Like many in the IT industry, I've been waiting for Microsoft to launch a compelling tablet offering to compete with Apple and Google. Microsoft is, after all, the company that introduced a feature-rich tablet back in 2001, unveiling the Tablet PC platform that remained a niche product until the iPad put the term "tablet" into the common vernacular.
Third time is the charm?
Since the introduction of the iPad, Microsoft and its hardware partners have attempted to steal some of the iPad's thunder, initially releasing expensive models with poor battery life that ran full-fledged Windows 7. After flirting with Windows RT, the current crop of Microsoft tablets now offers full Windows 8.1, in a package that competes with Apple and Google in terms of price, size, and even battery capacity. This breed of tablets is well represented by Dell's awkwardly-named Venue 8 Pro.
I've spent the last three weeks with the Venue 8 Pro, and I should be squarely inside the targeted demographic for the device. As a consultant, I travel heavily use my tablet like a stereotypical "knowledge worker," triaging email and jockeying spreadsheets and presentations while on the move. While my travel schedule may be excessive, once on the ground, I move frequently between meetings and offices, which is more typical in these types of roles.
Dressed for business
Thankfully, Dell and others have abandoned attempts to "out Apple" Apple and make poor clones of the iPad. The Venue 8 Pro is business-like black, with a nice rubberized back to the device, which makes it easy for someone with large hands (my grandfather always referred to mine as "meat hooks") able to hold the device one-handed. The prospect of an 8-inch "mini tablet" is worth considering if you're in the market. I find the smaller format easier to grab and hold for a meeting, making the device more likely to travel with me throughout the day. In a pinch, it will even fit in a large pants pocket, at the obvious trade-off of less screen real estate. Despite the smaller size and lower price, nothing about the tablet's physical characteristics feels cheap or poorly assembled.
The large glass front of the Venue 8 Pro doesn't have a physical button. This looks nice, but even after three weeks, I still find myself looking for the common "home" button below the screen, which Dell has moved to the upper right corner of the device. In addition to the home button, power and volume buttons adorn the right side of the device, leaving only a micro USB port and micro SD card slot to complete the ports.
There's no standard USB port or mini-HDMI, so the micro SD card and micro USB are the only connectivity options. Fortunately, the former will accept an adapter that allows for a full-size USB device to be connected to the tablet. In practice, I thought I'd use the USB port on my Surface RT rather frequently, but aside from testing that it actually worked, I rarely plug anything into my tablets or miss a full-size USB port.
Processor, performance, and some problems
The Venue 8 Pro is powered by Intel's latest "Bay Trail" series of Atom processors. I've never taken umbrage at the lowly Atom processor and won't bore you with references to Netbooks of yore, other than to say that if you're worried about the latest Atom's capabilities, don't be. While I'll discuss more about software performance in my next article, rest assured that the processor flies though common business tasks and puts the Surface RT (and even my Core i7 desktop) to shame on opening and closing modern and standard applications. You're not going to edit 4K HD videos on this device, but you're also not going to want for power when performing common computing tasks.
After an initial overview of the hardware, I believe Dell has finally nailed the mini tablet for "regular" Windows, but there are a few small misses. Some aspects of the hardware and related drivers don't appear to be working well at this time. For example, activating airplane mode effectively disables the Wi-Fi on my device until I do a reboot, and I've been unable to connect to a few public and hotel wireless networks, where an "I agree to terms and conditions" page that loads on all my other devices won't load on the Venue 8 Pro. Hopefully, this issue will be solved with a software update.
Additionally, the device seems to have some struggles with power and charging. Windows devices in general seem to struggle to sleep efficiently, with a Windows laptop or tablet that has a 90% full battery showing 40% when awakened five or six days later, and the Venue 8 Pro exhibits this same activity. Charging also seems finicky. I was excited that the device charges through a standard micro USB cord, allowing me to eliminate one more proprietary adapter from my briefcase. However, when using a variety of non-Dell, but otherwise standard USB chargers, in some cases the battery will not fully charge in a 24-hour period. My preferred travel charger, which will simultaneously charge two USB devices, emits an annoying high-pitched whine when charging the Venue 8 Pro, the only device (out of a dozen) that causes this noise.
Despite these minor shortcomings, the screen, all-day battery, and easy-to-transport size have my Venue 8 Pro joining me for more meetings and late-night reading sessions than my trusted iPad 2. In my next article, I'll discuss the software capabilities of the Venue 8 Pro and, assuming Dell ships the companion stylus I've ordered, whether the device achieves my "Holy Grail" of digital notepads.
Do you think Microsoft finally nailed it with the Dell Venue 8 Pro tablet? 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.