30 January 2014

Dell Venue Pro 8 - Full Review

Key Features: Quad-core Intel Atom Bay Trail CPU;
32GB storage; 8-inch 1,280 x 800 IPS screen; 
9mm thick; ‘Active’ stylus; 4,830mAh battery; 
Bluetooth 4.0; Dual band Wi-Fi
Manufacturer: Dell

What is the Dell Venue Pro 8?

The Dell Venue Pro is an 8-inch, Windows 8.1 tablet that like the Toshiba Encore, the Acer W4 and the Lenovo MiiX2, gives you a full version of Microsoft's latest operating system so you can reap the benefits of having a PC without the extra bulk.

After our numerous grievances with the Encore, we were hoping that Dell's offering could restore some optimism that Windows in an iPad mini 2 Retina or Nexus 7 2-sized body can actually work. Fortunately, we have a more glowing report about the Venue Pro 8. It's by far the most impressive 8-inch Windows 8.1 tablet we've seen so far.

Dell Venue Pro 8: Design

Sat next to Apple's 7.9-inch tablet or the Nexus 7, the Venue Pro 8 doesn't exactly break the design mould for a small tablet. But when you compare it to other 8-inch Windows 8.1 tablets, it's by far the best-looking and nicest to hold in the hand.

The front looks like your run of the mill Android tablet with a black bezel that narrows down the sides of the 8-inch display. When you flip it over, the soft plastic back with raised concentric circles gives it a Nexus 7-feel and provides greater friction than the flat smooth surfaces on the Encore and the W4 tablets. It does have a habit of trapping fluff, but we think this gives the Venue Pro 8 something a bit different compared to other portable Windows tablets.

At just 9mm thick, it’s not as chunky as the Encore either and other rival 8-inch Windows 8.1 slates. It weighs just 395g, making it heavier than the iPad mini 2 Retina Wi-Fi (331g), but it’s more than comfortable to use one-handed and gives it a profile well suited to using in two hands.

Everything from the chrome buttons to the unibody design is well constructed and fills us with enough confidence that it's able to withstand the rigours of daily use. For £250, we are happy with what Dell has served up here.

Looking around the tablet you’ll find the 5-megapixel main camera on the back and front-facing camera in the top right on the bezel. Down the right edge of the you’ll find the MicroSD card slot concealed by a latch. If you opt for the 3G/Wi-Fi version, the micro SIM slot will also be hidden away here. Further up is the chrome-style volume rocker and on/off button.

The microUSB charging port also doubles as a USB host and means you can connect other peripherals, although you'll need to invest in OTG cable. There’s no HDMI so hooking it up to a TV has to be done wirelessly over Miracast and will of course mean you need a compatible TV.

On the top edge is the headphone/mic port and bizarrely the Windows Home button. Most other tablets include this at the bottom of tablet and whether this is Dell’s way of trying to be different or genuinely believing that it’s better positioned, our numerous times spent hitting it thinking it was the on/off button suggests it was a bad move.

Dell Venue Pro 8: Screen and Sound Quality

The Dell Venue Pro 8 features an 8-inch 1,280 x 800 pixel IPS touchscreen display with a widescreen aspect ratio that effectively matches Toshiba Encore and the original Nexus 7. In comparison to the Nexus 7 2 and the Kindle Fire HDX 7 though, the cheaper Android tablets offer more pixels and more impressive resolution.

That’s not to say that the screen is terrible. For everyday tasks like watching video and reading web pages it’s perfectly acceptable. You don't get the full HD treatment. although the screen is nice and sharp and colours are slightly more punchy than the Encore.

Viewing angles are good thanks to the IPS display technology, though it suffers like most other tablets with some reflection in bright outdoors. Our only real issue is that the auto brightness out of the box is set very low, so we would suggest jumping into the settings and disabling the auto-brightness otherwise you are going to find it a very unsatisfying experience.

In terms of screen responsiveness, the Venue Pro 8’s display supports 10-point multitouch and shows little signs of struggle registering swipes, selecting apps or pinching and zooming your way through a web page where the font is a little on the small side. The tablet does also support its own digitiser stylus that Dell is calling the 'Active' pen. Unfortunately, once again, this needs to be purchased separately and we didn’t have one to try doodling with.

The speaker on the bottom of the edge of the tablet is certainly nice and loud, just don’t expect booming, rich audio to fill your ears. The louder it gets the more noticeable the distortion becomes. It’s more than suitable for watching films and gaming but it's underwhelming for blasting out Spotify playlists.

Dell Venue Pro 8: Software

Ultimately, the ability to run a full version of Windows 8.1 and not limiting RT is the biggest appeal of owning something like the Venue Pro 8. You can install full desktop applications with a 32GB of hard drive space that's actually around 25GB. There is an alternative configuration so you can move up to 64GB and will cost you closer to £300. This means you are not restricted to downloading applications from the Windows Store, which still lags behind Google Play and Apple’s App Store for content.

For anyone who has used a Windows 8 tablet, the interface, charm bar and desktop mode will all be very familiar. The typical apps are included with Bing-powered content for sport, travel, health and fitness and food & drink all beautifully presented. Xbox powers music and gaming while Dell includes four maintenance-style applications to keep the tablet up to date.

The big sell is getting Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 for free, turning this into a potentially great productivity tool. We say potentially, because to make the most of it you will need to invest in a Bluetooth keyboard, something that Dell does offer as a case or standalone format, but again is something you are going to have to pay extra for.

Typing away on a third-party Bluetooth keyboard is fine but our problems with getting the most of it is the fact that the classic desktop mode is not scaled to make it easy to use. The icons are too small to make and it's far too fussy trying to drag windows around the screen to make it a truly intuitive experience. You can pinch and zoom within windows, but it isn't enough to make working with it anything other than frustrating.

The scaling issue can also be extended to some apps like Netflix, which runs with borders instead of filling the whole screen and that could irritate some when the entire screen is not fully embraced.

We naturally spent most our time in tablet mode to search the web, play games from the Windows Store, watch movies and look at photos. That’s another issue that Microsoft needs to address, making the two more closely intertwined and not so alien from each other.

Rumours suggest the next Windows 8.1 update will integrate Metro apps into the Classic desktop mode and that could be a step in the right direction to make this operating system more suitable for an 8-inch tablet.

Dell Venue Pro 8: Performance

Like its rival 8-inch Windows tablets, the Dell Venue Pro 8 is powered by an Intel Atom Bay Trail quad-core chip with 2GB of RAM to handle multitasking. While not in the same league as Intel Core i3/i5/i7 processors it gives the Venue Pro 8 enough power to handle a full version of Windows and ensure the battery life is enough to make it through a least a day’s use. The Intel Atom Z3740 processor is clocked at 1.8Ghz, just slightly higher than the Toshiba Encore and certainly leaves us with a better impression.

For general navigation swiping around the UI, the Venue Pro 8 is a nice, zippy performer. It handles snapping apps for multitasking with little issue and games like Wreck-It Ralph run nice and smooth. It’s not all good news, though. The app loading times still grind and even trying to pair devices over Bluetooth can take an age to connect. Some of the more visually demanding games on the Windows Store like Avengers Initiative still suffer from some minor framerate drops, too.

Turning to the benchmarks, in the 3D Mark Ice Storm Unlimited gaming test the Venue Pro 8 scores a 15,005 beating the Toshiba Encore’s 14,024 score. It's still behind the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800-powered RT-based Nokia Lumia 2520 (16,123), though it outperforms the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 (13,557). In the Geekbench 3 Pro tests the Venue Pro 8 manages a 2,515 multi-core score, which is roughly around the same as the Nexus 7 (2523) and iPad mini 2 Retina (2551) manages. This suggests there is very little difference in raw performance, although we'd say the reality is iOS and Android are snappier and faster to load then Windows 8. The Venue Pro is still a marked improvement over the Encore, though that's more a reflection on how poor the Toshiba was.

Dell Venue Pro 8: Camera

If you want to take pictures of the selfie or scenic variety, Dell has included a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera and a 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera. The main camera delivers the kind of quality you'd expect from a budget phone with a fairly low-resolution sensor and very little in the way of software to take great pictures.

As the samples show below, the low-resolution sensor produces images that lack sharpness, look overprocessed and colours that are far from accurate. There's no LED flash so it's not going to be much help taking shots in low light and the front-facing camera is adequate for video calls and much less useful for photos. The HD video recording similarly suffers from the kind of noise and underwhelming quality that you are unlikely to swap your smartphone for filming in a hurry.

Dell Venue Pro 8: Battery Life

The Venue Pro 8 packs an 4,830mAh battery that Dell says gives the 8-inch tablet up to 9.9 hours battery life, effectively putting into the iPad mini 2 Retina realms of battery life. In our testing it's less than that, but not by much. Getting 8 hours and 30 minutes is more accurate if you are using it sporadically during the day and you don't have the brightness cranked up, which in most cases is necesssary because the default brigtness setting is set so low.

Using it more sporadically during the day to do some gaming, browse the internet and stream video it does make it through a day, though you will want want the charger by your bedside to power it up for the morning just to be on the safe side.

In more intensive testing running an entire series on Netflix it manages closer to 7 hours 30 minutes, so it's not quite the 9-10 hour battery life of the iPad mini 2 Retina. It does match the Toshiba Encore and shows that the Intel Atom Bay Trail-powered tablets are able to go the distance.

Should I buy the Dell Venue Pro 8?

If you are intent on buying a 8-inch, Windows 8.1 tablet then the Dell Venue Pro 8 is currently the best one out there. It's comfortable to use, has a nice, bright display, the battery life really impresses and general performance is very good. For £250, it represents great value for money as a standalone tablet you are going to use for everyday tasks.

We still have our niggling issues most of which are levelled at the operating system more than anything else. Until Microsoft sort out scaling issues for the traditional desktop mode, Microsoft Office is difficult to use without an additional keyboard. That means investing more pushing the price closer to £300 if you go for Dell's official option.

The only serious issue in comparison to other 8-inch Windows 8 tablets is the lack of any physical video output. That means you're totally reliant on Miracast, which though a promising technology does limit your options a little. If you want to use the Venue Pro 8 as a kind of desktop docking tablet then you may find this tricky.

Looking at other alternatives, for less money you can buy the Nexus 7, which does offer a better display, overall performance and a whole lot more apps to choose from among other things. The iPad mini 2 Retina is still comfortably the best tablet out there, but you are going to have to pay over £300 to own one.

This is only really the beginning of the onslaught of smaller Windows tablets so we are not suggesting this is the one to rival Apple and Google's slates just yet. It does get a lot of things right and certainly does a better job of showcasing Windows 8.1 in smaller, more portable body than what we've seen so far.


This is by far the best 8-inch Windows 8.1 tablet we’ve seen it’s just a shame that Microsoft's operating system is not yet fully equipped for a smaller screen.

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