For the last week I’ve been living with the Dell Venue 8 Pro as my constant companion. For most of that week I really mean exclusively, as in I was on a trip where the only device bigger than a phone I brought along was the Venue 8 Pro. So it was how I read the news over breakfast, searched for restaurants for dinner, watched movies and read magazines and books on airplanes, followed Twitter and Facebook, and processed my email. My Surface and Surface Pro 2 sat at home, powered off as did my (soon to be wiped) Toshiba R705 notebook. This is the story of my experience. The punch-line is “It’s a very nice device, but I still can’t decide if 8″ is for me.” At the end of the article I’ll speculate on some scenarios where I think an 8″ device might be the answer.
Before I dive in to anything specific about the Dell Venue 8 Pro, or my use of it, I wanted to relate two stories that add color to the experience. My wife and I were in a restaurant and I spotted someone reading a book on a curious looking device. From a modest distance it looked like an early netbook, only too thin and light. As I got closer I realized it was an iPad Mini in a Zagg keyboard cover. (I’ll ignore that the Zagg cover makes the iPad Mini weigh almost as much as a Surface 2 plus Touch Cover 2.) What made this interesting was the reading aspect. In order to comfortably read a book on the iPad Mini its owner had picked a very large font, resulting in only two or three sentences being visible per page. More on this topic later, but it hints at the primary limitation of 7-8″ class devices.
The second bit of color is my wife’s reaction to the Venue 8 Pro. When I first showed it to her she looked at the Windows 8.1 Start Screen and said “that is too small”. Then throughout the week she’d see me looking at a web page or reading an article and say things like “You can read that?” So yet another hint.
There are great things about carrying around an 8″ device. At one point I tried to retrieve it from my backpack and thought maybe I’d lost it. I had to empty one of the compartments until I found it sitting at the bottom. So now I know how women feel when they can’t find their mobile phone in their handbag. The Venue 8 Pro is an easy device to carry around. It’s an easy device to treat very casually and to think about as an accessory. It’s easy to just throw it in the back of the car and forget about, until you need it. And it’s easy to forget that when you do grab the device you are holding a full-fledged Windows 8.1 x86 PC in your hands.
That bit about being a full X86 PC has its good and bad points. Let me give you something that is a bit of both. I use the WiTopia VPN service to protect my communications when I’m using public WiFi hotspots. On a Windows RT device (or iPad) you have to manually configure it as one or more VPNs for different protocols (in case the network blocks some of them) and different geographic locations. Then when you want to connect you do so manually. If the VPN connection subsequently fails it does so silently, leaving your communications unprotected. But on the Dell Venue 8 Pro I could install WiTopia’s VPN client which automates all of this. In fact you can, and I did, set it up to automatically connect to the VPN whenever I was on an unprotected WiFi network. This worked perfectly throughout the week.
So what’s was bad about being able to install the WiTopia VPN client? Well, it definitely impacted startup time (to the point Windows 8.1 complained about it) and it probably also impacted battery life. This is exactly what Microsoft has talked about in the questions about “why” Windows RT. The controlled environment of Windows RT results in more predictability on the “abilities” than is possible in full-fledged Windows 8.1. So a Windows 8.1 Bay Trail x86 device, like the Venue 8 Pro, may have near identical startup time and battery life specs to the equivalent ARM-based device. Unless you start actually using it as a traditional Windows system and install device drivers, System Tray apps, Services, Desktop apps, etc. You can no doubt turn a 10-hour rated battery life into a sub 5-hour actual usage environment by installing lots of battery hogging traditional Windows software. Just something to keep in mind.
On to some Dell Venue 8 Pro specifics. It’s a solid piece of hardware that makes me think it was designed for hard use. The weight is pretty standard for 8″ devices. Dell probably could have lightened it up another couple of ounces by going with cheaper construction, but I’m glad they didn’t. As I’ve claimed before, throw in the kinds of cases/covers that people really use and the spec weight of the raw device isn’t as big an issue as it appears on paper. I could have made my own “configuration” lighter by purchasing the Dell Tablet Folio rather than using the generic third-party case. But it was already light enough that I couldn’t tell whether or not it was in my backpack.
The screen on the Venue 8 Pro is nice. Ok, it’s not Retina Display nice but it is nicer than the non-Retina iPad Mini. And the iPad Mini with Retina Display is so high-priced that it really isn’t in the same category. Would I have paid 66% more to get a Retina Display for what, as I’ll discuss at the end, is really an occasional use device? No. The only thing negative I’ll say about the Venue 8 Pro’s display is a (software) problem that Paul Thurrott mentioned in his first look. If you leave Windows set to automatically adjust the screen brightness it is so dark as to be unreadable. I turned off the automatic adjustment and manually adjusted the brightness to my liking, reducing battery life in the process. I’m sure Dell (or Microsoft) will push an update at some point to correct this problem.
One thing I did miss on my Venue 8 Pro was a USB port for connecting and charging other devices. When traveling I usually use the USB port on my Surface to charge my phone, thus solving the problem of hotel rooms having too few AC outlets (a problem magnified when traveling internationally). I couldn’t do that with the Venue 8 Pro.
I had little trouble getting used to the Venue 8 Pro’s odd placement of the Windows button on the top of the portrait oriented device in what most people would consider the position for a power switch. But I found using the charm to get to Start more convenient, something I never do on my Surface.
Enough on hardware, more on the experience. An 8″ screen is small, leading to a constant tension between readability and information density. While on a 10″ device I can reserve pinch zooming for occasional use, on an 8″ device it is necessary for most reading. When reading a book with the Kindle or Nook apps I had to choose a very large font, though not as large as I witnessed in the iPad Mini incident described earlier. Reading magazines with Zinio required me to zoom every page. That’s a pain because Zinio requires you to put a page in zoom mode before pinch will work and then take it out of zoom mode before you can swipe to the next page. Most web pages required zooming to read and I would have been better off with their mobile versions.
Video looked great on the Venue 8 Pro but here again I was torn. I find the 10.6″ screen of the Surface a more TV-like experience while the 8″ screen feels somehow compromised. It was still better than the various experiences you’d have with most In-Flight Entertainment systems on airplanes. But still, when I think of trying to entertain myself on a 21 hour journey to Asia I’d much rather watch (and read) on a larger screen.
One thing I did find frustrating, though it wasn’t a knock specifically on the Venue 8 Pro or even 8″ devices, was the lack of a physical keyboard. I’ve become so used to having the Surface Touch or Type Cover available that I wouldn’t consider writing a blog entry or even a long email without something similar. The upcoming Dell Tablet Wireless Keyboard might be an answer, but without one to try I can’t tell.
So where do I come down on the Venue 8 Pro and 8″ in general? My brain is telling me that a 10″ device with a keyboard cover is still my preference for a constant companion. Yet after returning from my trip I found myself grabbing the Dell Venue 8 Pro as I left the house rather than the Surface that was sitting right next to it. Some of this was a conscious decision on if I was going to be sitting somewhere using the device for a reasonable period of time versus if I just wanted something with me. The Surface wins if I know I’ll be using the device, the Venue 8 Pro wins if I’m pretty sure usage will be light. The emotional component is that the 8″ device is still fresh so I get more of an emotional jolt from having it with me. But that won’t last much longer.
So does the Venue 8 Pro fit into my life? At best maybe. I’m seriously considering just leaving it under the seat of my car so I have a device with me even when I don’t take the Surface. Or taking it places where I worry about losing or damaging the device, like a beach. Or when weight is at an ultimate premium, such as on a hike. Not that I really want a tablet with me on most hikes. And I’d be better off with an e-ink screen device on the beach. So you see I still haven’t really figure out how to fit an 8″ device into my life.
On the other hand I’ve met a lot of people who would find an 8″ device appropriate. A friend reported the other day that if both his tablet and notebook are nearby he always grabs the notebook. So his tablet gets very light use. An 8″ tablet might be a great option for him. Indeed many light use scenarios, where a cell phone screen is too small and a Phablet the wrong set of tradeoffs, screams out for an 8″ device. Families that already have 10″ devices and need another tablet, so the parents don’t have to keep handing the kids their device(s), is another good scenario. Indeed there are many scenarios where size and weight are important and usage may not be compromised by the modest screen real estate. 8″ may turn out to be a great size for task-worker tablets in the Enterprise.
So if you are an information worker, or a consumer, thinking about a tablet for frequent and/or heavy use. If the device is your primary mobile device. If you do any content creation. If you want more options for hooking up peripherals. Basically the more your usage scenario becomes computer-like it screams for taking on a little more weight and size and going for a 10″ class device.
If you are looking for a secondary device for light-usage, almost entirely content consumption, and size and weight are at the top of your priority list, then 8″ may be for you. And in that case, the Dell Venue 8 Pro seems like quite a nice choice.