The Dell Venue 8 Pro is a tablet I never thought I would like.
It is also the first tablet I (sort of) own; my dad picked it up when it was on sale during Christmas for $199. I’ve never needed a tablet before, but if I ever did buy one for myself I always figured it would be an iPad.
The Dell Venue 8 Pro (I’m calling it the DV8P henceforth to save some keystrokes) wasn’t going to be just the first time I owned a tablet but also the first time I ever used Windows 8 extensively beyond the retail store demos. Thus, I dedicated an entire blog post focusing solely on the operating system. Even though companies such as Lenovo, Toshiba, and Acer also sell similar 8-inch Windows tablets, it would be impossible to make any fair comparisons with the DV8P without having ever used those devices personally.
In this review, I will cover three main topics: hardware, software, and the user experience. If you’re thinking of buying your first or next tablet, is the DV8P the one for you? Let’s find out.
When you first hold the DV8P, you will immediately notice the rubberized plastic back covering. The overall build feels solid, almost like holding a basketball, with the textured back giving the tactile reassurance that the device won’t slip from your grip when holding it with just one hand. Concentric circles radiate from the Dell logo on the back, which is more noticeable by touch than by sight.
There is the familiar cast of hardware buttons and ports on the DV8P. On the top side, there is a Windows Home button and a headphone jack. The Windows Home button is an odd inclusion since you are better off using the gesture equivalent of swiping from top-to-bottom.
On the right portrait side, there is a micro-USB port, power/lock button, volume controls, and a microSD slot. Unfortunately, there is no micro-HDMI port so setting the device as a second screen is going to be more challenging. The DV8P does actually support a wireless display protocol called Miracast and DisplayLink but the number of displays that actually have that feature built-in are limited at best. You could get an adapter to enable existing displays but of course, that would cost you money. An adapter from NetGear for example, will set you back $60.
On the bottom, there is a single mono speaker, which is satisfyingly loud. Holding the device in landscape mode might pose a problem though as your hand would obstruct the audio. Nonetheless, it’s leaps and bounds better than the inconceivable placement of the speaker on my Nexus 4. I’m still mad about that, Google.
Let’s see how the DV8P compares to other tablets:
I included Google’s Nexus 7, Apple’s iPad Mini, and Amazon’s Kindle Fire HDX. While none of them are Windows-based tablets, they do share similar configurations and pricing. Another thing of note, the pricing you see above is for each device’s 32 GB variant.
While the DV8P isn’t the thinnest, the lightest, or offer the longest lasting battery, it’s not far off from its competition. It also comes with both a 1.2 MP front-facing and 5 MP rear camera. The Kindle Fire HDX lacks a rear camera. Perhaps, that’s a good thing. Do we really want more people taking photos with their tablet in public?
As you can tell, I could care less about cameras on a tablet. A front-facing camera though does have one legitimate use: video calls. With Skype preinstalled on the DV8P, video calls are a tap away. Sadly, the microphone is pretty lackluster. During my one and only Skype call, my partner struggled to pick up my voice. Yes, not a sufficient sample size but I won’t be using it again anytime soon.
When you first start using the DV8P, you will be in for a surprise with the display: it’s not very bright. This can be attributed to a bug with the ambient light sensor (auto brightness), which is turned on by default. If you disable it though, and I would highly recommend doing so, this will allow you to adjust the brightness to a more suitable setting. A firmware fix is supposedly in the works. In fact, an update was released sometime in December 2013 which I belatedly applied today. Unfortunately, nothing seems to have improved. FYI Dell, that was my bug report.
Once you’ve disabled auto-brightness, it’s time to truly appreciate the surprisingly decent 1280×800 resolution IPS display. Colors are rich and vibrant, especially with Windows 8.1 in all of its Metro glory. While you won’t get 1080p video playback, 720p video is still a good enough compromise; your Netflix viewing experience won’t feel lacking in any way.
Yes, the DV8P’s display pales in comparison to the 2048×1536 screen of the iPad Mini and the 1920×1200 screen of the Nexus 7. The difference is most jarring and obvious when you read text; words look downright blurry and not very sharp. While the relatively low resolution display won’t impact your video viewing experience very much, the same cannot be said with reading.
For your widescreen needs, the 16:10 aspect ratio is perfectly suitable. Along with Windows 8’s ability to snap apps side-by-side, you can easily multitask and be productive. Unfortunately, side-by-side view doesn’t work in portrait mode.
Despite the lower resolution display on the DV8P, I was surprised at how it became a non-issue after a week of continued usage. Sure, it’s noticeable on occasion but it’s not a complete deal breaker.
According to Dell, the DV8P can last up to 9.9 hours. This figure is more on the high end of a range of about 7–10 hours of battery life depending on your usage. I found myself needing to charge the device on average every 3–4 days. Once a week charging would have been fantastic so I will continue dreaming.
Recharging the battery averaged about 4–4.5 hours. Standby mode in my observation tended to drain the battery faster than I would like. On several occasions, I would pick up the device having not used it in a couple of days to find its battery nearly depleted.
As mentioned earlier, disabling the ambient light sensor is a necessity until Dell delivers a fix for the display brightness issues. The downside though with that could be your battery life. I haven’t done any tests to validate that assumption although The Verge cited a drop in battery performance of over 36%.
The DV8P comes with Intel’s latest Bay Trail processor, a quad-core 1.33GHz Intel Atom Z3740D processor. Boot-up times are fast, in the ballpark of 10–15 seconds. Touch responsiveness is snappy and any lag is usually imperceptible. Even when snapping and running apps side-by-side, the device doesn’t drop a beat thanks to its 2GB of RAM.
I have noticed that the device tends to get quite warm when playing games or watching video for extended periods of time. It’s not uncomfortably warm, but it doesn’t take very much for it to heat up. Time to get a case!
With Windows 8.1 running on the DV8P, you can run desktop apps like Spotify, iTunes, and Photoshop but whether you actually do so regularly is questionable. As I explained in my first impressions post on Windows 8, the operating system suffers from an identity crisis that begs the hardware to be two different things. When you’re in Metro mode, you need the portability and ease of use of a lightweight, touchscreen device. When you’re in Desktop mode, you need to speed and efficiency of a keyboard/mouse and a bigger screen.
That is what frustrates me the most about Windows 8. It offers so much potential in one realm (Metro) but is saddled by its need to anchor itself to another (Desktop). Should that mean killing Desktop outright? The solution isn’t that cut and dry but the reality is I use it sparingly. I suspect that for most users that may also be the case, but maybe I’m wrong.
All about the apps
Missing from that gaudy statistic is any mention of the Windows Store. Which isn’t that surprising considering that the store has been active for a little under two years now and touts about 150k apps. The Apple App Store in comparison has been around for over five years and now has over 1 million apps.
While the Windows Store is a distant third from its counterparts, the App Store and Play Store, it’s not a complete ghost town. For instance, popular apps like Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Dropbox, Kindle, Mint.com, and Flipboard are all available on Windows 8. Here are some of my personal favorites:
- Despicable Me: Minion Rush
- Reddit To Go!
- comics Jolt!
- The New York Times
- Next Gen Reader
The biggest app missing from that group though is Youtube. Don’t get your hopes up for a release anytime soon. If history is any indication, Google and Microsoft have a lot of growing up to do before they can forge a meaningful relationship that benefits both companies and more importantly, its users.
Luckily, a quality alternative to Youtube exists in the form of Metrotube. It has everything you would expect from a complete Youtube experience: subscriptions, search, what to watch, and popular videos. Best of all? No ads and it’s free.
Microsoft Office 2013
One of the coolest things about getting the DV8P is that it comes with a free copy (yes, free) of Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013. In other words, you get complete versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote already installed. With a retail value of $139, this productivity suit of apps makes this tablet one of the more affordable devices on the market.
The thing is, I decided to transfer the copy over to my desktop PC.
As much as I like this device, I can’t imagine being very effective using something like Excel on an 8-inch screen. It just doesn’t work on a small screen.
Fortunately, the transfer process is somewhat painless. You will have to go through the tricky step of entering a long series of five digit numbers all done over the phone. Also, transfers can only be done once every 90 days. More information can be found via this article by Microsoft.
The auto-brightness bug isn’t the only thing you should expect during the first moments when you bring the DV8P to life. After creating your user account, you will be forced to wait at least 10 minutes before you can actually well, use it. The device begins to process of downloading and installing updates and all the other boring stuff that computers have to do that takes time. All in all, a great way to quell your excitement after fiendishly tearing open your new purchase.
The single micro-USB port is a big disadvantage if you were looking to hook up your favorite peripherals like a keyboard, mouse, or flash drive. At the bare minimum, you would need a micro OTG adapter, which isn’t included in the box. If you’re looking to connect more than one peripheral, then you need a USB hub as well. And no, it’s not included. Even if you do obtain (or already possess) them, what you end up with is a tangled cable mess from hell. You are better served picking up a Bluetooth keyboard or mouse, although the current selection is scant at best.
Remember the aforementioned Dell update for its ambient light bug? To actually find and install the update, you will need to open up a My Dell app that is sort of like a overview page for your device. You will then have to visit the Drivers and Downloads button where you will be presented with a list of cryptic-sounding updates to choose from.
If you thought updating your apps was challenging, John McCain would understand.
There is currently no LTE version of the DV8P. Instead, you will have to stick with the Wi-Fi model which comes in both 32GB and 64GB configurations, retailing for $299 and $349, respectively.
There are two color options to choose from: black and red. The latter will be harder to find which is a shame since it looks absolutely gorgeous. I mean, look at it!
The DV8P is a great tablet at doing what we’ve come to expect from a tablet: it’s great for watching video, surfing the web, and downloading apps. No, it doesn’t offer the caliber of apps from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store. But for the core essentials, it does a good enough job meeting those demands at an incredible price few tablets on the market today can match.