Saturday, October 11, 2014

An inexpensive 8-inch tablet with a premium feel

The Good The tiny Dell Venue 8 Pro has a premium look and feel for such an inexpensive system, offers good stylus support, and runs full Windows 8 in something about the size of an iPad Mini.
The Bad A misplaced Windows button throws off the usability, and the 32GB of SSD storage won't hold much. A promised keyboard accessory isn't available yet.
The Bottom Line The Dell Venue 8 Pro comes close to being a great pocket-size mini-PC, but a misplaced button and missing accessories feel like unnecessary errors.
The majority of Windows 8 tablets and hybrids seen to date have hovered around the same size as most ultrabooks, with 11-inch to 13-inch screens. A handful have gone larger, with midsize 15-inch displays, mostly to good effect, but going smaller -- say 8 inches, has been a riskier proposition, with systems such as the Acer Iconia W3 failing to impress.
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.
The tiny "Windows" button feels out of place.

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 ProAsus Transformer Book T100Acer Iconia W3
Display size/pixel resolution8.1-inch, 1,280x800 touch screen10.1-inch, 1,366x768 touch screen8.1-inch, 1,280x800 touch screen
PC CPU1.3GHz Intel Atom 3740D1.3GHz Intel Atom Z37401.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760
PC memory2,048MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz2,948MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz2,948MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz
GraphicsIntel HD GraphicsIntel HD GraphicsIntel GMA 1,003MB shared
Storage32GB SSD hard drive64GB SSD hard drive64GB SSD hard drive
Optical driveNoneNoneNone
Networking802.11 b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0802.11 b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating systemWindows 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.

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