Venue line makes Dell a tablet contender

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.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

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.

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.

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.

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