Dell Venue 8 Pro review

Pros

  • Solid performance
  • Decent screen
  • Slim and light design
  • Runs full Windows 8.1

Cons

  • Screen is small for Windows desktop apps
  • Average battery life

There’s no reason why Windows can’t work on a small screen tablet, but efforts like Toshiba’s Encore haven’t made much of a case for the combo. The Dell Venue 8 Pro, however, is a more enticing proposition. Not only is this the smaller sibling of the mostly excellent Venue 11 Pro, but it’s an 8in tablet with the same kind of design and screen quality that we’re used to seeing from the Android competition. And while it’s £50 to £70 more expensive than a comparable Android tablet, a lot of individuals and businesses will find ample compensation in having something that runs full-fat Windows 8.1, and Office Home and Student 2013. Is this the first 8in Windows tablet that’s worth buying?

Design

Early signs are certainly encouraging. Where the Toshiba Encore looked and felt like a budget Android tablet circa early-2012, the Venue 8 Pro is slicker and more up-to-date. At 9mm thick and 395 grams it’s still chunkier and heavier than the current Nexus 7 (8.65mm, 290 grams) or iPad mini (7.5mm, 331 grams), but it doesn’t feel unduly heavy and it’s quite well-balanced for holding in one hand. It’s also tough, with little serious flexing in the case when you apply pressure to opposing corners.

It’s a plain design with a slim frame that makes it look oddly tall and thin, with its 16:9 ratio screen. Like most Dell tablets the rear is covered in a soft-touch plastic, this time with a concentric rings effect that helps with grip. The top (in portrait mode) holds the headphone socket, while the right-hand side has a microUSB port (used for charging), a volume rocker and the power button, along with a microSD card slot beneath a strangely enormous cover towards the bottom of the unit. There is one thing the Venue 8 Pro lacks that the Toshiba Encore had: A microHDMI video output.

The strangest thing, however, is that there’s no Windows button on the front of the frame, and in fact this functionality has been moved to a button next to the headphone socket. This is mildly annoying, as you tend to press it when you mean to press the less obvious power button, and you forget to press it when you actually want to return to the Start menu – it’s easier to call in the Charms bar from the right-hand side instead.

This isn’t the world’s most slimline or attractive tablet, but it’s solid, sensible and professional. Given that all three words might describe the kind of user looking for a Windows tablet, that’s good enough to be getting on with.

Screen and sound

Let’s get the bad news out of the way. The Dell’s 8in screen has the same 1280 x 800 resolution as the Toshiba Encore and all but the most bargain-basement Android tablets, so it’s not going to amaze anyone who’s used the Retina-equipped iPad mini or the latest Nexus 7. On the plus side, 1280 x 800 still looks good on an HD tablet, and this particular IPS screen is brighter and clearer than the one on the Encore, delivering richer colours, darker blacks and brighter whites across a wide viewing angle, whether held in portrait or in landscape mode.

It’s still a very small screen for using the Windows desktop and many desktop applications, but stick to the modern UI and Windows apps and it’s a very good screen; great for watching films, looking at photos or browsing the web. In fact, given Windows’ difficulties showing desktop applications on high pixel-density screens, the resolution might not be that much of a drawback.

Sound isn’t such a strength. The speakers are incredibly quiet below half volume, and brash, tinny and distorted above that point. However, this is hardly the first tablet we’ve suggested using headphones with if you want more than simple sound effects and Windows sounds.

Software and usability

Software remains the number one problem for small screen Windows tablets. You can use both standard Windows applications and Windows 8 new-style (Metro) apps, but both routes raise some concerns. On the one hand, a lot of desktop applications are a write-off; icons and menus are absolutely tiny on an 8in screen, and virtually impossible to prod accurately. On the other hand, while the selection of apps in the Windows Store has improved dramatically in the last twelve months, it’s still a struggle to find some of the best-in-class apps you’ll find on iOS or Android. Let’s not go crazy – all of the major categories and Internet services are now well-covered – but it’s still frustrating when you find a hole that can’t be filled without a little trial and error or online research.

All this is as true of the Venue 8 Pro as it was of the Toshiba Encore, but many business users will still find this a very handy little tablet. It’s great for checking email, browsing the web, checking on your social networks, or using OneNote or another apps to take notes. More surprisingly, pair it with a Bluetooth keyboard and a stand (Dell sells a keyboard as an accessory) and it’s possible to get some light Office work done with the tablet – enough for a light edit even if you don’t want to write a 40-page report. Office Home and Student 2013 came as a trial version on our sample, but should be bundled with retail models.

There’s also a stylus accessory. This wasn’t provided for review, but we’d definitely consider it if buying tablets for business use. Put it all together and, while its Android and iOS rivals have the edge when it comes to consuming content and entertainment, a Venue 8 Pro makes a very versatile little workhorse.

Performance

The Venue 8 Pro comes packing the same Bay Trail Atom Z3470 processor and 2GB of RAM combo as the Toshiba Encore, so performance is fairly similar. In Geekbench 3 it scored 789 in single-core and 2526 multi-core, and it even motored through the Cinebench 11.5 rendering benchmark with a score of 0.85. That’s the kind of performance you might expect from an old Celeron or low-end Core i3 processor, but not bad when you think we’re talking about a tablet, not a laptop. The Venue 8 Pro has enough grunt to handle any task you might sensibly throw at a working tablet, and I never found it less than nippy and responsive during everyday use.

It also has a little 3D horsepower, managing 21 frames per second (fps) in the onscreen T-Rex HD portion of GFXBench, and 35 fps in Egypt HD. The Venue 8 Pro isn’t going to make a dedicated games machine, but it will cope with the handful of titles on the Windows store, and with a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard it might even manage some old PC gaming classics.

Cameras

Dell hasn’t gone overboard here, fitting a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera and a 1.2-megapixel front-facer. The rear-facing camera has a tendency to over-expose and has little chance of resolving any detail, while the front one is prone to noise when used indoors – which is exactly where you’re most likely to use it. For simple business-focused tasks they’ll be fine, but for video conferencing or ad-hoc holiday snaps, not so much.

Battery life

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Battery life seems a little better than the Toshiba Encore, but not by much. We got around eight hours of streaming HD video, web browsing, email, and document viewing from a single charge, which is pretty average for an 8in tablet, but perfectly adequate for an average working day. Turn the screen brightness down and switch off Wi-Fi when you’re out and about, and it should stretch a little further.

Verdict

Given the lack of competition, it’s not saying much when we label the Venue 8 Pro the best small screen Windows tablet around. All the same, it’s the first to make a convincing case for such a device. It’s small, light and easy to lug around, but also speedy and practical enough to be worth using. With the right apps and tools the Venue 8 Pro could make a great – and affordable – device for work and/or play.

(Note: If you want to see a hands-on video of the tablet in action, we have one here).

Specifications

Manufacturer and Model

Dell Venue 8 Pro

Processor

1.33GHz Intel Atom Z3740D

RAM

2GB

Memory

32GB

Memory Expansion

MicroSD memory card

Display

8in 1280 x 800 IPS

Connectors

MicroUSB 2.0, headphones

Main Camera

5 megapixel

Front-facing camera

1.2 megapixel

Wi-Fi

802.11b/g/n

Battery

4830 mAh Lithium Polymer

Size and weight

130 x 216 x 9mm, 395g