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

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.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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