Dell's 8-inch Windows tablet makes a big impression

Dell's 8-inch Windows tablet makes a big impression

Summary: If you were disappointed by the first generation of Windows 8 tablets, Dell's new Venue 8 Pro might be the antidote. The form factor, which competes directly with devices like the Nexus 7 and Kindle HDX, takes full advantage of Windows 8.1.

TOPICS: Tablets, Dell, Windows 8

The bump in size from a 7-inch to an 8-inch tablet seems almost trivial. Can a single inch really make a difference?

Yes, it can.

Image credit: Dell

I finally got my hands on the new Dell Venue 8 Pro, and have had a chance to compare this 8-inch tablet running Windows 8.1 to the Google Nexus 7 and Kindle HDX, both of which are solid representatives of the 7-inch form factor. My verdict? You will take the Venue 8 Pro away from me when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers. That extra screen real estate is crucial for reading email, books, and news, but the device is still comfortable in the hand.

The Venue 8 Pro isn’t flashy, design-wise. The front panel is all glass, with a discreet black bezel and a 1.2 MP camera. The back is black plastic with a 5 MP camera above the trademark Dell logo; the plastic is ribbed, making it easy to hold the device in one hand without fear of dropping it.

But what the Venue 8 Pro lacks in sizzle it makes up for in substance. At just under 400 g (about 14 ounces), with a Bay Trail Atom CPU (Z3740D, to be specific) it’s light, fast, extremely portable, and capable of running for a full day—long enough to keep you entertained and reasonably productive without weighing you down. At $299 (for the 32 GB version) or $349 (for 64 GB), it’s also unlikely to break your budget.

It also has a reasonable collection of ports and slots, tucked unobtrusively around the edges. Along the right side (when held in portrait mode, with the front-facing  camera at the top), above the power button and volume controls, there’s a micro-USB connector that supports USB 2.0 devices as well as the 10-watt trickle charger. At the bottom right, a port cover hides a micro-SD slot that supports up to 64 GB of extra storage. A dual headphone/microphone jack is at the top, next to a button that functions as the Windows key. (I’ve heard some complaints about the unconventional location of this button, which normally is located on the front of the device. I actually prefer this out-of-the-way design, because it’s less likely that I’ll tap it by accident.) A single speaker along the bottom of the device delivers adequate (not great) sound.

In my day-to-day use over the past week the Venue 8 Pro has been an absolutely delightful companion. Unlike the Windows RT-powered Surface 2, this device runs the full desktop version of Windows 8.1. That means it’s capable of running any Windows desktop app. In practice, though, I’ve been perfectly happy with a handful of Windows Store apps: the built-in Mail and Bing apps, Xbox Music and Videos for entertainment, the Nook and Kindle apps for reading magazines and books, both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal apps, the just-updated NextGen Reader for RSS feeds, and Tweetro+ for Twitter.

The Venue 8 Pro includes a license key for Office Home & Student 2013, with a link on the Start screen that downloads the installer files using the same Click-to-Run technology as Office 365. I didn’t bother installing the Office software. It might be useful for viewing files and light editing tasks but this is not a device for building a financial model or writing the Great American Novel. (I’m not writing this post on the Venue 8 Pro, either.) If you want to press this tablet into service for Office work, though, you could attach a Bluetooth or USB keyboard and mouse and use the optional folio style case to create a tiny workstation.

This device literally would not have been possible without Windows 8.1, which reduced the minimum resolution and screen size for Microsoft-certified devices and increased app-snapping options so that the bright and clear 1280 x 800 IPS display is usable. Acer beat Dell to market with a similar device, the W3-810 Iconia, last summer. The screen quality of that device was absolutely terrible, though, so as far as I’m concerned this is the first true 8-inch Windows 8.1 tablet. (Lenovo has a similar design for sale now, with a refreshed Acer W4 tablet and a Toshiba entry due shortly.)

One of the subtle but important changes in Windows 8.1 makes this device much more usable than it would have been under Windows 8. The micro-SD card integrates effortlessly into Windows document and media libraries with no technical tricks required. That’s good news, because the Windows 8.1 system and recovery files take up a healthy chunk of space. On the 64 GB model, you start with roughly 42 billion bytes of free space. An inexpensive 64 GB micro-SD card adds a substantial amount of free space, making the quibbling over OS size mostly irrelevant. (Insider trick: format the micro-SD card using NTFS and you can relocate the SkyDrive sync folder there.)

I haven’t done any formal battery testing with this device, but in sustained use it has lived up to the “all day” claim. The only hardware glitch I’ve encountered is an annoying tendency of the audio to distort when the screen shuts down while running on battery power. That issue will no doubt be fixed with a driver update sometime soon.

Meanwhile, this tiny tablet has earned a place in my travel bag. And based on reviews I’ve read from buyers at Amazon and Dell, I have lots of company. Dell appears to have a genuine hit on its hands.

Topics: Tablets, Dell, Windows 8

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  • Z3740D

    I think you had a slight typo there Ed. The Z2000 series is the previous generation, the Z3000 is the Bay Trail.

    According to the Dell website, the Venue 8 Pro is using a Z3740D processor.
    • Fixed

      Thanks, not sure how that slipped in there, because I know that chip!
      Ed Bott
  • 8.1

    I agree about 8.1 and the SD cards, that makes a big difference. For 8.0 I had used Paul Thurott's trick of hard linking it to a directory on the system partion. 8.1 recognised that kicked it out and automatically set up my movies and images libraries to include the relevant folders on the SD card. (I'm using a Samsung SmartPC 500).

    I use it as a desktop replacement, attaching it to a desktop dock, with mouse, keyboard and 24" display when in the office. It works very nicely for most tasks, only photo and video editing are beyond the little Atom's abilities.
    • Thanks for your comment, wright

      After reading Ed's review, I was thinking about getting the device and using it the same way as you are, i.e., as a tablet most of the time and with a dock for desktop use whenever needed. This would have given me a really portable audio recording device instead of my regular 14" Core i3 laptop that I currently use. But since I do some lightweight audio editing, the last sentence of your comment made me decide against it. I guess I'll have to wait for some Haswell options...
      • Right next door....

        You may want to look into the Venue 11 then. Very similar product, just a couple inches bigger and with the option of getting massively more powerful. Plus there's the laptop-creating dock...
        Daniel Foerster
      • Audio Editing works!

        I use this tablet for audio editing in Sony Sound Forge. It works great! The only caveat is that you need a micro-USB to USB female adapted to connect a mouse, but the system is definitely powerful enough to do some audio work in the field. It's almost magical getting back to my main PC and having my files waiting for me in SkyDrive. Beats lugging around a laptop hands down.

        It is not, sadly, powerful enough to do video editing in Sony Vegas. The preview window is too choppy.

        • video and audio editing

          take a processor to task as is to be expected.. but I'm wondering how Photoshop would run on this and Indesign.
          • Should be ok but for the small screen

            I have a CloverTrail powered (earlier) tablet and I've done some simple HD video editing with Essentials Movie Maker. It transcoded mp4 as fast as my Pentium D 3ghz desktop with a 16 core Cuda card. It was actually much faster than I thought it would be. I'm not sure how the BayTrail Intel Graphics compares to the earlier CloverTrail PowerVR transcoder but I'd think it would be faster still. It was just a curiousity but very usable. For real video editing I use a 8GB quad core CPU and a 384 Cuda core transcoder of which only about half get utilized due to other bottlenecks like drive speed.

            Regular desktop applications like office and Quickbooks Pro, which is pretty bloated, run smoothly. Photoshop CS seems fine but I haven't tried with really big files in the hundreds of MB.
          • Thanks

          • It's going to depend greatly on what you do.

            Photoshop isn't driven as much by code as data. If you're editing the JPEGs you shoot with the on-board tablet, you're probably happy enough with Photoshop on a PC like this. Keep in mind, too, that Photoshop is ancient, and while they program has been updated regularly, that's mostly in the area of enhancing features. Being a pro class program, the UI itself has only slowly changed, and hasn't gone to the bad place that some UIs do, burning CPU power for no special reason.

            On the other hand, as a DSLR companion, this would be of pretty limited use. Doing sophisticated things in Photoshop takes RAM. Lots of it. I used my desktop at home for programming, video editing, photography, electronics CAD, music production, as well as the usual "office" and "internet" stuff. There is only one task on that list that got me to 64GB of RAM on my new-last-summer machine. No, not web surfing.
        • I'm editing RAWs

          that pushes my Core i7 laptop with 8GB RAM. If you are editing the jpegs from the tablet or a normal smartphone, then it should be ok.

          The same for audio, normal audio should be fine. If you are doing multi-track recordings in a studio, you might want something with a bit more oomph.
      • I was thinking the same...

        as I do both photo and audio editing.
    • Yes Better

      The thing you need to watch about storing Skydrive and other files on the uSD is that there is zero security for those files. If they are on the internal system drive, at least they are not easily accessible by simply removing the card. You can also enable bitlocker encryption in 8.1 but only on the internal drive unless you have Win Pro.

      Another good trick is open the device manager, expand the disk drives and change the removal policy in properties of the drives to High performance. That really speeds up the PC.
      • Bitlocker is the answer

        This tablet comes with a TPM chip, and so you can use the Bitlocker feature of Windows to encrypt both the internal and external storage. Backup keys will be stored on SkyDrive - a dedicated page for all the keys you have, not in form of files.

        That should be strong enough against your average hackers who try to steal your data directly from the storage.
    • Big improvement.

      This is the type of sleek, light device that Microsoft should have originally introduced last year. Surface would have fared better. The thick, heavy plastic brick with a wide bezel just reeks of stale late 90's design values. Nice job Dell. They may actually sell some of these. Now, they just need a 10 inch version and they're set.
      • Dell Venue Pro

        11 inch, and customizable (3 processors available), dock and two keyboard options available also.
    • Good little device but...

      Not the best bang for buck. I've been getting promo emails about this device and the 11. Decided to go play with one hands-on and was quite surprised. Cousin came into town for the weekend and was looking for a laptop replacement due to traveling and wanted something lighter. I recommended this, the venue 8 or 11. Sadley my cousin didnt like anything dell.

      So i did somemore quick researching and came across a middle range one. Asus t100ta. Very similar specs as venue 8 but a 10in screen and it came with dock. 64gb win 8.1 pro ver $399 but listed on amazon for $349. Cousin purchased local and did a price match. I was going to get the venue 8 to replace my old outdates Streak7 but saw better bang for buck with asus t100ta-c1-gr 64gb ver.

      (Update) as of 11-21-2013. Amazon has it now listed for $379.
      Free Webapps
  • Interesting

    Though I am an avid user of the Surface 2, I find the Dell interesting. Though I wonder if having the full Win 8.1 on it is a waste. I'd rather a 8"tab had Win 8.1RT, which would make it an excellent runaround tablet. With a spec bump in screen resolution, it would be an ideal companion to the Surface 2 and a worth competitor to the Nexus 7. Naturally, YMMV.
    • Why ARM?

      You don't have to use desktop software on it, although you have the choice.

      The Bay Trail is, allegedly, faster and just as economical on power as the ARM, so there isn't really any benefit to the ARM - if you aren't using desktop software, then it doesn't make any difference whether you have ARM or x86 running it; if you need the occassional desktop app, then you need the Atom.
      • Well...

        You are right...however, and this is just speaking from personal experience, the thought of working on desktop apps on so small a form factor is rather unappealing to me. And, the thought of hooking it up to docks and monitors makes me even more hesitant. But that is just me. So, from that perspective, I think Win 8.1 proper is a waste.