are sort of PCs, sort of not PCs—which provide the same power management and battery life advantages as Windows RT, but with the compatibility and performance that PC users have come to expect. The result is the ultimate hybrid, a weird Frankenstein's monster that really bridges the old and the new. In some ways, these mini-tablets are the ultimate expression of the Windows 8 vision.
... then use the right chipset
Of course, Windows mini-tablets can't even begin to make sense unless the underlying platform is viable as well. Last year's Intel Atom version, codenamed Clover Trail, probably would have been OK for this form factor, but this year's version, called Bay Trail, is much improved. In fact, I'm now curious about Bay Trail-based full-sized tablets and hybrid PCs. I suspect such a machine would be quite viable. (Where Clover Trail devices, alas, were not.)
Aside from basic performance, Bay Trail (like Clover Trail) is a system on a chip (SoC) design that, like ARM, can offer Connected Standby and the kind of power management one gets and expects from real devices. So it's more of an instant-on kind of thing, obviously, but it's also efficient when not in use, going into a sort of deep sleep during which it can also maintain heartbeat-like connections to online services, keeping everything updated.
And of course, a Windows mini-tablet isn't just the core chipset. And this where we need to move from the general to the specific. How does the Dell Venue 8 Pro stack up, as a device and as a PC?
The good, the bad and the ugly of the hardware
I wish I could say that Dell got everything right from a hardware perspective with the Venue 8 Pro, but they did at least get most everything right. A lot of it.
The device itself appears well made, similar in quality to the Google Nexus 7 and Amazon Kindle Fire HDX, both of which are smaller, with 7-inch screens. It has a sort of micro-dimpled back, which feels good in the hand, and it's not overly thick. It is a bit dense in the way that more and more digital gadgets are these days, but not overly heavy. Indeed, weighing it side-by-side in the hand with the Nexus 7 and HDX, the Venue 8 Pro doesn't appear all that heavier despite being bigger. (It is, of course, heavier, and weighs 395 grams, vs. 290 for the Nexus 7 and 307 for the HDX.) The weight distribution is similar across the three devices.
Dell Venue Pro, Google Nexus 7 and Amazon Kindle Fire HDX (left to right)
Overall, performance is snappy. You can turn on the Venue 8 Pro using the Windows button—curiously located on the top of the device (where "top" assumes you are using it in portrait view, the default)—or the Power button, which is next to the two volume buttons on the right side (ditto). There is, however, a slight lag each time you rotate the display, which is common to Windows devices: The screen briefly gets smaller, then rotates. It takes about a second and a half, and I think the visual cue that it is happening adds to the sense of slowness.
Apps launch very quickly, and here the device holds up well, even against my Core i7-based desktop. In side-by-side app launching tests with a Surface 2, the Dell routinely won. Neither device is slow, per se—this isn't a repeat of last year's Clover Trail tests—but the Dell is the faster of two very speedy devices.
The screen is a bit of a wash, as in washed out: By default, Dell ships the Venue 8 Pro with the screen brightness set to "auto," and the results are dim and hard to view. But in disabling this feature and revealing the true beauty of the screen, which is considerable, I also discover why Dell configured the device this way. With screen brightness on auto, the Venue 8 Pro delivers about 8 hours of battery life in my streaming HD video tests. Set it to something more akin to what the Surface 2 delivers by default and the battery life in those same tests drops to a more middling 5 hours or so. That is a big difference, and while I'm sure there's a happy middle ground that could net, say, 6.5 or 7 hours of battery, it's also less than I had expected and hoped for.
UPDATE: Dell has released a software update that fixes the dim screen isssue noted above. Please check out 28 Days Later: Dell Venue 8 Pro for more information.
With the rest of the tablet market moving to "Retina"-class displays—that is, displays that are over 1080p in resolution—the Dell, like other Windows mini-tablets, is stuck in yesteryear's 1280 x 800 resolution. That's not actually horrible in practice-indeed, in testing the battery, I was quite taken by the sheer brilliance of the display in movies such as "The Avengers"—but you should at least know about this. The Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX both offer higher resolution 1920 x 1200 screens.
(I made the same observation about the 1024 x 768 iPad mini that Apple shipped last year and still sells. Yes, it's a fairly low-res screen for an 8-inch device. But it looks great in real life.)
Expandability is limited. The Venue 8 Pro offers micro-SD, which is crucial for those who wish to add lots of content to the device. But like the Acer Iconia W3, it only offers micro-USB, and not full-sized USB, necessitating an adapter to use USBs devices. And that adapter is not even included, which is unfortunate; even the terrible Acer includes such a thing. Further complicating matters, the Dell uses the micro-USB port for charging, so you can't charge and use a USB device simultaneously. Geesh. (Yes, there are adapters.)
Google Nexus 7, Amazon Kindle Fire HDX, Dell Venue 8 Pro (top to bottom)
And it has no hardware-based video out (like micro-HDMI), which is curious. Instead, Dell relies on Miracast wireless display, which I don't feel is appropriate as the only remote video possibility. HDMI is just so cheap and easy.
Dell doesn't include a stylus with the device by default, but you can buy a Dell Active Stylus during or after your purchase. My advice is to skip it: The stylus is not as useless as a capacitive pen, but offers nowhere near the performance or accuracy of a nice electromagnetic stylus like the Surface Pro Pen. Sadly, the Dell's screen is not compatible with better styli, like that Surface unit.
And then there's the software
Overall, the hardware is solid. There are some miscues but it's mostly workable. But it's the software that's problematic. Not Windows 8.1, per se, which is a great update to Microsoft's first stab at a "PC plus" operating system. This OS supports portrait mode and snap, even on this smaller screen, and it works well overall. No, Windows 8.1 is fine. It's the software you run—or want to run—on the Venue 8 Pro that holds it back.
The issue is two-fold.
First, the Windows Store ecosystem—the Metro-style apps that run only in Windows 8.x and Windows RT—has not yet taken off in an acceptable fashion, and those who are familiar with the bottomless app stores on Android and iOS will notice immediately that things are decidedly lacking on the Windows front. This is a very real and very serious problem, and while the basics are indeed there—you can rent movies from Xbox Video, and Xbox Music is serviceable, in my opinion—the chance that some app you need or want simply doesn't exist in Windows Store form is very, very likely.
Second, though the Venue 8 Pro can indeed run Windows desktop applications—opening up the possibility of using iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, Chrome, Photoshop Elements, or whatever—these applications are not exactly designed for an 8-inch touch screen. So they'll work, but if you're tapping away with your relatively ginormous fingertips, you'll misfire a lot. It gets frustrating.
The tiny on-screen desktop controls are too small to press with your finger
By comparison, the Nexus 7, Kindle Fire HDX and iPad mini are all backed by amazing, well-stocked ecosystems, huge apps stores with plenty of apps and games and superior content services. It's not Dell's fault, but the Windows world is currently a bit lacking. It just is.
Some will try to contort the Dell into something it's not. After all, you can add a Bluetooth-based keyboard and mouse, and it's like a tiny PC. You could use that terrible stylus to take terribly-written notes in OneNote. And the device does come with a free copy of Office 2013 Home & Student, so you should use that stuff, right?
I'm not so sure. I think the strength of the Dell Venue 8 Pro—really, the strength of any well-designed Windows mini-tablet—is that it provides a familiar Windows user experience on a different device type, on that is by definition a companion device and not one's primary computing interface. I don't think that classic Windows desktop applications work well here, but on the flipside, the lacking nature of the Windows Store ecosystem also means, sorry, that this companion device isn't much of a companion.
Obviously, everyone's needs are different. And the ability to at least run desktop applications means a smoother transition from old to new. But it's a big compromise.
The Dell Venue 8 Pro starts at $299 for a 32 GB unit, which is an excellent price given the $229 starting price for the smaller Amazon Kindle Fire HDX and Google Nexus 7, both of which come with 16 GB of storage and no micro-SD expansion. (Given the size of Windows 8, comparing a 32 GB Windows device to a 16 GB Android device is indeed absolutely fine.) It's the same price as the 8-inch, non-Retina iPad mini, which also features 16 GB of storage (non-expandable).
But price and value are two different things. And of these four devices, the Dell comes saddled with the weakest ecosystem support. So for now at least, unless you have very specific Windows-based needs, it's not clear that the Dell competes, value-wise, with these competitors.
I really hoped to offer something definitive about this well-made device, to be able to issue some kind of a general recommendation that could stand up to deeper scrutiny. But the Dell Venue 8 Pro is a victim of the Windows Store interface and a few strange design decisions, and while some will take no issue with either, many will. And you need to be aware of the limitations.
I like this device quite a bit. It pretty much proves that a Windows mini-tablet can work, and work well. Can I recommend it? Not without caveats, and without a discussion of those ecosystem issues. But yes, this is a high-quality machine, and it has me wondering now about its bigger brother, the Dell Venue 11 Pro, which comes in a low-end version that features innards similar to the Venue 8 Pro.
I also has me wondering about competing Windows 8-based mini-tablets like the Lenovo Miix 2 and Toshiba Encore. Perhaps it's time to look at one of those next.