Venue line makes Dell a tablet contender

Venue line makes Dell a tablet contender

Summary: PC makers haven't had much luck with tablets, but the pieces are falling into place to build a credible contender with Android or Windows 8. For the past few weeks I’ve been trying out two new tablets from Dell that illustrate how PC companies are trying to catch up.

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Not for lack of trying, but PC makers haven’t had much luck with tablets. Earlier endeavors were big and heavy, burned through batteries, and were saddled with versions of Windows that weren’t really designed for touch and lacked real apps. They were expensive too.

Now the pieces are falling into place to build at least a credible contender to Apple or Samsung in tablets. Many chip companies offer inexpensive dual- and quad-core ARM processors for Android tablets and Intel’s Bay Trail platform, the first truly competitive x86 alternative, works with either Android or Windows. Microsoft has made real improvements with Windows 8.1 and now throws in a version of Office on smaller devices. For sheer numbers, the Windows Store won’t match Android, let alone Apple, anytime soon, but most of the major apps are now available.

For the past few weeks I’ve been trying out two new tablets from Dell that illustrate how PC makers are trying to catch up on tablets. The first one, the Dell Venue, is based on the older Intel Clover Trail platform and runs Android 4.2 Jelly Bean. It starts at $150 with a 7-inch display, but I tested the 8-inch version, which is $180. I also tested the Venue 8 Pro, which also has an 8-inch display but is based on the newer Intel Bay Trail platform and runs Windows 8.1. It starts at $300.

DellVenue8
Dell Venue 8 tablet (Image: Dell)

There isn’t too much to distinguish the Venue from other basic Android tablets, but in a way that’s a good thing--it shows that Intel and the PC makers are finally catching up. Like most tablets in this price range, it has a lower resolution display (1,280 by 800 pixels) and the Cloverview processor (a Z2560 dual-core in the Venue 7 and a Z2580 dual-core in the Venue 8) can’t match the performance of top-end mobile processors, but it gets the job done. Both also come with 2GB of memory, 16GB of storage, 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0, and a microSD card slot. The Venue 7 has a VGA front camera and a 3MP rear one; the Venue 8 has a 2MP front camera and a 5MP rear camera. Neither one will replace your point-and-shoot, but Dell is hardly alone in that regard--most tablets have mediocre cameras.

The Venue isn’t as thin and light as a premium tablet such as the iPad Mini, but it still feels perfectly comfortable in the hand and the build quality is fine. And it’s not really fair to compare it to tablets that cost more than twice as much anyway. The Dell Venue stacks up well to other Android 4.2 tablets with the same display size and resolution such as the HP Slate 7 Plus (Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core, 1GB plus 8GB storage); Asus MEMO Pad HD 7 (1.2GHz MediaTek MT8125 quad-core, 1GB plus 16GB storage) and MEMO Pad 8 (1.6GHz Rockchip RK3188 quad-core, 1GB plus 16GB storage); and Lenovo IdeaTab S5000 (MediaTek 8125, 1GB plus 16GB storage).

The challenge for all of these is that there are much better Android options available for a bit more, in particular the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX, which both start at $229. But Intel and Dell have succeeded in delivering a competitive Android tablet, and in general, it’s remarkable to see how much you can get for less than $200 nowadays.

DellVenue8Pro
Dell Venue 8 Pro tablet (Image: Dell)

The Venue 8 Pro is a bit more interesting since it's one of the first full Windows 8.1 devices at this size and price. The first, the Acer Iconia Tab W3, didn’t get great reviews, but since then Acer has announced the updated W4 and others are starting to trickle onto the market including the Venue Pro, Lenovo Miix 2 and Toshiba Encore. All of these are based on Intel’s Bay Trail platform and have very similar specifications starting with an 8-inch display with a resolution of 1,280 by 800 pixels.

The Venue 8 Pro uses the Atom Z3740D quad-core processor while the others list the processor as the Atom Z3740 (though I suspect some of them are using the 3740D as well). There are some differences between the two, but in practice it shouldn’t make much difference on these devices. Bay Trail is, however, a big step up from the older Atom platform and it provides the performance to run Windows 8 and common productivity and entertainment applications.

The Venue 8 Pro I tested also came with 2GB of memory and 32GB of storage. Dell also sells this configuration with a case for $340 or with both the case and a wireless keyboard for $390. With the included Microsoft Office and my Windows 8 apps installed, I had only 6GB of storage left--before adding any music or video files (though it has a microSD slot too). So with any of these 8-inch Windows 8 tablets, I would also recommend upgrading to 64GB, which in the case of the Venue Pro adds $50 to the price. Finally there’s an active stylus pen, which came with my test unit, but costs an extra $30. Put it all together and you are up to $470.

All of these Windows 8 tablets are a bit bigger and heavier than their Android counterparts, and the Lenovo Miix 2 appears to be the thinnest and lightest of the bunch, but the Venue 8 Pro is only 9mm thick and weighs 395 grams. The Acer Iconia W4 and Toshiba Encore are both bulkier, though they have some additional features such as mini-HDMI out, and on the Encore a larger battery and 8MP camera. The Venue 8 Pro gets by with the standard 2MP front camera and 5MP rear camera.

The Windows 8.1 update is a significant improvement for these types of devices with new tile sizes, a Start button, touch-optimized versions of more Control Panel settings, and a bunch of new and updated Microsoft apps. With a few exceptions, most major apps are now available for Windows 8--recent high-profile additions include SlingPlayer, Mint, Flipboard and Facebook. The inclusion of Office Home and Student 2013 adds real value--it sells for $140 separately--though keep in mind that this version doesn’t include Outlook.

But there are still some rough edges with Windows on small devices. Most are little nuisances. For example, the onscreen keyboard covers much of the screen making it awkward to enter information such as usernames and passwords in text boxes. But there’s also one big issue: with the exception of OneNote, Microsoft has yet to release “modern,” touch-optimized versions of its Office apps. For now it just doesn’t make sense to get one of these Windows 8 tablets without a stylus, keyboard or both. (There’s a reason Microsoft pushes the keyboard so hard with its own Surface devices.)

The Venue 8 Pro has a few quirks too. The Windows Start screen button is on the side, rather than on the front like other Windows 8 PCs and tablets, which takes some getting used to. It’s tricky to figure out how to click, right-click and double-click on items using the stylus, and it sometimes didn’t work at all. And while the display is excellent, with a brightness rating of 400 nits, the feature that adjusts the display for ambient light to save battery left it far too dim, so I ended up turning it off. (Note that Dell just released an update for the ambient light sensor which should address this.)

Overall these are minor issues, and I really liked the Venue 8 Pro. It isn’t for everyone, but the concept of a tablet that can also run Office and other Windows desktop applications holds a lot of promise.

Topics: Tablets, Android, Laptops, Windows 8

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64 comments
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  • What precisely

    Is the product, "for everyone..." since I read the term, "it isn't for everyone..." in a lot of reviews and blogs.

    Has about as much meaning as, "this isn't a job for lazy people..." as though any such thing has ever existed.
    widow maker
    • He's using a very common market definition...

      The moment a product needs a high level of commitment and people to endure quirks that other product don't have at the same price level, that's the moment it becomes a niche product. Most people don't throw their money because products "look promising". They rather wait until the company gets their stuff right and releases a product with a broader market reach.

      Best example was Vista against Windows 7. People who bought Vista lost money when Microsoft released 7, cause they had to pay to upgrade to something they should've received on the first place.

      So I don't think you "job isn't for lazy people" applies since for example, not everyone can do microsurgery, even those that work hard.

      On the other hand, biologists are ill formed to work in construction and manufacturing.

      Lazy people are only on the minds of judgmental persons who don't know that each person is appropriate for each job.
      cosuna
  • closeout pricing?

    Who is going to buy a Z2 now that the Z3 gets triple the throughput? The Z2 Dells with Win8.1 and Office are going for $99 or free with the purchase of a PC over $600.
    mswift@...
  • Venue roxxx!!!

    I just traded in my 1st gen Surface RT for a 64 Gb Bay Trail Dell venue 11 Pro. OMG, what a wonderful device this is! As much as I loved my Surface RT (and I truly did) I feel genuinely liberated now that I've got a nearly identical device that runs full windows. Like the Surface RT and like other Bay Trail tablets, Office Home & Student is included in the price, so you can check that package off the list. I'm installing Photoshop even as we speak, and I'm just dying to get Audacity, Windows Movie Maker and some older games on, too (I'm looking at you, Halo and UT4!).

    Yeah, I'm going to miss the Surface's kickstand, I won't lie to you about hat. But the Venue makes up for it by including a user replaceable battery.

    I'm pretty much in heaven right now!
    dsf3g
    • In heaven with 3 other Redmond employees

      No sane person buys an MS DOS reboot-a-MicroKlunk-WindoZe-8-Sesame Street-Shablet.

      What an obvious Troll from Redmond!

      The other 99.99% of the world buy Linux Android tablets or Free BSD Unix iPads.

      Nice try Ballmer Fanboi.
      Luke-IT
      • OK, I'll bite . . .

        How old are you?
        rmark@...
        • Scary, isn't it?

          That people like Luke still exist, trolling because they have fun doing it.

          He probably giggles uncontrollably while burning ants with a magnifying glass.
          William.Farrel
          • LMAO

            Best comment of the day!
            Koymik
          • Luke-IT

            He's my bank manager.
            johnafish
      • I see you dropped Guru...

        ...from your moniker, and changed your name. Maybe on the next go-'round, you can go with "Jean-Luc" and drop the "IT" from your name too.
        Nierteroth9
  • So how does the Android version handle?

    Simple question, since the system comes with either operating system.
    jessepollard
    • if we're lucky maybe someone will buy an android version one day

      so that we can see what its like.
      Challenger R/T
      • I think it's the other way around, fellow...

        Windows 8.1 is the contender. iOS and Android are the incumbent.

        I guarantee more Venue 8 tablets will be sold in a day, than Venue Pros in a month.

        The price point of the Pro is too near the iPad Mini to compete at all, except in very niche situations.
        cosuna
        • The Good And Bad

          I don't see the point of Windows 8.1 on an 8" tablet, unless you plan to use an external display frequently. However the (10") Surface Pro 2 and similar devices are the best thing available right now. For a small, cheap tablet Android or RT is enough. iPads are far too expensive for what they do, and anyone who buys one is a fool.
          JoeS54
          • No edit

            Didn't mean to reply to that post - the comment system here could use some work.
            JoeS54
      • An Android version of a Dell Venue

        I have a 7" Venue with Android... love the tablet but hate the OP. I am trying to figure out if I could install something else like Linux. Any help?
        casisevillano
    • I think it will run good

      I ordered my venue 8 a couple days ago, it seems like it will be nice, with two gigabytes of RAM it should run smooth, and the red one looks great
      Jordan Walter
  • GPS...

    The Toshiba Encore and Lenovo Miix2 8" tablets also include GPS - the Dell Venue 8 does not.

    Alas, none of them are equipped with USB3.0. Even then, it should be possible to get a decent desktop-like experience with them via a DisplayLink USB dock.
    brian@...
    • Asus

      The T100 has a (single) USB 3.0, though it is in the (included) dock, and not on the tablet itself. It is of course 10" as opposed to 8".
      louishelps
      • Asus t100

        I own the T100 by Asus. It is a pretty complete package with 10 inch screen, USB 3.0, HDMI out, Office home and student included, keyboard dock included! Got it for 299 on black friday. It works well so far for me. I would not like the 8 inch size for Windows as the 10 inch is a bit small at times.
        tproveau