December 30, 2013

Dell Venue 8 Pro

The Little Tablet That Could

With Windows 8 devices having mostly passed through the awkward teenage phase of experimental form factors, the product line-up is left with a few standout players.

For now, I want to focus in on the tablets, where we’ve recently seen the range of screen sizes expand to include smaller form factors that compete more directly with the likes of the incredible Nexus 7 and the ubiquitous iPad Mini.

I’ve been using the Windows 8 answer to these tablets for more than a month, and wanted to put my thoughts out there for those of you who have been intrigued by Dell’s portable powerhouse, the Venue 8 Pro.

Better Than the Brand

You can’t be blamed for a certain degree of skepticism regarding the appearance of the Dell name. The brand has always been a workhorse for business environments; after all, it was only this year that Apple displaced them as the most sought-after desktop brand. But even Dell’s acquisition of Alienware did little to give them a sense of cool”.

Acknowledging that their brand simply isn’t that appealing to the traditional tablet market has encouraged them to exceed all expectations with their Venue Pro line.

Intel Inside

No matter how you look at it, the Venue 8 Pro is an incredible piece of technology.

Its 8-inch form factor houses a quad-core Bay Trail processor bolstered by a generous 2GB of RAM, allowing it to run full Windows 8.1. With either 32GB or 64GB of storage and a copy of Office Home & Student, it’s nothing short of remarkable that you’re getting all of this for less than $300.

Bay Trail may sound like the name of a retirement home, but it’s actually what Intel is calling their latest processor architecture for mobile devices. Unlike the ARM Snapdragon, Bay Trail is capable of running full Windows 8.1 (not just RT), which means that its most direct competition is its own predecessor, the Clover Trail.

But Bay Trail offers significantly improved performance while maintaining the same excellent battery life, passive cooling, and other mobile-friendly benefits.

In English, this means that Intel has made it possible to have tablet form factors provide computing power that previously required a real” computer. Buying a tablet no longer has to mean that you’re buying an inherently less functional device than a laptop.

Dell Outside

The Venue 8 Pro’s exterior is only slightly less admirable. While the form factor itself is nearly perfect, there are lingering hints that Dell’s priorities were focused on the interior of the device.

Don’t get me wrong: it feels great in the hand and I appreciated the textured back, with its interesting concentric circles surrounding the Dell logo. Holding it was comfortable and felt stable - unlike the glassy materials used in things like the Nexus 4, I wasn’t ever worried about dropping the Venue or having it slip off a table. In short, it feels trustworthy, if a little staid.

And yet…there are some decisions that seem strange. Where most Windows tablets have a capacitive Windows button centred under the screen, Dell has moved theirs to the top edge of the tablet, on the right. This is where you might expect a power button to be, but that power button is placed along the right edge above the volume rocker.

Despite my best efforts, I can’t come up with a good reason why Dell would have chosen to place the Windows button in such an unusual place. Is it to avoid accidental taps when in landscape mode? Maybe, but there’s enough bezel to make that seem like a non-issue.

My best guess is that it was a cost-saving measure to help them use the same general build for both their Windows and Android tablets. Having to place a capacitive touch sensor on the bottom bezel would mean significantly different frame engineering.

While the placement is strange, it’s not actually something that bothered me in day-to-day use. In fact, while I felt that the Windows key was necessary on a wide 10-inch tablet like the Surface, the edge gesture seemed like the most natural way to return to Start on the Dell. It requires no change in hand position and is just as fast.

In future iterations of the hardware, I could see Dell entirely removing the Windows button - they’re pushing people to learn and use the gestures anyway, and as more people become familiar with Windows 8, it might allow for gorgeous, thin-bezelled tablets that fulfill Microsoft’s futuristic vision.

On a lighter note, the other thing that makes me question Dell’s quality assurance standards for the hardware is the presence of a funny typo on the product itself.

At least on the first run of devices (including my own), the label on the rear that houses the FCC information refers to the tablet as a Venus 8 Pro.

It seems impossible, but sure enough it’s there. Obviously not a meaningful complaint about functionality, but it makes you pause and wonder how attentive to detail they could be if they can’t even spell the name correctly - on the product itself.

Ideal Form

If you’re considering this tablet, I suspect there are a few things that are on your list of criteria:

  1. Portability vs. 10-inch tablets
  2. Battery life
  3. Productivity potential

When it comes to portability, it’s hard to beat the 8-inch form factor. It’s not as svelte as my Nexus 7, but it also feels significantly less cramped when you’re reading a magazine or getting some work done.

The extra inch makes an appreciable difference in perceived screen real estate, and it manages this without compromising the ergonomics. You can still comfortably hold the Venue in one hand.

It’s not the lightest nor the thinnest tablet on the market, but if you’re used to carrying around a notebook to meetings then you’ll find the Venue very much the same in terms of bulk, with the added advantage of it being a computer.

Of course, with that advantage comes the problem of battery life. Both the iPad Mini and especially the Nexus 7 have impressive battery life. My Nexus lasts me two days of heavy usage, and its wireless charging capabilities make it effortless to top up whenever I don’t need it close at hand.

Dell knew it was facing stiff competition here and made sure not to disappoint. Over the course of my time with the Venue 8 Pro, I feel like I’ve only had to charge it maybe three times.

It lasts through several days of moderate use quite comfortably, and if I’m using it more heavily then I can still rely on it to a solid day and a half of performance before begging for a charge.

To me, this is perfect. It manages to keep away from the panic zone of devices that make you constantly worry about charge levels. As other reviews have noted though, Dell is slightly overzealous in their defence of battery life; by default, the auto-brightness is heavily biased toward a dark and dreary screen, which may give the impression of a poor display when you take it out of the box.

My advice is to disable auto-brightness and allow the screen to shine - it may not match the Nexus 7 for pixel density, but it’s a gorgeous display.

Productive Niche

Tablets are traditionally thought of as consumption devices, and most of this comes down to screen size. People feel more comfortable with the idea of getting work done when they’re doing it on a larger screen.

For several years now, it’s been possible to get work done on tablets from the perspective of hardware capabilities; connecting an external keyboard, for instance.

Realistically though, you won’t be handling complex spreadsheets on an 8-inch screen, so how exactly does the Dell manage to help with productivity?

Note taking. As far as I’m concerned, this is the Venue 8 Pro’s true calling. Replacing a paper notebook and allowing you to leverage the insane capabilities of OneNote to keep your brainstorming, agendas, meeting notes, and sketches organized is the killer feature.

Because it features an active digitizer (using technology from Synaptics, not Wacom like in the Surface Pros), you can use the Dell Active Stylus to write naturally as you would on paper.

Obtaining a Pen

Now, in an ideal world, I would have published this review two weeks ago.

In that ideal world, I would have received a shipping notice from Dell a day or two after putting in my order for the Active Stylus on their website. It doesn’t come with the device, and it was not available to buy in store (and still isn’t).

Perhaps this should have been a warning to me, but I’m an optimist.

After two weeks of total silence following my order, I received a phone call telling me the pen would arrive the next day, which it did. Subsequently, I received my invoice for the order in the mail.

The mail.

I mention all this only to admonish Dell for some truly archaic order processing.

Notable Productivity

Having gone through such a laborious process to obtain the Active Digitizer, I was concerned that the rumours about its functionality might be worth taking seriously as well.

As it turns out, that’s only partly the case. The most succinct description I can give is that the pen works better than I expected, but significantly worse than a Surface Pro’s Wacom-based digitizer technology.

My experience with the pen came after the recent firmware update that addressed its initial performance woes, and taking that into account I feel bad for initial buyers whose experience must have been truly rotten.

As it stands, the pen’s biggest weakness is inconsistency. The palm rejection works fine most of the time, but most of the time” doesn’t cut it when you’re taking long meeting notes. Hovering the pen anywhere close to the screen is likely to cause ink to appear, and even lifting the pen between letters has a tendency to be ignored.

This is all in OneNote, by the way, which is the core app for the Venue 8 Pro as far as I’m concerned. In other apps like Fresh Paint or Drawboard PDF, the experience was generally better in terms of recognition and smoothness of lines, so there’s hope that updates to OneNote and the pen itself may further optimize the experience.

In the end, writing out extensive notes by hand is definitely possible, but remains just wonky enough to dissuade impatient people. For adding the odd sketch to a meeting note or including a quick diagram, the pen is perfect though.

I can’t help but compare it to the Surface Pro, which has a superlative digitizer and an excellent pen. I’m not normally a freehand note taker, but the Surface Pro made me want to write. The Venue 8 Pro makes me want to type.

Which, as it turns out, is also harder than it should be…

More Tablet Than Computer

Yes, it runs Windows and yes, it runs any other Windows programs you feel like throwing its way. But the Venue 8 Pro is shy about functioning as a true computer.

All the components are there, but the tablet simply doesn’t seem interested in facilitating the dream of carrying around one device that works on the go and can be easily docked when you get home to allow for mouse & keyboard work with an external monitor. This is almost entirely the fault of the hardware design, yet again. Inexplicably, the Venue lacks any sort of display port—neither MicroHDMI or MiniDisplay. Besides the SD card slot, the single MicroUSB port that’s used for charging is the only one you get. Unlike its 11-inch cousin, the Venue 8 Pro has no docking connector either.

While the 8-inch screen is perfect for note-taking and content consumption, you’ll want to connect to a bigger screen to get any serious work done while at home. Unfortunately, in order to do this you need to resort to a USB hub and an adaptor.

Keep in mind that we’re talking about a tablet that can power 4 displays simultaneously - this thing is no slouch - so why is Dell not interested in facilitating this flexible usage? It’s a totally unacceptable corner to cut, and one that does a great disservice to the device.

Many people will buy this cheap tablet” without realizing that it has the power to literally replace their laptop for the kinds of tasks that the majority of people will be performing with their computers.

This is a gigantic missed opportunity.

Good Guts, But No Glory

Despite its tremendous potential, Dell’s Venue 8 Pro suffers because of its hardware.

The powerful insides are let down by an exterior that’s stuck in second gear, either because of overly aggressive cost cutting or a simple lack of ambition.

No display port, no separate USB connection, and a mediocre pen are baffling limitations in what is otherwise the best Windows 8 tablet you can buy in this size class.

Still, the bar had to be set somewhere, and it’s both surprising and gratifying to see Dell setting it. If nothing else, it’s a magnificent demonstration of Windows 8.1’s ability to feel right at home on different screen sizes.

Perhaps now, going into CES, we’ll be seeing some new designs from the manufacturers that stand on the shoulders of the Venue 8 Pro and address its few but hurtful shortcomings.

With its issues resolved, a Venue 8 Pro successor would be the most compelling Windows tablet on the market. Until then, it’s simply among the best, which is still a big step up for Dell in this sector.

I look forward to the sequel.

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