When Microsoft announced plans to support 7- and 8-inch tablets with Windows 8.1, I was intrigued by the prospect of a miniature Windows machine. I’m a big fan of Apple’s iPad mini, and the idea of having a Windows tablet with touch-optimized and desktop apps only piqued my interest further. An 8-inch tablet might not seem like the perfect host for desktop apps, but combined with an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse it sounds very appealing. In a sense, an 8-inch tablet is the perfect representation of what Windows 8 could be — ultra-mobile, but productive when you want it to be.
Dell’s Venue 8 Pro brings together Intel’s latest Bay Trail processor alongside an 8-inch HD display for just $299.99. This small package is effectively a full Windows 8 PC that can power desktop apps. It’s one of a huge number of similar tablets coming from Dell, Lenovo, Toshiba, and others, aiming to show that Windows 8 is more versatile than anyone thought. Acer’s 8-inch W3 proved the idea could work, but its rushed, bulky device with a terrible display left it as little more than a tech demo. Dell thinks the Venue 8 Pro is something much more.
Could Dell’s miniature tablet replace the iPad mini with Retina display in my bag, and power even more of my digital life from its 8-inch display? I spent a week finding out.
Surprisingly slim with some booty grooves
I was pleasantly surprised by the weight of Dell’s Venue 8 Pro the first time I picked it up. At 9mm thick it’s not the thinnest tablet out there, and at 13.9 ounces it’s slightly heavier than my iPad mini Retina, but the weight is distributed well across the device and it’s comfortable to hold in one hand. It’s the usual black slab of plastic that you’ve come to expect of a tablet, with no real surprises in the looks department. The rear includes a rubberlike plastic that’s textured and grips well to your fingers, but the front of the device looks like any random Android-based tablet, with no indication it’s a Dell running a full copy of Windows 8.1. It’s not ugly as such, but it is very unassuming. While it occasionally picks up dust between its grooves at the rear, thankfully its matte finish keeps it from being a true fingerprint magnet. There’s no creaking when you try to bend the tablet or apply some pressure with your fingers, nor any movement around the 5-megapixel camera at the rear; the Venue 8 Pro is clearly built to withstand being tossed into a backpack daily.
Everywhere you look on the hardware, the Venue 8 Pro appears just like any other tablet. Around the right-hand side there’s a Micro USB port alongside a power button, volume rocker, and a flap to access the microSD port — having more than the included 32GB or 64GB of storage is key on a Windows device like this. The left-hand side is clear of any buttons, rather like the Nexus 7 and iPad mini Retina.
A loudspeaker you can hear in space
There's a loudspeaker on the bottom. When Dell says loud, it means loud: its audio is the loudest I’ve ever experienced from a device of this size. You really need to keep the volume level low to avoid distortion, though, and regardless of the volume level sound can be really crackly, especially when it’s left in standby mode and notification sounds play. (Microsoft had the same issue with its Surface RT initially, so Dell should be able to address this through a driver update.)
Next to the standard headphone jack on the top of the device, Dell’s added an innocuous-looking Windows key — part power button, part one-touch way to return to the Start screen. Most Windows devices have a capacitive button at the bottom of the display, so I’m not sure what Dell was thinking here, but thankfully Windows 8.1 supports swipe gestures so you don’t have to fiddle around with the button up top; pressing it so often can be awkward.
The most important part of any modern tablet is the display. It’s the primary way you interact with the device, and it shapes the entire experience. It’s also where Acer’s W3 completely lost its appeal. Dell has opted for an 8-inch IPS display running at 1280 x 800 resolution. The display resolution is a little disappointing next to the beautiful 2048 x 1536 iPad mini Retina screen, or even Google’s Nexus 7 with its 7.02-inch 1920 x 1200 IPS display. This same resolution can be found on last year’s Nexus 7.
It's shocking that Dell thought it was okay to ship the Venue 8 Pro in this state
At least Dell opted for HD, meaning Netflix videos look crisp, and the viewing angles and color reproduction are excellent, but the display has a major flaw. Adaptive display (auto brightness) is totally broken on the Dell Venue 8 Pro, meaning the display is dimmed far too much out of the box. Without disabling the automatic (and default) setting, the screen-brightness slider in Windows 8.1 is rendered useless.
I’m shocked Dell shipped the Venue 8 Pro in this state, but I’m hoping the company can issue a fix to address the issue soon. The only way to rectify this problem is to switch the adaptive display-setting off completely. Once you’ve switched it off from the same menu as the power and sleep settings, then the screen immediately jumps to life and it’s more than bright enough at 100 percent brightness. You’re not going to get the automatic dimming in this mode, but it makes the display a lot more usable and the brightness level is much more impressive.
Windows 8.1 is well-suited to a widescreen device like the Venue 8 Pro. The only drawback of a 16:10 aspect ratio is that full-resolution photos displayed in the Windows 8.1 Photos app have a border at the top and the bottom, a border video apps like Netflix also have. It’s not a massive issue, only slightly irritating, and it’s still a far better ratio than the squished, letterboxed iPad mini’s 4:3 screen.
Dell’s first 8-inch Windows tablet is a great start, if not a mind-blowingly impressive one, and the hardware is a bargain for the $299.99 price. It’s not overly exciting to look at or hold, but if the company can fix the brightness issue on the display, it’s absolutely serviceable.
Windows 8.1 to the rescue
Microsoft has made a lot of improvements to support these types of small Windows tablets, and it shows. The Windows 8.1 Start screen includes options to resize Live Tiles for the smaller screen. There’s a new Reading List app to help save favorites and apps between Windows 8 machines, a Reading Mode in Internet Explorer. Most of the built-in apps run much better in portrait mode. That’s exactly how I use the Dell Venue 8 Pro nearly 100 percent of the time — reading in portrait mode — much as I do on the iPad mini.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of this particular 8-inch device is the fact that behind all the Live Tiles there’s a full copy of Windows 8.1, with support for both desktop and touch-optimized apps. (There’s also full support for Dell’s optional Synaptics-powered stylus.) Although most of the built-in apps support portrait mode really well, there are some notable exceptions. The Games app and even Microsoft’s SmartGlass application will forcibly push the device into landscape mode, which is highly irritating if you have the rotation locked. I wish Microsoft would fully update these apps to work well in portrait mode. If Xbox SmartGlass is designed to be a replacement for a remote, it should definitely work in portrait mode on Microsoft’s range of 7- and 8-inch tablets. Sadly, Microsoft does the same with its SmartGlass for iOS, but it’s inexcusable for the built-in Games app on Windows 8.1 to push you into landscape mode.
Snapping apps side by side is the best feature of Windows 8.1 on tablets
Landscape mode might not be the preferred way to use this device, but it can be really useful. Windows 8.1 has ditched the Snap View limit, allowing apps to sit side by side. This works really well on the Venue 8 Pro — I can watch a movie while I have Twitter snapped to the side of the screen. I’ve said this many times before, but the ability to have two apps running simultaneously is the best feature of any Windows tablet. Having said that, if you snap two apps in landscape mode and then rotate to portrait, Windows 8.1 will just refuse to rotate with you. It’s an odd restriction that requires you to unsnap apps before rotating again. I didn’t run into this often, but Microsoft does need to address and fix it.
As this is primarily a multimedia tablet, Microsoft and Dell have covered the bases well enough. The Xbox Music app will stream music free of charge with ads, and there’s access to a range of movies and TV shows through the Xbox Video app. For books I typically use the Kindle app and the text displays well on the Venue 8 Pro’s screen. Interestingly, Dell has equipped the Venue 8 Pro with a 5-megapixel camera and a rear camera that supports Windows 8.1’s new Photo Loop feature. It simply records images as you’re about to take a photo, allowing you to rewind to select the best image. As with any tablet camera, it certainly won’t replace a dedicated camera or your smartphone, but it’s good enough for Skype calls with the included 1.2-megapixel HD forward-facing camera.
A lack of apps is an issue for this mini tablet
While the Windows Store is growing steadily, it’s still missing some key apps and games. Flipboard and Facebook launched recently, bolstering the platform, but I’d still like to see more. Some of my favorite games from iOS, like Minigore 2, Ski Safari, Dots, Temple Run 2, and Hundreds are all missing. I’d also like to see a Spotify app for Windows 8. I’m not in need of hundreds of apps, as Microsoft covers the basics well, but tablet-specific ones like YouTube and Pocket are essential to me.
It’s not ideal to run desktop apps on the Dell Venue 8 Pro’s 8-inch display, but at least there’s nothing stopping you. Dell even encourages it, really. The company is shipping a free copy of Office 2013 with the Venue 8 Pro. It works for small adjustments to documents, but starts to become really fiddly when you’re switching between the on-screen keyboard and having to adjust the tiny hooks for embedded images or charts in Word and Excel. It’s really not suitable for a touch device of this size, but it comes into its own if you start to use it as a PC and hook the tablet up to a monitor. But that’s harder than it should be.
Dell missed an opportunity to connect to your TV and monitor
Unlike Acer’s Iconia W3, there’s no Micro HDMI port on the Venue 8 Pro, just Micro USB. That means you can’t plug this 8-inch device into a monitor directly. There’s only one Micro USB port and it’s used for charging, so connecting up a monitor via USB is challenging if you also want to connect a mouse and keyboard or USB storage. It also requires a special adaptor to use a full-sized USB port, something that Dell, disappointingly, doesn’t include in the box. Ultimately, if you want to use this tablet as a full PC you’ll need a USB hub and plenty of cables. If you manage to get it up and running then the full support of a Windows 8 PC is available, with multiple monitors and DPI scaling. It might be tricky, but the USB support for additional devices is light-years ahead of what’s available for my iPad mini.
Laptop on the inside
The promise of Intel’s latest Bay Trail processor is better performance and battery life. Dell’s Venue 8 Pro certainly delivers on both, powered by Intel’s quad-core Atom Z3740D processor, which clocks in at 1.8GHz. I never had any noticeable slowdowns or issues with the Windows 8-style apps, and even desktop apps ran well. I used Chrome and Photoshop regularly with a keyboard, mouse, and monitor, and I was pleasantly surprised by the performance and multitasking. Some other Dell Venue 8 Pro owners have even connected up to four displays, demonstrating the flexibility of this small tablet.
Despite its power, this is primarily a tablet and it fares well for those types of tasks. Casual games run well, although popular title Halo Spartan Assault simply won’t run properly. I didn’t encounter any other issues with games, and Windows 8 apps open surprisingly quickly. Switching between apps is smooth too, with 2GB of RAM to assist there. Gone are the days of the Atom performance we’ve seen in the past with Windows 8 devices, as it has certainly improved this time around.
Battery life depends greatly on auto brightness
Dell’s Venue 8 Pro battery life is equally impressive. The Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of websites and images at 65 percent brightness, scored it at 11 hours and 55 minutes. Due to the screen-dimming issue, I decided to test it with auto brightness disabled and the results were very different: 7 hours and 33 minutes. Dell’s display is rated at 400 nits, so there’s clearly a big gap in battery performance when the auto brightness feature isn’t working correctly. Despite this, standby is reasonable too: I didn’t notice a considerable drain, only around 5 percent, if I left the Venue 8 Pro alone for 24 hours and picked up where I left off. Gaming is the only task that I noticed really hit the battery life.
An average competitor that gives us hope for the future
Dell’s Venue 8 Pro is the best Windows competition for the iPad mini, but it’s still far from matching Apple’s tablet. The out of box experience of the display dimming is unforgivable in a modern device, and Dell’s odd decision to place a Windows key at the top of the tablet is equally puzzling. The lack of Windows 8 apps holds this type of device back somewhat, but the potential is promising. Microsoft has laid some solid foundations with Windows 8.1, and will let you read, surf, listen to music, and watch movies. That’s really what these types of tablets are about: consumption.
But the Venue 8 Pro could be about so much more than that. It feels like Dell has created an average competitor here, but it could have gone further to tap the potential of these 8-inch Windows tablets by including a Micro HDMI port and a high resolution display. Windows 8.1 has all the driver support required to make this tiny 8-inch tablet a real PC when you need it, or even offered a quick way to connect your tablet to your TV with a single cable. A high resolution display would also help with movies, gaming, and all the other tablet activities I like to do every day.
At just $299 the Dell Venue 8 Pro is certainly the best Windows-based 8-inch tablet I’ve used so far, but with Lenovo and Toshiba already offering similar competition I suspect there will be even more on the way shortly. I want a small Windows tablet to replace my iPad mini Retina, and I’m convinced it’s a good idea, but for now it’s hard to switch fully. Dell’s Venue 8 Pro might not replace my iPad mini, but it’s certainly good enough to sit alongside it in my bag. I’ll await more Windows 8 apps and a better display until I fully make the switch.