Dell Venue 8 Pro review: An inexpensive 8-inch tablet with a premium feel
The quest for a decent 8-inch tablet with full Windows 8.1 continues, and Dell believes it has finally cracked the code for balancing price, performance, design, and usability with the Venue 8 Pro.
This $299.99 tablet does a lot right, and it has a great premium look and feel for such an inexpensive tablet. A handful of issues add just enough frustration to keep me from using it more often; some of those are missteps by Dell, others are problems inherent in the Windows 8 operating system.
The primary headache the Venue 8 Pro gave me was the placement of the Windows button -- a key navigation aid for Windows 8. It's been moved from its usual spot on the screen bezel to a tiny button on the top edge. Hence, it's never where you expect it to be when trying to get back to the main menu.
Another issue -- nearly all Windows 8 tablets have a keyboard accessory that the screen either attaches to or connects with via Bluetooth. The Dell Venue 8 Pro has a nice-looking one listed on Dell's Web site, but it's not available to order yet, offering only a vague promise of "coming soon." A Windows tablet without a keyboard is not exactly going to be a monster of a productivity machine.
While Windows 8 is easily the most flexible version of Windows yet, it still doesn't feel as if the OS were designed with an 8-inch screen in mind. Icons and text are small, the Windows 8 tile interface has too much dead space for such a compact screen, and the traditional Windows desktop is practically useless, especially without a keyboard and touch pad.
Still, the Venue 8 Pro looks sharp and feels good in the hand. It's fast enough, even with an Intel Atom processor, for everyday tasks, and it has great battery life -- all for a reasonable price. Even though it's sold separately, Dell deserves credit for emphasizing the use of an active stylus, a phablet-like idea that feels at home here as well.
Your main alternatives to consider would probably be the iPad Mini -- the non-Retina version is the same $299, but with only 16GB of solid-state drive (SSD) storage, versus 32GB here; and the Asus Transformer Book T100, a 10-inch version of essentially the same hardware that can be found for $349. The Asus doesn't have the same premium feel, but it includes a keyboard dock and a larger 64GB SSD, making it a hard-to-beat value (although the T100 loses points for having the same annoying side-edge Windows button).Dell Venue 8 Pro Asus Transformer Book T100 Acer Iconia W3 Price $299.99 $379 $429 Display size/pixel resolution 8.1-inch, 1,280x800 touch screen 10.1-inch, 1,366x768 touch screen 8.1-inch, 1,280x800 touch screen PC CPU 1.3GHz Intel Atom 3740D 1.3GHz Intel Atom Z3740 1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760 PC memory 2,048MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz 2,948MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz 2,948MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz Graphics Intel HD Graphics Intel HD Graphics Intel GMA 1,003MB shared Storage 32GB SSD hard drive 64GB SSD hard drive 64GB SSD hard drive Optical drive None None None Networking 802.11 b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11 b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 Operating system Windows 8 (32-bit) Windows 8 (32-bit) Windows 8 (32-bit)
Design and features Sub-$300 PCs generally play to type, with brittle-feeling bodies of overly glossy plastic, creaky hinges, and ill-fitting joints. The Venue 8 Pro breaks that streak with a very appealing overall design. There's admittedly not much groundbreaking you can do with a glass-and-plastic slab tablet, but the front has reasonably small bezels, and the back panel is covered with a ribbed soft-touch finish that is comfortable and easy to grip.
At 0.9 pound, it's not exactly as light as an iPad Mini, but you can still hold it in one hand (manipulating the screen with the same hand simultaneously is another matter).
Like the Microsoft Surface and Surface Pro, the Sony Vaio Tap 11, the Asus T100, and other smallish Windows tablets, the Venue 8 Pro is designed to be used as a slate part of the time, and connected (physically or wirelessly) to a keyboard for long-form typing when needed. Dell's thin, compact wireless keyboard looks fine in publicity photos, but the product is not available yet, with no clue offered to its eventual price or release date. Fortunately, you can always use a third-party Bluetooth keyboard (or mouse or both), but that kind of single-package convenience is part of the appeal of a Windows 8 tablet. Note that unlike the other examples mentioned above, Dell's hypothetical keyboard lacks a touch pad for onscreen navigation.
Speaking of navigation, when using the onscreen Windows 8 keyboard, which I generally like a lot, one is reminded of the odd hoops Windows 8 has to jump through to work on everything from 27-inch all-in-one PCs to 8-inch slates. Held horizontally, accessing the onscreen keyboard to, for example, type a URL into IE11 causes the keyboard to take over nearly the entire screen, leaving only a tiny slice of my Web browser window at the top. Why? Because Windows 8/IE11 is clearly not as optimized as it should be for a screen this small. Other Windows 8 apps, such as the Twitter app, juggle the keyboard better.
Among the bright spots: considering the $300 price, the inclusion of a full Home and Student edition of Microsoft Office 2013 is a nice bonus, and I appreciate the physical volume up/down rocker switch along the right edge.
The 8-inch display has a native resolution of 1,280x800 pixels. For something this small, that seems reasonable, even if Apple is pushing the Retina Display in the (more expensive) revamped version of the iPad Mini. It's an IPS display, so it looks clear and bright even from side angles, which is important for a handheld device.
The 5MP rear-facing camera is fine, if you have enough light, while the front-facing camera is a lower-res 1.2MP model. The built-in speakers are good enough for Netflix, and louder than I expected, but predictably thin.Dell Venue 8 Pro Video None Audio Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack Data 1 Micro-USB 2.0, microSD card reader Networking 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Optical drive None
Connections, performance, and battery Apple's iPad gets away with minimal connectivity in a tablet, but everyone else really should aim to be more inclusive. The micro versions of a USB port and SD card slot at least give you basic connectivity, but keep in mind that the USB port also doubles as the AC adapter port for the mobile phone style charger included with the system.
There's only one basic configuration for the Venue 8 Pro, but Dell offers a few different packages, built around accessories. There's no discount for bundling, so just know that the folio case, which can be used as a stand, is $39.99, and the active stylus is $29.99. The folio case feels like vinyl, and includes an elastic loop for the stylus.
In benchmark testing, the Venue 8 Pro was very closely matched with the Asus T100, which is a similar system with similar components. The more expensive AMD-powered Toshiba Click was much slower, even though it aims at the same price-conscious tablet audience. Of course, if you go with a full Core i-series tablet, such as the Sony Vaio Tap 11 or Microsoft Surface Pro 2, the performance there will dwarf any of these systems.
However, if you're thinking the use of an Intel Atom processor relegates this to lumbering Netbook status, note that this is one of the first systems to use the latest generation of Atoms, also known by the code name Bay Trail. I'm pleased to say, at least on a smaller product such as the Venue 8 Pro where your expectations are more modest than on a full-size laptop, the 1.3GHz Intel Atom 3740D CPU feels fast enough for everyday use, with no slowdown or stuttering (the excellently optimized Windows 8 interface and IE11 help, as well).
Even better, the new Atoms are turning in Haswell-like battery life scores. The Venue 8 Pro ran for 7 hours and 30 minutes in our video playback battery drain test. That's longer than most full Core i-series tablets we've tested, but the very similar Asus T100 ran for about 2 hours longer.
Conclusion I've been waiting for the perfect 8-inch Windows 8 tablet, offering just the right design, features, and price. I'm still waiting, but the Dell Venue 8 Pro gets closer than anything else has to date. If Dell made it available from Day One with its paired keyboard accessory, put the Windows button back where it belongs, and could find a way to scale certain Windows functions better to the small screen, it would be a real winner.
As it is, as long as you're already making some sacrifices, it's hard not to suggest you look at the Asus T100, which pairs a slightly larger 10-inch tablet with an attachable keyboard dock, twice the storage space, and better battery life, all for about $50 more.Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)(Shorter bars indicate better performance)Sony Vaio Tap 11 686Dell Venue 8 Pro 996Asus Transformer Book T100 1,359Acer Iconia W3 1,901Toshiba Click W35Dt-A 2,198Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)(Shorter bars indicate better performance)Sony Vaio Tap 11 327Asus Transformer Book T100 1,045Dell Venue 8 Pro 1,094Toshiba Click W35Dt-A 1,139Acer Iconia W3 1,736Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)(Shorter bars indicate better performance)Sony Vaio Tap 11 165Dell Venue 8 Pro 426Toshiba Click W35Dt-A 534Acer Iconia W3 717Asus Transformer Book T100 785Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)(Longer bars indicate better performance)Asus Transformer Book T100 591Acer Iconia W3 499Dell Venue 8 Pro 450Sony Vaio Tap 11 309Toshiba Click W35Dt-A 208
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System configurations Dell Venue 8 Pro Windows 8.1 (32-bit); 1.3GHz Intel Atom 3740D; 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 800MHz; 32MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics; 32GB Samsung SSD
Toshiba Click W35Dt-A Windows 8 (64-bit); 1GHz AMD A4 1200 APU; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 512MB AMD Radeon HD 8180 Graphics; 500GB 5,400rpm hard drive
Acer Iconia W3 Windows 8 (32-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760; 2GB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz; 1,003MB (shared) Intel GMA, 64GB SSD
Sony Vaio Tap 11 Windows 8 Pro (64-bit); 1.5GHz Intel Core i5-4210Y; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,739MB (Shared) Intel HD Graphics 4200; 128GB ToshibaSSD
Asus Transformer Book T100 Windows 8.1 (32-bit); 1.3GHz Intel Atom Z2370; 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 800MHz; 32MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics; 64GB SanDisk SSD