Dell 8-inch tablets face off in Android-versus-Windows cage match

It’s not often that a manufacturer introduces two devices with so much in common, on different platforms. Here's how the two devices stack up, side by side.

Dell Venue Pro

I picked up two new 8-inch tablets last month: the $199 Dell Venue 8, which runs Android 4.2, and the $299 Dell Venue 8 Pro, which runs Windows 8.1. Superficially, there’s not that much to distinguish the two devices. Both are well-made tablets with almost exactly the same dimensions. Aside from the extra $100 in the price tag, what’s the difference? It’s not often that a manufacturer introduces two devices that have so much in common, on different platforms, so this is a real opportunity to do a detailed comparison.

After a few weeks of switching between the two devices, I have a better idea of the strengths and weaknesses of each device. If your usage patterns are like mine, the Windows-powered Venue 8 Pro is probably a better fit. But someone who lives in a world that runs on Google services might well prefer the cheaper Android-fueled Venue 8.

The key thing to keep in mind is that it’s not just about the hardware or the software. The only way to make an intelligent comparison is to examine how well the hardware and the software and apps and services work together. Given the number of possible permutations in those elements, it’s not surprising that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

Here’s how the two devices stacked up for me.

First impressions

From a distance, the Venue 8 and Venue 8 Pro look about the same. In fact, I ordered the Venue 8 in a red metallic finish just so I could tell it apart quickly from the Venue 8 Pro with its black, grooved finish. A closer comparison betrays a few more subtle differences. The two devices are equal in width, but the Venue 8 Pro is 5 mm taller and weighs 20 g (0.75 oz) more. At under 400 g each, the difference isn’t profound.

The exact positions of the power button, volume rocker, headphone jack, speaker, and SD card slot are slightly different on the two devices, and there’s one extra button (used as the Windows key) on the Venue Pro 8. Both devices have rear 5MP cameras that take decent but not great photos. The front-facing camera on the Venue 8 offers 2MP resolution compared to the 1.2 MP on its counterpart on the Venue 8 Pro. For Skype calling and Google Hangouts, the extra resolution is welcome but hardly essential.

The 1280x800 screen looks crisp and sharp on both devices. With the display turned off, the bezel on the Venue 8 Pro is invisible. On the Venue 8, you can see the black bezel in contrast to the grayish screen.

Both machines have 2 GB of RAM, but the processor inside is significantly different. The Venue 8 Pro has a current-generation (Bay Trail) Intel Atom Z3740D processor, a quad-core CPU, while the Venue 8 uses the older (Clovertrail) dual-core Atom Z2580. Both CPUs feel zippy enough, but the Windows device feels faster. In particular, I saw extremely jittery scrolling and lag in the Android Kindle and Twitter apps. On the Windows 8.1 device with its more powerful CPU, scrolling was always smooth. (Note: The CPU part IDs have been corrected from the initial publication.)

I didn’t do any formal battery life tests, but in my experience both devices lived up to the “all day” claims. I did notice that on the Android device I had to watch out for background apps that would drain the battery more quickly, a problem that didn’t happen with equivalent Windows 8 apps.

In terms of build quality, I certainly don’t have a big enough sample to judge whether the differences are unique to the sample I have. Both devices seem well built overall, but the Venue 8’s casing is loose on one side, making a slight clicking sound when I press on the back. The Venue 8 Pro seems noticeably sturdier, with no flexing at all.

Apps and services

And now we get to the interesting part.

The Venue 8 has the full complement of preinstalled Google apps connecting to Google services: Google Search (of course), Google Maps, Chrome, and a lot of apps in the Google Play Store. Annoyingly, Gmail has its own app, separate from the Email app. So if you have multiple email accounts, you need to use multiple apps.

The Venue 8 Pro has all of the preinstalled Windows 8.1 apps, including the much-improved Mail, a unified Search tool that includes Bing results with local files and settings, Xbox Music and Videos, and Internet Explorer 11. The collection of apps in the Windows Store is smaller than its Google Play counterpart, but has everything I need.

I found all the third-party apps I needed for both platforms, including Twitter and Facebook and essential reading apps.

The Kindle software for both platforms does a perfectly good job of syncing purchased books. (Both apps are equally hobbled by Amazon, which grudgingly provides its support here but really wants you to buy a Kindle Fire HDX.) I prefer the Nook software, which provides access to locally stored books and to magazines. This was one of the few times I saw a difference in feature sets between the platforms. Magazines on the Nook software can shift into Article View, which strips away superfluous design elements to show just the text and essential graphics. On Windows 8.1, that experience uses the full screen, smoothly. On Android, Article View appears in a rounded window, with wasted space on the screen and a generally less satisfying experience.

Every magazine I subscribe to was available on both platforms, with one major exception: The New Yorker has an app for Android but not for the Windows Store, and it isn’t available via the Nook software. That meant that I had to use a web browser to read the most recent issue of this magazine on the Windows device, and it wasn’t available offline.

As for music and videos, Google wants you to embrace its Play Store, and Microsoft has the more mature Xbox Music and Video. You could call that one a draw, unless you insist on using Apple’s iTunes. That gives the Venue 8 Pro the edge, because it can run the Windows version of iTunes and thus play anything in the iTunes Store.

Next page: Google versus Microsoft

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In the Google Play store, you can find lots of apps from Microsoft. I installed SkyDrive, OneNote, Xbox Music, Xbox SmartGlass, and the new Remote Desktop client. In the Windows Store, Google has exactly one app: Google Search.

The Android Mail app is clunky, with lots of wasted space given over to buttons and navigation aids. The contrast with the minimal “hide the UI” Windows 8 design ethos is noteworthy. Likewise, Chrome on this tiny tablet wastes a lot of space showing tabs and keeping the notification bar (at the top) and the Android navigation buttons (at the bottom) always visible.

If you’re fully invested in Google services like Gmail, you’ll probably never notice that ugly Email app. But messages from the Office 365 and servers I use are better-looking and more responsive in the Windows 8.1 Mail app than on Android, and I also have the option of using the full Outlook client. If you use Gmail on the Venue 8 Pro, your only realistic option is to install Chrome and accept Google’s refusal to write apps for Windows 8.x.

Finally, there’s Office. The Venue 8 Pro comes with a license for Office 2013 Home & Student; the Venue 8 doesn’t include any Office software by default. If your working life revolves around Office documents, this is a big deal. When I double-tapped a Word document in the SkyDrive app on the Android device, I got an error message. When I received a Word document and PowerPoint slide deck as an email attachment, I was able to open them immediately in Office 2013, but using the Android Email app I had to save them first and then manually open them. (The Gmail app opens attachments directly.)

After I installed Google’s free QuickOffice app, I was able to open Office documents on the Android device, where they were usually readable, but with noticeable differences in formatting from the originals. Excel worksheets were problematic, however, especially those included charts. When I opened some relatively straightforward workbooks in QuickOffice, the charts in one set of worksheets had lost all their formatting, and in another workbook the charts were not visible at all. Likewise, PivotTables were unusable in QuickOffice.

The bottom line?

As a device to keep on the coffee table or the nightstand for reading and quickly catching up with email or Twitter interactions, either device will do. Both versions are the right size to be held comfortably, and the 8-inch screen size is easier on my eyes than the 7-inch devices (Google Nexus 7, Kindle Fire HDX) I’ve tried.

The biggest difference between the two is with Office, where the loss in formatting when opening documents in QuickOffice is a big drawback for me. And although I’m unlikely to press the Venue Pro 8 into service as a desktop PC with a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, that’s certainly possible. In fact, it’s also possible to attach an external monitor with a USB-to-HDMI adapter, making this, in theory, a full PC. Having File Explorer available also makes it easier to manage files (such as a music library) on an SD card.

Ironically, it’s easier for someone who’s already entrenched in Microsoft services to adapt to an Android device than it is for a Google Apps customer to become comfortable with a Windows 8.1 tablet. That’s because Microsoft has invested a significant effort in both providing apps and making its services browser-independent. There are no corresponding Google apps on the Windows 8.1 platform.

Ultimately, whether you prefer one of these devices over the other comes down to a question of apps and services. If you live in Microsoft services, especially Office 365, you'll certainly be happier with the Windows 8.1 version. Google Apps, on the other hand, will work well on either device.