In my previous post, I considered whether Dell has delivered a solid Windows tablet: a device that’s cheap, lightweight, has an all-day battery, and can compete with Android and iOS. Outward appearances of the device indicate that there’s finally a Windows tablet that’s competitive, with the interesting twist that rather than running a mobile-specific OS, the Dell Venue 8 Pro runs “full fat” Windows 8.1.
When discussing most non-Android and iOS tablets, the discussion around apps quickly comes down to the comparative lack of applications compared to the two tablet market leaders. Even when considering what used to be Microsoft’s “light and long lasting” tablet offering, Windows RT, app catalogs look relatively paltry compared to the million-plus apps in the Apple and Google stores.
This remains the case with the official app store on the Venue 8 Pro, which is the standard Store application available in all versions of Windows 8. While certainly not bereft of offerings, some key players are missing -- and there might be one or two applications to fill a niche, whereas Apple and Google’s stores contain a half-dozen. Where the app discussion gets interesting is that beneath the “Modern” user interface lies the traditional Windows desktop, and unlike Windows RT, nearly any Windows executable file created since the dawn of the PC will happily run on the Venue 8 Pro.
For enterprises, this is Earth-shattering. Have an enterprise application from the late 1990’s written in Visual Basic? If it will run in Windows 8, it will run on the Venue 8 Pro. Need a complex network monitoring tool? No need for an app, just download and install from the vendor web site. Even full-fledged Outlook, Office, and Photoshop will run on the device.
For an overworked IT department, the Venue 8 Pro and the rest of the new generation of Windows 8.1 tablets seems like a godsend, since existing enterprise applications can now be deployed unmodified to a tablet. However, problems arise when you actually attempt to use some of these applications, most of which were designed for large screens and mouse/keyboard-centric operation. One of the Venue 8 Pro’s strengths, its small size and light weight, becomes a handicap when you attempt to run an application designed for a desktop on a small screen and, in my case in particular, attempt to interact with that application with a chubby and clumsy finger that’s huge compared to the mouse pointer.
Even if an application runs perfectly on a device, in all likelihood, you’ll want a modified user interface to make it successful on a tablet, eliminating some of the benefit of being able to run “anything” Windows on the Venue 8 Pro. The silver lining is that you can use familiar Windows development and management tools rather than building or buying expensive mobile development expertise.
Split-personality speed demon
This is not meant to be a full review of Windows 8.1, but it's important to note that many of the kinks of the early releases of the OS have been ironed out, and the Dell Venue 8 Pro successfully handles the “split personalities” of Windows 8, opening and running applications in both the Modern and traditional Windows interfaces with aplomb. Some people in IT still cringe when they see an Atom-branded processor, but rest assured that the unit in the Dell Venue 8 Pro will happily chew through enterprise-type workloads. You’re not going to transcode 4K video streams, but multiple Office and web browser windows will work fine, and applications open and close on the device just as quickly as my quad-core i7 desktop.
Dell was also kind enough to deliver a fairly standard Windows 8.1 experience, with little bundled software beyond some rudimentary utilities, none of which I’ve found particularly useful. A Home and Student license of Office is included, but as an Office 365 user, I was able to load the full suite. Interestingly, I’ve found myself using the Modern Mail application more than Outlook, since the latter struggles on the small screen and awkwardly resizes elements of the application in a way that makes quick email triaging easier in Mail. Word and Excel adapt a little more fluidly to the smaller screen, and it’s wonderful to be able to review and edit Office documents without awkward conversions or third-party applications that botch formatting or make modifying documents difficult.
Next up: A day in the life
With a quality build, all-day battery, and “real” Windows onboard, the Dell Venue 8 Pro seems to be a winner. In my next post, I’ll review a few weeks with the device “in the wild,” taking notes in client meetings, creating and editing documents, and attempting to use the Venue 8 Pro as a laptop replacement.