Hands on: Dell Venue 8 Pro may be the best small Windows tablet yet

It never fails: I can’t walk into a Costco without spending at least a few hundred dollars. This weekend was no exception either. My wife and I hit up the local warehouse store to stock up on some canned goods, snacks and other food and of course I left there with a new gadget: I bought a 64 GB Dell Venue 8 Pro with folio case for $299.99.

Dell Venue 8 Pro

I’m not yet sure if I’ll keep the device — Costco has a very generous 90-day return policy — mainly because I’m not sold on the need for a Windows(s msft) tablet for what I do. But if I do take it back, it won’t be because the slate is a bad product: I’ve used it heavily over the weekend and it’s the best Windows 8.1 tablet I’ve tested to date, a list that includes other slates from Lenovo and Toshiba.

Here are some initial observations in no particular order.

  • Most Windows tablets in this size use a 1280 x 800 resolution panel and the Venue 8 Pro is no exception. However, it’s an outstanding, bright IPS screen with great viewing angles. Touch is very responsive on the screen, which supports 10 simultaneous touch points.
  • An Intel Atom chip and 2 GB of memory are standard fare for 8-inch tablets running Windows 8.1, so the Dell doesn’t differ much here. Dell chose the Atom Z3740D to power the device; a quad-core chip clocked at 1.33 GHz with turbo-boost up to 1.83 GHz. By comparison, Lenovo uses a slightly faster Atom Z3770 chip in its $399 ThinkPad 8.3 tablet: That chip clocks at 1.46 GHz with a boost up to 2.39 GHz but you’d be hard pressed to see a performance difference.
  • Out of the various Windows slates I’ve looked at, I like the Dell’s design the most. This is a light, slim tablet with nice rubberized back and rounded edges.
    Dell Venue 8 Pro back
    It weighs 395 grams (0.87 pounds) and measures 216 x 130 x 9 millimeters or 8.5 x 5.12 by 0.35 inches. Essentially, this is a full Windows 8.1 machine in a size very comparable to an iPad mini.
    dell venue 8 pro side
  • The device does get warm in one particular spot on the back. It’s not what I’d call hot enough to be annoying but it’s definitely noticeable.
  • Dell says the Venue 8 Pro should get up to 8 hours of run-time on a single charge. So far, my experience matches up with that claim although I like to fully cycle the battery of a device several times before doing an official battery test. Still, I was able to use the tablet on and off for a full day on a single charge.
  • Just like its peers, the Dell Venue 8 Pro comes with Microsoft Office Home & Student 2013. The apps run pretty well on the device but I’ll be happier when Microsoft launches a more touch-friendly version of Office for Windows. Still, if I needed to update a Word document or Excel spreadsheet, it’s easy to do on this tablet.
  • Unlike other Windows tablets, there’s no Windows button on the front face of the slate. Many have a capacitive button that, when pressed, brings you back to the Start screen. Dell opted for a small physical button on the top side of the device. I don’t particularly care for that design choice.
  • I also wished Dell had put in a second speaker. There’s just one so if you’re going to listen to music or watch videos, you’ll want to use headphones. With headphones on, the sound is quite good.
  • There’s a single micro-USB port used for data transfers and charging the device. Dell includes a small 10W charger with the tablet.
  • Dell charges $40 for the folio case that Costco included.
    dell venue 8 pro folioIt’s not bad and particularly useful for propping up the tablet to watch videos or to use as a traditional PC. Ideally, you’ll need a wireless mouse and keyboard if you plan for that; Dell sells small wireless keyboard for $99.99.
  • Dell also sells an active stylus for the Venue 8 Pro but I haven’t bought one. I’ve read dozens of posts about initial problems with the stylus, however, the company says it has addressed them with a software fix.
    dell venue 8 pro
  • The tablet has a pair of cameras — 5 megapixels on the back and 1.2 on the front — which is handy for basic photos and video-conferencing through Skype or other apps. I tested the front camera on a Skype call and the experience was pretty solid.
  • You don’t get integrated mobile broadband at this price, so it’s Wi-Fi for connectivity. The Venue 8 Pro supports dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi which tests pretty good on my home network. I get faster speeds with 802.11ac devices but Wi-Fi performance is fine on this tablet.

Back in 2007, I spent $1,200 on what was then called a UMPC or Ultra Mobile PC. These were 7-inch tablets with resistive, not capacitive, touchscreens that ran Windows. They were up to an inch thick and often ran out of battery within 3 to 4 hours.

Image 1 for post Samsung Q1 Ultra Premium battery life with EV-DO: a weekend scenario( 2008-04-14 13:27:45)

Fast forward to today and for 25 percent of the cost you can get a lighter, thinner Windows computer good for all-day mobile use. Based on what I’ve seen so far, the Dell may be the best of the bunch. If I had to pick one to carry around with me, this would be it.

Again, I’m not sure I need a Windows tablet. I use an iPad(s aapl) Air for most of my tablet content consumption and a Chromebook(s goog) for work: Nearly all of the content I produce is done in a browser. Over the next three months we’ll see if the Venue 8 Pro wins me over and finds room in my stable of devices; I suspect the new Windows 8.1 update will have much to do with that decision because Microsoft has definitely improved the overall software experience.

And even with just a short time using the Dell tablet, it reinforces my personal opinion that Microsoft doesn’t need to make a Surface Mini slate, particularly if the device will run Windows RT. It will be a challenge for the company to bring such a tablet to market for much less than the Dell Venue 8 Pro costs (the 32 GB model is $249.99 direct) and offers more flexibility for consumers and enterprises alike since it runs the full version of Windows 8.1 with support for older apps.