Saturday, November 30, 2013

First Impressions: Dell Venue 8 Pro

I gave my wife a Dell Venue 8 Pro for her birthday. Last year, she got a Nexus 10, but she found that the 10" form factor led to it not getting used much, and Bowen ended up being the primary user of the device instead. As a result, she asked for a smaller device. While I've been pleased with the Nexus 7, all the indications are that the latest Intel Bay Trail processors run circles around their ARM equivalents, so I took a leap of faith and bought the Dell when it became available for $230. If you shop around on Black Friday I'm sure you can find similar deals for this device.

The best thing about the Dell is that it's a Windows box.  That means, for instance, that I can back it up using the Windows Home Server that I use for backing up other PCs. This is a great feature, since the default Nexus/Google tablet backup doesn't seem to back up as much as it ought to. (Switching devices, for instance, usually means a massive reinstall of Amazon stuff)

Unlike Google, Dell doesn't suffer from as much Apple envy. As a result we get a microSD card slot. What this means is that even though I bought a 32GB device, an additional 32GB costs only $18, with the prospect of very cheap upgrades to 64GB and 128GB storage options in the future. This type of future proofing means that the additional $5 premium over the latest generation Nexus 7 is well worth it.

On top of that, the Dell device comes with a full license of Microsoft Office, and can run any of the applications that a regular Windows machine can. That means the contortions I used to get the Nexus 7 into a partially decent photo-editing tool are obsolete: I can just run Lightroom! Or Picasa. None of those have Android equivalents, and it truly is amazing to have them available in this form factor.

The device is fast! After using it as a web-browser during Black Friday to do some online shopping, the Nexus 7 feels slow. What this means is that while buying from Amazon is straightforward on the Nexus 7, any other site (such as Newegg) is agonizing. The Dell, however, feels just like my desktop. Everything behaves like it should, and pages load fast and snappily.

What's more, Windows 8.1 really does make use of all the power of the device. For instance, I wife discovered she could run two "metro" apps side by side. That's a power-user feature, but she found out about it quite naturally by simply playing with the device. And of course, Windows has had multi-user support for ages, so everything works like you expect. For instance, installing Chrome for one user automatically installs it for all  users as long as you use administrator privileges to do so.

There are cons to the device: Windows 8.1 is not quite fully adapted to the world of touch devices. So for instance, at times, the on-screen keyboard will block the input field that you're entering into. That's annoying. Unlocking requires typing in a password instead of using gestures or a pin. That's potentially a security hole if you use it on a plane and share the same password as on your regular desktop, which Microsoft encourages because you're supposed to login using your hotmail account.

At 1280x800, the Venue 8 Pro has pretty much the same resolution as last year's Nexus 7, instead of the new 1920x1200 that the Nexus 7 spots. The reality though is that if you need to pop to the desktop for any amount of time, the lower resolution means your fingers aren't as fat. So that's not as big an issue as you might imagine.

And of course, there's not the rich ecosystem of "apps" on the Windows 8 store. But who cares? Since you're running full Windows with a real web-browser, applications like Amazon Instant Video which aren't available on the Google Play store can simply be run on the device like a native PC. Anybody who faults this device for the lack of apps simply doesn't understand that it's a real PC, not a tablet.

All in all, this device is the tablet that Microsoft should have launched last year, instead of foisting Surface RT on us. It's as cheap as an Android tablet, but has much much more functionality. Highly recommended.
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