Dell Venue 8 Pro: What Dell Got Right

Dell Venue 8 Pro: What Dell Got Right

Most of the important stuff, as it turns out

As I continue my Dell Venue 8 Pro battery tests, I thought I'd take a second look at this intriguing new Windows mini-tablet. Over the weekend, I posted Dell Venue 8 Pro: What's Missing in a bid to help potential customers determine whether this device would meet their needs. But there are of course two sides to this story, so today I'll examine some of the things that I really like about this device.

To be clear, my experience with the Venue 8 Pro has been very positive overall. It's confirmed my belief that a Windows mini-tablet can make plenty of sense as a companion device. And while I wish that Dell offered a full-sized keyboard dock similar to what Acer offers, opening up the possibility of using this device as a very portable PC for trips, it does otherwise offer significant improvements over the lackluster Acer Iconia W3. This is a well-made, nicely designed device.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Here's a quick rundown of some of the things I really like about the Dell Venue 8 Pro.

Portrait Orientation. With this new generation of Windows mini-tablets, portrait orientation is the default, as it is on phones. And thanks to Windows 8.1 (below) and newly updated built-in apps, this works well now, and is the right orientation for most consumption activities on the device. (Obvious exception: video playback.)

Form factor. When I first got the Acer Iconia W3, I could tell that this mini-tablet form factor would work, but only if a hardware maker got the screen, size, thickness and weight right. (The W3 falls short in all of those areas.) The Dell Venue 8 Pro very much gets all of this right. This is a device that works well with just one hand, and it's a wonderful combination of size, thinness and weight, a very balanced device with a nice, grippy back.

Windows 8.1. By offering the Core version of Windows 8.1, the Venue 8 Pro offers a crucial bit of functionality than no ARM/Windows RT-based can claim: It's a real PC that run desktop applications (iTunes, Zune whatever), work completely with the full range of PC hardware accessories and devices, and overcome the limitations of the WinRT-only ecosystem offered by competing devices.

Bay Trail. While the Intel Atom processor brand may always be stained by the miasma of netbooks past, this new version, codenamed "Bay Trail," is finally the real-deal. It's a quad-core chip that combines excellent performance with ARM-like (read: device-like) power management. Combined with the OS mentioned above, this means that the Dell Venue 8 Pro is a true hybrid device, one that is both a real PC (can run desktop applications) and a device.

Screen. While specification Nazis will groan that the 1280 x 800 display in the Venue 8 Pro can in no way possibly compete with the "Retina"-class displays in devices such as the Amazon Kindle HDX, Google Nexus 7 or Apple iPad mini with Retina Display, I disagree. The display in the Venue 8 Pro is absolutely gorgeous, for both text and graphics. And I've audibly exclaimed at the sheer beauty of the screen during HD movie playback on multiple occasions. This IPS screen isn't a liability, it's a strength.

Fast charging. While I appreciate the ubiquity of the micro-USB port that the Venue 8 Pro uses for charging (as well as accessory expansion), I was dubious about how well/quickly this device would charge. But there's clearly something good going on here: The first 40 percent of a new charge happens very quickly, in 30 minutes or so, and then it slows down a bit for the remainder. I'm still measuring this, but in doing my battery tests and killing off the battery multiple times, I've noticed that it jumps up to 40 percent or so very quickly. I'll keep watching this.

Accessories. One thing I've come to appreciate with various devices—Apple's i-devices, of course, but also the Nokia Lumias and others—is that a supporting lineup of tailored hardware accessories makes a big difference. While you can—and perhaps at first should—pick up just the tablet itself—those that need such things can optionally purchase a Dell Tablet Wireless Keyboard (available soon), Tablet Folio (kind of a cover/kickstand combo), a (capacitive) Active Stylus and an extra USB charger. Of course, the Venue Pro works out of the box with any Bluetooth accessories and, with an adapter (not included), most USB accessories too.

Price. $299 for a Windows 8.1-based tablet that includes a full version of Office and micro-SD storage expansion isn't just a good value, it's arguably a better value than the otherwise cheaper Android alternatives. I recommend that most people stick with the low-end 32 GB version and getting a 64 GB micro-SD card when you need it.

The big questions with this device all involve comparisons. Comparisons with both similar Windows 8.1-based mini-tablets—the Lenovo Miix 2, the Acer Iconia W4, and the Toshiba Encore—and the Android-based competition. The Windows devices will likely be a lot more similar to each from a form factor perspective, as most of the Android devices offer 7-inch screens and are corresponding a bit thinner and lighter. And then there's that prickly ecosystem issue to consider. Ultimately, that's always going to be the thing that trips up every modern Windows device.

More soon.

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