With the new Dell Venue 8 Pro, we're finally seeing a full-blown Windows 8.1 tablet for the masses. And when I mean the masses, I don't mean people willing to pay $900 and up for a tablet, or $1,000 and up for a combo tablet-ultrabook device. I mean people who can afford $300 for a well-made 8-in. device with a very good screen, a surprisingly powerful processor, and Office as part of the package.
Dell Venue 8 Por
The Venue 8 Pro is thin, light and feels right in your hand. And even though the screen is smaller than the 10.6-in. display that comes with Microsoft's Surface Pro 2, you don't feel like you're missing much when you run Windows 8 apps (that is, apps previously called Metro apps and now sometimes called Modern apps or Windows Store apps).
Hardware and software
The Venue 8 Pro has some drawbacks (which I'll go into in a minute), but they're far outweighed by what Dell did right. To begin with, even though the tablet sells for only $300, Dell didn't skimp on either the design or components. It is a simple black slab with a circular grooved pattern on its back that provides enough grip to make it easy to hold, with a solid feel despite weighing only 0.87 lb.
And it's surprisingly fast. The Venue 8 Pro boots quickly and apps load quickly, and you can easily switch among them with no delays. That's due to the Intel 1.8GHz Atom Z3740 quad-core processor, more commonly known as Bay Trail. It comes with what has become the standard 2GB of RAM, but in my testing, I never felt the need for more, whether watching videos on Netflix, playing games, drawing or anything else.
The screen is a beauty, even if the specs don't sound particularly overwhelming. The display has a garden-variety 1280-x-800-pixel resolution that on paper doesn't match up to competitors such as the iPad Mini's Retina screen. But in actual use, I found the screen bright, vivid and responsive. I missed nothing watching Netflix or videos in other apps, and it shone even in paint programs.
However, I strongly suggest changing an important setting to make sure the screen always stays bright. By default, in order to improve battery life, the Venue 8 Pro's screen dims or brightens according to the light you're viewing it in. In practice, I found that the screen was frequently too dim. So I turned off that feature (by selecting Settings --> Change PC settings --> PC and devices --> Power and sleep, and in the Brightness section at the top of the screen, moving the "Adjust my screen brightness automatically" to off). That may have cost me some battery life, but it was well worth it.
The Venue 8 Pro comes with 32GB of storage (you can configure it with 64GB for an extra $50), but it also has a microSD slot, which makes it easy to add more storage via an SD card. Beyond that, the ports are limited. Unsurprisingly, there's a micro-USB port rather than a full-sized one, so if you want to connect USB devices, you'll have to use an adapter. And since you use the micro-USB port to charge the tablet, you can't charge it and use an external device at the same time, unless you want to buy a special adapter. In addition, there are no ports for connecting to an external display.
The device also comes with the usual power button, which is located on the right side of the tablet between the micro-USB port and volume rocker (assuming you're holding it in portrait mode). The headphone jack is at the top of the device. The non-removable battery is rated by Dell at 9.9 hours of life per charge.
The built-in mono speaker (for stereo, you'll have to plug in headphones or speakers) can play surprisingly loud -- and without distortion. Some tablets have a hard time generating high volumes, which can be problematic when watching TV, movies or video. That's far from the case here.
The tablet offers a 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera and a 5-megapixel rear-facing one. They both seemed par for the course, which means they were usable but didn't take overwhelmingly great photos.
In addition to Windows 8.1, you get a free version of Office Home & Student 2013, which is a nice extra.
The tablet does have a couple of irritating drawbacks.
The first has less to do with the Venue 8 Pro itself than with Windows 8.1's suitability for tablets. The Venue 8 Pro shines when running Windows 8-specific apps and when you're on the touch-friendly Start screen. But life on the more traditional Desktop is not as good.
That's because most Windows 8 desktop applications haven't been designed for touch on small screens, and so the text, options, boxes and so on are far too small for most adult fingers. I constantly found myself unable to tap the precise spot for doing what I wanted to do, which quickly became very frustrating. Even doing something that should be very simple, such as browsing through files using File Explorer (previously called Windows Explorer) became a chore I simply didn't want to repeat. It also makes the included version of Office less useful than it might be.
The other drawback is a surprising design decision: the placement of the Windows button. Normally, the Windows button is large and prominent on the bottom front of Windows 8 tablets. That's important, because you'll frequently finding yourself needing to get back to the Start screen, so it's good to have the button in such a convenient, easy-to-find location.
At a Glance
DellPrice: $300Pros: Affordable, fast performance, very good displayCons: Screen is too small for the desktop applications, poor placement of the Windows button
Here, instead, it's a tiny silver button that, in portrait mode, is on the top right side of the device next to the headphone jack -- easy to mistake for a power button. I found myself constantly hunting for it, especially because, depending on how you're holding the tablet (portrait or landscape mode, top or bottom orientation), it could be located on the upper-right, upper-left, lower-left or lower-right. Given how often I've been using other Windows 8 tablets, my muscle memory constantly had me tapping the front bottom of the screen to no avail. Instead, I had to fumble around to find it.
There are several accessory bundles available for the Venue 8 Pro.
For $340 you get the Venue 8 Pro plus a case that protects it and also serves as a stand (which seems to me a little steep for a case and stand that have no particularly distinguishing characteristics). For $370, you get the tablet, the case and a Dell-made stylus, which has a 1mm pressure-sensitive tip suitable for drawing -- the harder you press, the thicker the line. There are also two buttons on the sides that turn on features such as highlighting and erasing. I found the stylus worked fine; you can also buy it separately for $30.
Dell says it will also sell a wireless keyboard at some point.
If you're looking for a reasonably priced, well-performing Windows 8.1 tablet, the Dell Venue 8 Pro is the one to get. Given its size, it's suitable only as a tablet and won't do double-duty as an ultrabook, as the far more expensive Surface Pro 2 with keyboard can.
If an 8-inch screen isn't big enough for you, you might want to consider the $500 Dell Venue 11 Pro, which comes with a 1920-x-1080-pixel 10.8-in. screen, can handle up to 8GB of memory and up to 256GB of storage, has a 2-megapixel front-facing and an 8-megapixel back-facing camera, and includes a full USB 3.0 port as well as a Mini HDMI port.
The Venue 8 Pro may not be quite perfect -- but let's face it, $300 won't buy you perfection. However, it will buy you a quite good Windows 8.1 tablet, and that's great news for Windows lovers.
This article, Dell Venue 8 Pro review: A Windows 8.1 tablet for the rest of us, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
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