I've previously written about the hardware and software capabilities of Dell's new Venue 8 Pro, one of the crop of Intel "Bay Trail" Atom-based tablets that run "regular" Windows 8, as opposed to the tablet-optimized Windows RT. The Venue 8 Pro combines solid hardware and a quality software experience with a low price point. Unlike the sea of iPad killer tablets, the Venue 8 Pro seems to finally be a realization of Microsoft's promise of split personality devices: a machine that acts as a tablet one moment, and then — with a tap of the Desktop icon — it presents users with a familiar Windows desktop. To complete my review, I've been traveling with the Venue 8 Pro for the past two weeks and using the device in a business travel setting.
Office to go
I'm writing this article on the Venue 8 Pro with a Microsoft Wedge keyboard, which is a Bluetooth-enabled keyboard that's supposedly optimized for tablets. It's a strange feeling to be typing away on a diminutive screen and keyboard with nary a wire in sight. Several of the Office 2013 applications have a "finger mode" that allows fairly effective creation and editing of documents without a mouse, and the combination of tablet and keyboard weighs less, offers similar functionality, and costs far less than the MacBook Air that serves as my primary mobile workstation. The tiny keyboard and screen take some getting used to and are less than ideal for complex spreadsheets, but this combination represents a fully functional Windows computing environment that can be carried in a purse or pocket, and one that might be perfect for a mobile executive who demands a single device.
One of the areas that most excited me about the Venue 8 Pro was the active stylus, an optional accessory for pen input without resorting to the rubberized styluses required for iPad note taking. Several years ago, I used an HP tablet with Microsoft's One Note application for all my client notes, and I enjoyed the ability to quickly share copies with coworkers and search the notes without converting my handwriting to text. I never found anything on the iPad that could duplicate this experience, and the Venue 8 Pro seemed like it finally had the answer.
Initial reports of the device's capabilities in this area were disappointing. However, Dell issued a firmware update (inexplicably, this update is available on their web site but not through the "Dell Update" application installed on the device) that claims to fix the problem. I had mixed results when using the device to take notes during several client meetings. The pen will often begin writing before hitting the screen and for a moment after removing it, and it sometimes adds strange flourishes to letters. The erase function was also inconsistent, plus the pen and screen don't offer the smooth tactile experience of my old HP tablet (the Dell's screen is smooth while HP's had some texture).
This presents a mixed bag for those considering swapping from an iPad or Android tablet with a capacitive stylus. The Venue 8 Pro stylus is definitely superior to the squishy rubber nub on most capacitive models, but the problems with pen input handicap what would otherwise be a very usable note-taking experience. The other strange item on the note-taking front is that Microsoft provides a free "Modern" version of OneNote in its app store, but it doesn't readily integrate with the full version of OneNote included with Office 2013. The former defaults to storing notes somewhere in the Microsoft cloud, while the latter happily opened the OneNote files stored locally. While I appreciate a OneNote optimized for "tablet mode," I wish it were more obvious how to consolidate and migrate notebooks so that they remain together.
I spend a significant amount of time in the air, and use my tablet as a trusted travel companion for everything from catching up on news and reading, to sorting email, to the occasional movie. The Venue 8 Pro works well in tablet mode, and I've finished a couple of books in Amazon's Kindle application, played a few games, and found the included Mail and Calendar applications to be fairly effective when I don't need the full power of Outlook.
The major handicap of the Venue 8 Pro is one that saddles all Windows tablets, and that's the quality of the applications. It's obvious that the applications catalog is not as rich as Android and iOS, but even the applications that do exist on the platform are often stripped down versions of their brethren. For example, the Kindle application doesn't support an offline dictionary, so I'm left clueless when I'm on a plane. The Plex movie application, one of my favorites, doesn't support offline sync on Windows, so despite the ability to run millions of regular Windows applications, in the travel and entertainment categories, you end up feeling a bit like a second-class citizen if you've already experienced the rich apps available on Android and iOS.
Should you buy one?
The Venue 8 Pro is an interesting device in that it combines a lot of functionality into a small and cheap package. It's priced like it wants to target non-tech-savvy consumers, yet this is the crowd that's most likely to be disappointed when they see the limited functionality of the Modern apps currently available. I can't imagine that someone who wants to play Candy Crush dreams about running full versions of Office 2013 or Photoshop. The market I see for the device is firmly in the enterprise, where the Venue 8 Pro provides a fully-functional Windows experience, while also working as a tablet when needed. It comes into its own in the hands of a knowledge worker who might write a document from a shared desk, take notes in a subsequent meeting with the stylus, book a slew of meetings in Outlook, and then read a book later that evening before turning in for the night.
This may be a limited demographic, and while Bluetooth keyboards and mice work well with the Venue 8 Pro, the lack of an HDMI connection or available dock limits the device's use as a desktop. If Dell had included something as simple as an HDMI port, this capable little device could have easily combined desktop, laptop, and tablet — a killer value proposition for most companies. Instead, we're left with a device that works well for a fairly narrow niche: the highly mobile individual who also has a standard desktop or large-screen monitor.
I hope the Venue 8 Pro and similar devices ignite interest in Windows 8's split personality abilities and that we'll see higher-quality applications and wider adoption. In the case of the Venue 8 Pro, we're closer than we've ever been to this vision of computing Nirvana, but we're not there just yet.
Do you think Windows will be able to create the ultimate mobile device — one that appeals to consumers and enterprise users alike? Share your opinion in the discussion thread below.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.