The Dell Venue 8 Pro tablet is just a bit bigger than an iPad mini, but it packs enough power to handle desktop apps. It ships with Windows 8.1 software, comes with Microsoft Office 2013 Home & Student pre-installed, and has an Intel Atom Bay Trail processor which provides the long battery life you expect from a tablet as well as performance that’s good enough to handle serious tasks like editing documents, transcoding videos, or light gaming.
Best of all? The Dell Venue 8 Pro costs less than an iPad mini. It’s priced at $299 and up, but you can often find it on sale for as little as $249.
Dell also sweetens the deal by offering optional accessories including a folio case and digital pen — the tablet has an active digitzer and supports pressure-sensitive input if you buy the pen.
Sounds great, right? It kind of is… depending on how you expect to use a tablet. While the Dell Venue 8 Pro is capable of doing many things that would be difficult on an iPad or Android tablet, there are times when less is more.
Dell loaned me a Venue 8 Pro and I’ve been testing it for the last month. The biggest challenge I’ve faced is the fact that I’ve already got an Android phone, an Android tablet, and a Windows laptop. Pretty much any thing I would want to do on Dell’s tablet, I can do better on one of those devices. I totally get the appeal of a single device that does it all, but I personally had a hard time making myself use this tablet on a regular basis because I have other devices that I feel make better tablets or laptops.
That said, if you haven’t already bought into the Android or iOS ecosystem, or if you’re looking for a jack-of-all-trades tablet at a good price, the Dell Venue 8 Pro is certainly worth a look.
Dell’s first 8 inch Windows tablet features an 8 inch, 1280 x 800 pixel IPS display with wide viewing angles and support for multi-touch input. It has an Intel Atom Z3740D Bay Trail quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM, and 32GB to 64GB of storage. There’s also a microSD card slot if you want to add extra storage space.
The tablet features Intel HD graphics, 2X2 dual-band MIMO 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, and support for Miracast wireless display technology. It has a 5MP camera on the back, a 1.2MP camera on the front, a headphone jack, a micro USB port, and buttons for power, volume, and bringing up the Windows Start Screen.
Dell equipped the tablet with a built-in 18Whr, 4830mAh battery which provides about 6 to 9 hours of battery life, depending on how you use the tablet. There are more details on battery life below.
You charge the tablet by plugging the included AC adapter into the micro USB port. You may be able to recharge the device using a third party adapter, but I found that it charged most quickly when I used the adapter that came in the box. Unfortunately since there are no extra ports, if you’re charging the tablet you can’t use the micro USB port to connect peripherals. Fortunately the tablet does support Bluetooth accessories such as a keyboard, mouse, or game controller. And you can connect an external display over WiFi using Miracast.
The Dell Venue 8 Pro is a bit bigger and chunkier than an iPad mini or Google Nexus 7. But unless you held the tablets next to one another, you might not notice. Dell’s tablet is still pretty small and light and feels comfortable if you hold it in your hands for an hour or longer to watch videos, surf the web, play games. or read eBooks.
It measures 8.5″ x 5.12″ x 0.35″ and weighs about 13.9 ounces. The iPad mini, for comparison’s sake, measures 7.9″ x 5.4″ x 0.29″ and weighs 11.6 ounces, but it doesn’t have a widescreen display like Dell’s tablet.
While you can rotate a Windows tablet in any direction and use it in landscape or portrait orientation, 10 inch tablets seem to be designed for landscape mode and 8 inch models for portrait. You can flip the Dell Venue 8 Pro and hold it in two hands to watch videos or play games, but if you’re holding it in one hand and using the other to tap or type, it’s most comfortable to do that in portrait.
That would probably explain why the Dell and Intel logos are all printed in portrait orientation on the back of the tablet.
The front of the tablet is mostly screen. There are thin black bezels along the sides and slightly thicker bezels at the top and bottom, but when the display is turned off it just looks like a sheet of glass covering a slab of black.
Dell covered the back and sides of the Venue 8 Pro with textured plastic. There’s a circular design emanating out from the Dell logo on the back. The texture makes the tablet feel a bit easier to grip than a tablet with a smooth back.
The back curves up a bit to meet the sides of the tablet, which makes it look a tad thinner than it actually is. But there’s a small bump around the headphone jack at the top.
Next to the headphone jack you’ll find a Windows button. Press it when the screen is off and the tablet will spring to life. Press it when the display is already on, and the Start Screen will appear. You can also trigger the Start Screen by swiping from the right side of the screen to bring up the Windows Charms Bar and pressing the Start icon. This is a bit faster, but I keep forgetting which key is the Start button and which is the Power button.
That’s because the Power button is just an inch or two from the Start button, only it’s along one of the long sides of the tablet, next to the micro USB port. Press this key at any time to turn the screen on or off. Or you can press and hold for a few seconds to bring up a “Slide to shut down your PC” window. Or you can keep pressing until the system reboots — just like the power button on an old-school Windows PC.
Next to the power button there are volume up and down keys, and further along this side of the tablet you’ll find a plastic door covering the microSD card slot. Dell also plans to offer models with mobile broadband capabilities, and it looks like there’s room for a SIM card slot under that plastic door as well.
At the bottom of the tablet (if you’re holding it in portrait mode with the camera on top), there’ s a speaker grill. The speaker is reasonably loud and the volume reasonably clear, but you’ll want headphones or external speakers if you really want to blast music from this tablet.
Accessories (Stylus and Folio case)
Dell offers three key accessories for the Venue 8 Pro. There’s a Folio case, an Active Stylus, and a Wireless keyboard (which isn’t actually available for purchase yet). The company loaned me the case and stylus to test.
The $40 case is definitely a useful add-on. I’m less convinced that the $30 digital pen is worth the price — although it’s certainly one of the things that helps set this tablet apart from similar models from Acer, Lenovo, and Toshiba. None of those tablets has an active digitzer.
The problem is that while Windows 8.1 does support pen input, the Venue 8 Pro’s stylus isn’t particularly responsive.
Here are a few reasons why you might want to use a pen with a Windows tablet:
- It has a finer tip than your finger, making it easier to touch tiny spots on the screen, such as the close or minimize buttons in desktop apps.
- Devices with active digitzers don’t just let you tap and scribble on the screen, they support pressure-sensitive input which lets you write or draw heavier brush strokes by pressing the stylus harder against the screen.
- An active stylus also supports hover-type actions, letting you move the pen over the surface of the tablet without touching it to trigger drop-down menus, highlight icons before pressing them, or handle other actions you’d normally perform by hovering your mouse over an item without actually clicking on it.
But Dell’s tablet uses a Synaptics active pen system which isn’t quite as good as what you’d get from rival Wacom. I found that sometimes I had to tap the screen repeatedly before the tablet would recognize pen input at all. And while I was able to test pressure-sensitive input in a drawing app, I feel like I had to press pretty hard to notice any difference.
I also didn’t have a lot of luck getting handwriting recognition to actually, you know, recognize my handwriting. That’s hardly a shock — I have awful handwriting, which is one of the reasons I learned to type at nearly 100 words per minute years ago. But I’m pretty sure Windows software can handle bad handwriting pretty well… when it’s scribbled with a decent stylus. Nearly 10 years ago I used a PDA running Windows Mobile and a resistive toucshcreen stylus to take notes on a daily basis with no problems.
The Dell Venue 8 Pro, on the other hand, sometime didn’t even notice when I’d lifted the stylus away from the screen — which means that part of the reason it had trouble converting the letters I scribbled into text was because it thought I was continuing to scribble a letter even after I’d moved on to the next one.
Hopefully the issue has more to do with software than hardware, which means that Dell could release software updates that will make things better without requiring you to buy a new device. Dell has already issued one software update to improve pen performance, and it’s possible that future updates could help even more — but right now the pen isn’t nearly as effective as those on some higher-priced tablets like the Microsoft Surface Pro.
There’s also no good place to store the stylus when it’s not in use. While some tablets have slots that you can slide a stylus into, the Dell Venue 8 Pro does not — so you’ll have to carry it loose in you bag like a pen, or maybe hook it unto the flap on the Folio case. Given the battery-powered pen’s size, there’s not really room in the tablet chassis for it, but that doesn’t make it any less likely that you’ll lose or damage the pen.
For example, the tip of the stylus fell off at one point during my testing, and until I found it the $30 accessory was little more than a paperweight.
All told, it’s nice to have the option of using a stylus — especially if you visit websites or use apps that require hover actions. But don’t expect to create your next artistic masterpiece using this tablet. And for day-to-day tasks, I found it easier to enter text and navigate the Windows user interface using fingers on glass instead of the optional stylus.
While I’m clearly not in love with the active stylus, I do find the $40 case to be a pretty useful (if somewhat expensive) accessory. The case has a hard plastic back and sides to protect the tablet, cut-outs for the rear camera, speaker, ports, and buttons, and a flip cover that protects the glass screen when you’re not using the tablet.
The underside of the cover is coated in a soft, velvet-like material which won’t scratch the screen. It’s also designed as a non-slip surface that lets you flip open the lid and use the case like an adjustable stand. Just tilt the tablet to the angle you’d like, prop it against the cover, and it’ll stay in place on a table, desk. or even on your lap.
During the weeks that I spent with the Dell Venue 8 Pro, I rarely took the tablet out of its case. That’s partly because the case is useful for protecting, and standing up the tablet. It’s also partly because it’s a pain in the behind to actually get the thing out of the case.
While it’s pretty easy to squeeze the tablet into the case, you have to pry away at the edges with a lot of force to pop it out. That’s a little annoying, since the Folio case does make the tablet heavier, and there are times when it might be nice to hold the tablet without the case. But at least you don’t have to worry about it falling out on its own.
Dell says a wireless keyboard for the Venue 8 Pro is coming soon, and it could make it easier to use the tablet like a laptop. It’s nice that the tablet comes with Microsoft Office, but you’re probably not going to want to tap out your doctoral dissertation using the on-screen keyboard.
Since the official keyboard wasn’t yet available when I tested the tablet, I did the next best thing and connected my own wireless keyboard (which is really a bit too large to be truly portable. What I discovered is that a 1280 x 800 pixel display looks pretty good when you’re holding it in your hands — but web sites, documents, and other items with text can look incredibly tiny when placed about two feet away from your eyes (the distance at which I usually place a laptop screen).
You can adjust the Windows DPI settings so that text and graphics are zoomed to 125 percent, which helps a bit. But if you’re really looking for a tablet that you can use as a laptop replacement, you might want a larger screen (or better eyes than mine).
Of course, you could always connect the tablet to an external display. As I discovered recently, Intel’s Bay Trail processors are powerful enough to handle desktop performance, allowing you to use a cheap Windows tablet as if it were a full-fledged desktop PC.
Since Dell’s tablet has only a single port, you’ll either need a docking station like the $129 Plugable UD-3900 to hook up a wired keyboard, mouse, and display, or peripherals that work over WiFi or Bluetooth.
For example, I tried using the tablet with a Tronsmart T1000 Miracast wireless display adapter and a wireless keyboard to sort of turn the Dell Venue 8 Pro into a desktop-style PC. The results were serviceable, but just barely. You’d probably get better performance with a DisplayLink adapter which lets you hook up a monitor to a USB port. But since the tablet only has one port for charging and for USB peripherals, that means you’d have to run on battery power while your monitor is hooked up.
It’d be nice if the Venue 8 Pro had an HDMI port or an extra USB port or two. But it seems pretty clear that this inexpensive tablet wasn’t designed as the ultimate productivity tool. Even if the processor and operating system are up to the task, the tablet’s lack of ports (and small size and battery) make it better suited to handheld operation.
Performance (and usage)
So what exactly is the Dell Venue 8 Pro good for? Lots of things. Like other devices running Windows 8 and later, the Venue 8 Pro can handle two types of apps: traditional desktop Windows applications, and “Modern” or “Metro” style apps which are designed to run in full-screen mode (although you can also run two apps side-by-side), and which tend to be touch-friendly and feature graphics that look good at just about any screen resolution.
Metro apps look great on Dell’s 8 inch tablet, making it a nice compact device for surfing the web with Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Chrome, watching videos from Netflix, reading eBooks with Kindle, NOOK, or Kobo apps, or playing games from the Windows Store, among other things.
If you never leave the Metro user interface, it’d be easy to think of a tablet like this as little more than an alternative to an iPad mini or small Android tablet. It has a touch-friendly user interface, long battery life, and runs similar apps… with a few quirks.
For instance, I’ve consistently had difficulty getting the Amazon Kindle app to sync my last-read-page progress between Windows tablets and other devices, and for some reason my local public radio station never streams properly from the TuneIn app from the Windows Store (it works fine when you’re using the TuneIn app for Android).
There also aren’t as many tablet apps available from the Windows Store as from Apple’s App Store or the Google Play Store for Android — although the gap is closing as a growing number of developers bring their apps to Windows. Still, folks with Android or iOS phones may want to run their favorite mobile apps on a tablet, only to find that some apps just aren’t available for Windows tablets… at least not yet.
But there’s one good reason to pick a tablet like the Venue 8 Pro over something like an iPad mini or a Google Nexus 7: Metro apps are only part of the story. Not only does the Venue 8 Pro come with Office 2013 Home & Student preloaded, but it can run virtually any Windows desktop app you can throw at it.
Sure, some resource-intensive tasks won’t run as well on a device with an Intel Atom processor and 2GB of RAM as they would on a machine with more memory and a faster CPU. But you can install everything from Photoshop to the Steam game engine on this tablet. Try doing that with a Samsung Galaxy Tab.
Bleeding edge PC games probably won’t run very well, but the Atom Z3740D processor with Intel HD graphics can handle HD video playback and 3D graphics acceleration well enough to handle older or simpler games. While the chip is slightly slower than the Atom Z3740 processor used in some other low-cost Windows tablets, it achieves nearly identical scores in the benchmark tests I ran.
For instance, the Dell Venue 8 Pro got virtually identical scores to the Asus Transformer Book T100 in the 3DMark graphics benchmark. Those scores weren’t as good as those you’d get from a device like the Samsung ATIV 9 Lite laptop with AMD Radeon HD graphics, but they show that the tablet can handle some gaming tasks.
In terms of raw CPU power, I ran a few tests to look at audio and video transcoding and creating archive files. This time I also threw in scores for the HP Envy X2, a convertible tablet/notebook hybrid with an older Intel Atom Z2760 Clover Trail processor and the Asus 1015E mini-laptop with an Intel Celeron 847 processor.
Not only did this tiny tablet outperform the system with an older Atom chip in every test, it also came in ahead of the notebook with the Celeron chip in most benchmarks.
I’ve been running the same benchmarks on laptops for a few years, using WinLAME to transcode audio, VirtualDub to transcode video, and 7-zip to create a ZIP archive. But VirtualDub isn’t exactly the speediest tool for transcoding video, so I’ve also started throwing in some tests using Hanbdrake, which completes the task much more quickly.
Remarkably, this $300 tablet runs circles around Samsung’s ATIV Book 9 Lite laptop in the Handbrake test, even though Samsung charged $800 for that notebook when it launched in the summer of 2013 (the price has since fallen a bit).
Odds are that you won’t spend a lot of time editing or transcoding video on an 8 inch tablet. But it’s nice to know you can.
The tablet has an 18Whr battery that Dell says should be good for up to 9.9 hours of battery life. That’s a little generous… but not much.
In my tests, I found that you could get up to 9 hours of battery life with light usage including web surfing, reading eBooks, and checking email with WiFi enabled and screen brightness set to about 50 percent.
Battery life took a bit of a hit when I tried using the tablet for work. I spent a few hours one day at a coffee shop with a wireless keyboard, for instance, composing blog posts, doing some light image editing, and web browsing with a dozen tabs open. The computer was able to keep up with the tasks (although I found myself squinting a bit at the tiny display), but under those conditions, it looks like battery life would top out at closer to 6 hours.
That’s certainly not bad for a device that weighs less than a pound, battery included. But it’s not quite as good as a device with a larger screen and battery, like the Asus Transformer Book T100. Dell does offer a larger tablet called the Dell Venue 11 Pro which not only has a bigger battery, but it’s a user-replaceable battery. But that’s a subject for another day.
Fortunately, the AC adapter for this tablet is about the same size as a smartphone charger, so if you think you might run out of juice while you’re out and about, you can throw the adapter in your bag without weighing it down. But as I mentioned above, you’ll probably want to make sure to use the official charger and not just any old micro USB charger, unless you want to deal with slow charging.
Unfortunately, the included cable is pretty short — so you’ll have to find your tablet a spot pretty close to the AC outlet for charging.
There aren’t many tablets that offer what the Dell Venue 8 Pro does: It’s an inexpensive device that can run mobile-friendly apps as well as the same apps you might run on your desktop or notebook PC. There’s an option for a pressure-sensitive pen which lets you jot handwritten notes in OneNote, enter text with handwriting recognition, or draw in art and graphics apps. And it’s cheap.
But the stylus input is less than stellar. There are other devices that offer better laptop-style performance, and other tablets that are thinner, lighter, offer longer-battery life, or support more touch-friendly apps. While there’s a lot to like about Dell’s little tablet, during the month I’ve spent with it I constantly found myself grabbing my Google Nexus 7 tablet or Samsung Series 9 notebook instead of the Venue 8 Pro when I wanted to read an eBook or compose a document.
This two-device solution might not be as convenient as a single device that could theoretically do it all… but the Nexus 7 supports more apps and feels faster when running those apps, and the Series 9 notebook has a bigger display and a full-sized physical keyboard.
That’s not to say that it’s impossible to make a Windows 8 tablet that could replace your notebook and tablet. When I spent a few weeks testing the Asus Transformer Book T100, I did constantly find myself grabbing the tablet when I wanted to look something up, compose a quick email, or perform other tasks. That’s because that 10 inch device is large enough to use while placed on a desk like a laptop, but small enough to hold in two hands like a tablet. It also comes with a sturdy keyboard dock which makes using the tablet as a notebook very easy.
If I didn’t already have a tablet and a notebook, things might be different — and I suspect someone looking for their first tablet could be pretty happy with a device like the Dell Venue 8 Pro, especially given its low price.
There are a growing number of tablets apps in the Windows Store, and you could easily find hundreds of apps and games worth running on this sub-$300 tablet. While it has the raw horsepower to run desktop apps, I’m not convinced it’s the best choice for running apps like Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop, but it’s nice to know you can run those apps if you’d like.