Dell Venue 8 Pro: First Impressions

I teamed up with dad to get mum a Venue 8 Pro. It seemed like a decent choice: reasonably priced, free Office for documents (she works hard) and a full Web browser for watching dramas online. The only concern I had was Windows 8.

Since the device arrived from the US, I’ve also had my chance to play around with it. Here are some first impressions:

Physique

While not as heavy as an iPad or Surface, my frame of reference is a Nexus 7 and from that standpoint, the Venue 8 feels a little bulky. The shape is similar to an iPad Mini, so it’s basically wider and heavier than the Nexus – making one-handed operation feasible but not as comfortable.
Venue Pro 8 with Nexus 7 and iPad 2
That said, the Venue’s form factor is attractive – a decently-sized portable screen, wrapped in an attractive jet black and grippy housing. The Venue 8 doesn’t scream premium, but it sure won’t look scrappy in that board meeting.

Some complain about the positioning of the Home button, but I think it’s a good decision – in fact, the button should just be removed. Windows 8 keeps a virtual Home button accessible via a swipe from the right edge of the screen, which makes even more sense when you’re holding the device with your right hand. I never used the Home button – if anything I mistook it for the power button.

Aside from that, just note the Micro USB port, which fulfills both charging and USB host duties – so it’s not a device you can plug a USB keyboard like (via adaptor) and charge at the same time.

Software and Internals

I won’t speak too much about Windows 8 since there is plenty on that around the Internet. In short though, performance is pleasant (boot times are incredible) and while the software has good intentions, it falls short on intuitiveness. I anticipated, and was proven correct, that my mum would not pick up the interface quickly. This was Windows 8.1 mind you. Nevertheless, capability sometimes outweighs beauty, and having full Windows on an 8-inch tablet is something I think will win her over in the long run (a few more iterations from the Redmond giant wouldn’t hurt either).
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One thing that annoyed me was how small the text was in the Metro / Modern UI. With the desktop, scaling helps a little, but the overall impression is that Windows 8 is usable, but not optimised for smaller form factors. Not yet at least.

Another annoyance was the onscreen keyboard in desktop mode – it’s not open by default, even when I tap the page in Word, for example. You have to tap the keyboard icon in the status dock to open it. The keyboard itself was decent, though I still much prefer the iOS split keyboard.

To quickly test how much Atom processors have improved, I downloaded Steam and installed DOTA 2. It was surprisingly playable after you get past the loading screens (although I only played 5 mins into a bot match, and never pushed the processor with things like Death Prophet’s ultimate). In comparison, running the game on my two year old MacBook Pro’s Intel Core 2 Duo was simply a joke. Relatively speaking, DOTA 2 isn’t as intense as a Crysis, but I think it’s still a reasonably good look into real world usage.
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The issue I did face, however, was heat. The form factor doesn’t accommodate fans, and the tablet was hot after the short DOTA playaround – something important to consider if you intend to use the tablet for anything more than casual browser or Windows 8 games.

I didn’t have time to give Photoshop a spin, but I’d imagine it to work well with smaller files and less layers. Or just some patience. The bundled Microsoft Office is neat and didn’t show any lag when I used it.

The Conclusion

My thoughts? They’re mixed. I initially thought of the Venue 8 Pro as a very flexible device, with it’s desktop capability and 8-inch screen, but the impression I now have is that you have to grow to love it. Kinda like vegetables – good for you but an acquired taste. But the Venue 8 Pro also has another thing going for it: value. For less than S$500 you’re getting a mini-PC (and Microsoft Office) that can accompany you for work and play. A good device to take the plunge into Microsoft’s post-PC world.

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