Android tablets have had a rough go of things since the very beginning. For years, Android tablet makers were chasing one bad idea after another, until Google landed on the Nexus 7 and actually came up with a compelling counter to Apple’s larger and more expensive iPad. It led to a wave of low-end Android tablets that have sold well (especially in China), but often feel more like big phones than tablets. Then Google kind of gave up on the Nexus 7, and the newer Nexus 9 doesn’t really compete in the ways that it needs to. With the tablet market tapering off even for Apple, it’s a bit of a surprise that device makers are even bothering with new Android tablets any more.
But companies are indeed bothering to make new designs and try different approaches to the tried and true tablet formula. The latest of which is Dell, which recently launched the clumsily named Venue 8 7000 Series (I’m just going to call it the Venue 8). The $399 Venue 8 is part of a design renaissance at Dell (along with the new XPS 13 laptop), showcasing premium materials and killer displays. It also acts as a vehicle for some never-before-seen mobile technologies from Intel. There are really two things that matter with the Venue 8, and they're why anyone is spending time talking about it: its design and its camera array.
The Venue 8’s chassis is anodized aluminum, a material not often seen outside of Apple’s tablets. It’s dark grey and cold to the touch, but it makes the Dell feel classy and worthy of its four hundred dollar price tag (in stark contrast to the Nexus 9, which doesn’t feel a bit worth its cost when you pick it up). It’s also cold and industrial looking, almost like a Soviet counterpart to the iPad, but it has a remarkably efficient design and is assembled well. The power button and volume keys are also tactile and solid, though they are a little too flush with the body and placed all the way in the upper left of the tablet, which isn’t particularly convenient. There is this really cool feature that turns on the display automatically when you pick the tablet up and turns it off when you put it down. I was shocked how consistently and reliably this worked.
The very small borders around the display (which measure a scant 5mm, according to Dell) make the screen seem larger than it actually is. But that’s forced Dell to jam stereo speakers and a front-facing camera into an awkward "chin" below the screen. The chin is the only place you can hold the tablet without activating the touch screen, but it means you’re pinching the bottom 10 percent of the tablet, leaving the other 90 percent unsupported. That’s fine for a few minutes, but it gets fatiguing quickly.
Flip the Venue 8 over and you find not one, but three camera sensors. They work together to form a depth-sensing array, much like the DuoLens camera on HTC’s One M8 smartphone. The main, 8-megapixel sensor takes the actual photos, while the dual 720p cameras can measure distance and determine depth information. That lets you do things like artificially blur the background or isolate your subject with color while making the rest of the photo black and white. The Venue 8 can even act as a digital tape measurer, telling you how tall certain objects in the frame are. But unsurprisingly, all of these tricks require ideal lighting conditions, and don’t work well in the dimly lit rooms where so many pictures are actually taken. You wouldn’t want to use the Venue 8 to draw the blueprints for your next home, that’s for sure. The special camera array may actually be the whole reason Intel and Dell built this tablet, but it’s not a reason for you to buy one.
The camera tricks may be the whole reason for the Venue 8 to exist, but they aren't a reason for you to buy it
The standard 8-megapixel camera is par for the course for tablets: it’s not great, especially in low-light. Also, it’s really hard to hold this thing and take photos without blocking one or more cameras. I get what Dell’s trying to do with the camera: stand out in a sea of sameness. But the best way to stand out is with a really great camera that takes killer pictures in all lighting situations, not editing tricks and depth of field gimmicks. HTC learned this the hard way, and Dell is going to as well.
Like the iPad mini or Nexus 7, the Venue 8 is a small tablet, sitting between 6-inch phablets and larger, 10-inch class tablets. It has an 8.4-inch screen, but it’s actually narrower and thinner than Apple’s 7.9-inch iPad mini thanks to those remarkably small bezels. In fact, the Venue 8 is incredibly thin at just 6mm thick. That’s thinner than every other tablet (including the iPad Air 2, by just a hair) and most smartphones. It makes for a striking profile, but the Venue 8 isn’t any more portable as a result of its thinness. Its hard, squared-off edges make it less comfortable to hold for long stretches than tablets with softer edges, and it’s just slightly too wide for me to wrap my fingers around it as I would a smartphone.
Despite its premium materials and compact size, which make the Dell look stunning at first glance, the quirks in the Venue 8’s design make it awkward to use in many situations. The rear cameras are easily obscured by my fingers when I hold the tablet in portrait or landscape orientations, leading to a lot of shots with a finger in the frame. The low position of the front camera lends to up-the-nose selfies and video chats, and it too is easily blocked if I hold the tablet with my left hand. And while the front-facing speakers are loud, clear, and much better than side- or rear-mounted speakers, the stereo spread only makes sense when the tablet is in portrait orientation. Turn the tablet on its side to watch a movie or play a game, and suddenly the left channel is below and the right channel is on top. Dell would have done better to just use a single speaker here, instead of trying to work in a stereo configuration.
Still, despite its ergonomic challenges, the Venue 8 offers better build quality and materials than virtually every other Android tablet. I shouldn’t have to praise a tablet for being "well-built," but thanks to the flimsy build and boring design of so many Android tablets I’ve used, it’s a win for the Dell.
The display is the most important part of any tablet, and it’s a good thing the screen on the Dell is a stunner. It’s packed with pixels — 2560 down and 1600 across, to be precise — and is very bright and saturated. Almost too much so: the colors practically scream off the panel, similar to Samsung screens from a couple years ago (the Venue 8 used an OLED panel, so that isn’t hugely surprising). For movies and gaming, the oversaturated colors worked to the Dell’s advantage: explosions leapt off the screen, and the goat in Goat Simulator never looked better. But I wouldn’t rely on the Venue 8 for photo editing, which requires a display with more accurate color reproduction. For reading, which is what I most often use a tablet for, it’s too bright on automatic settings, requiring me to crank it all the way down. Thankfully the lowest setting is dimmer than other tablets, making it work pretty well for reading in bed.
Intel's processor performs just as well as the best from Qualcomm
In addition to its unique design, the Venue 8 uses an Intel processor, a relative rarity among mobile devices. It’s a 2.3GHz, quad-core Atom chip paired with 2GB of RAM and it provides a fast and responsive experience. If the Venue 8 didn’t have a big Intel logo emblazoned on the back of it, I wouldn’t have assumed it was powered by anything different than the standard Qualcomm fare. Games played smoothly, and though the tablet got warm in spots, it never got uncomfortable to hold (unlike the Nexus 9). The Atom chip is power-efficient, too: the Venue 8 lasted for 9 hours and 15 minutes on our rundown test and had no problem going for multiple days in normal usage. The Venue 8 has a meager 16GB of internal storage, but there’s a Micro SD card slot available, so you can expand if needed.
For all of its unique hardware features, the software on the Dell is refreshingly straightforward. It’s a mostly untouched version Android 4.4 KitKat (Dell says an update to Android 5.0 Lollipop is planned for the "coming months"), with a couple of apps for managing sound profiles and connecting to Dell’s tablet accessories. There’s a custom gallery app that can pull in images from Facebook, Dropbox, and Picasa, letting you see pictures from your cloud accounts next to ones you actually take with the tablet. It’s a nice concept, but it could use some better organization: Facebook images aren’t grouped into albums, for instance.
The usual complaints with Android apps on tablets still apply to the Dell: there are just so many popular apps that don’t make use of the larger display. It’s not really Dell’s fault if Facebook and Twitter don’t want to bother improving their apps for larger Android devices, but the Venue 8 suffers as a result. Combined with the high pixel density of the screen, many interface elements are small, requiring me to squint and precisely tap on-screen buttons. Dell could have tweaked Android to work better on the high-resolution panel, but it hasn’t done so, and the Venue 8’s experience is worse off for it.
There’s no doubt about it: the Dell Venue 8 7000 is a surprisingly unique and solid Android tablet in a world of me-toos and also-rans. It’s by no means without faults and quirks: the head-turning design doesn’t always work ergonomically, and the software could be better refined. Despite Dell’s best efforts, it doesn’t quite hit the high marks in terms of overall user experience set by Apple’s iPad line. (It’s arguably a more interesting tablet than Apple’s latest models, though not necessarily a better tablet.) Given that, it's really hard to justify the Venue 8's $400 price tag, especially when it just barely edges out a year-and-a-half-old discontinued tablet that cost half as much.
If you do buy the Venue 8, it shouldn’t be for its gimmicky camera or because it’s the thinnest tablet on the market. It should be because it’s a reliable and well-built tablet that’s better than pretty much every other Android tablet you can buy. The Dell Venue 8 is certainly that — but it’s also a quirky, awkward device. If only "better than the rest" counted for more when it comes to Android tablets.