Dell has a new Android tablet, and it's actually interesting for once. You don't usually think of Dell as a leader in the area of tablet design, but that's what seems to be happening here. The new Dell Venue 8 7000 series tablet is currently the thinnest slate in the world at just 6mm. Ignoring for a moment whether or not it's a good design, you can't deny that's impressive—even the iPad is thicker. The Venue 8 makes some compromises to get there, but maybe that's okay. Let's see how this tablet measures up.
|Display||8.4" WQXGA (2560x1600) 359 PPI, OLED|
|Processor||Intel Atom Z3580 (up to 2.3GHz Quad Core)|
|Camera||8MP rear with dual 720p depth cameras, 2MP front|
|Storage||16GB plus microSD card slot|
|Wireless||802.11ac 1x1WIFI, LTE version later this year|
|Measurements||215.8mm x 124.4mm x 6mm, 306g|
|OS||Android 4.4.4 (Lollipop expected in March)|
|Super-thin design||It's the thinnest tablet in the world at 6mm.|
|Display||It's extremely crisp and colors are vibrant without being blown out.|
|Front-facing speakers||They aren't amazing speakers in the grand scheme of things, but they're pointed right at your face.|
|Battery life||Above average screen-on time for a tablet.|
|Buttons||They're really clicky.|
|OS||A mostly stock version of Android 4.4, and Lollipop on the way.|
|Thinness at the expense of everything else||This design is all about being thin, which makes the tablet somewhat awkward, especially in landscape.|
|Light sensor||It's built into the camera window, but that makes it easy to cover up with your hand while using the tablet.|
|Display||The OLED gets very warm/red at low brightness|
|Performance issues||Some minor UI stutters during animations|
|Cameras||Intel RealSense camera features are gimmicky at best, and photo quality is typical of tablets (i.e. bad)|
Razor Thin Design
This tablet is really thin, yes, but the bezels are also almost nonexistent. If you look at the Venue 8 from the front, it's basically just screen on three of the four sides. It reminds me a lot of the PADD from Star Trek—a computer that's only a screen and a very thin frame. Even if you ignore the design foibles I'm preparing to complain about, that's really neat.
Dell squeezes the thickness and bezels down to the bare minimum by shifting many of the components to the bottom bezel. So you lose mass in most places, but gain it all back someplace else. You've got a solid inch of bezel beneath the screen, whereas the other three sides it's only a fraction of that. This is also where the speakers and front facing camera are. Most of the frame is made from machined aluminum, but there's a plastic section at the bottom where all the components are housed.
The front-facing camera is right where I'd like to hold the Venue 8, which wouldn't be a problem except that it also houses the light sensor.
My main concern with this layout is I don't feel like there's a good way to hold the Venue 8. It's light enough that you can grip it by the sides for a short time without brushing up against the screen, but holding onto the bottom bezel isn't ideal. The front-facing camera is right where I'd like to hold the Venue 8, which wouldn't be a problem except that it also houses the light sensor. I find that my hand is constantly covering this area and causing the display to dim unexpectedly.
The weight is shifted noticeably toward the bottom for obvious reasons. This isn't too much of a problem in portrait mode once you get used to it—the device is light enough (306g) that you can balance it in your hands. The asymmetry does, however, make the Venue 8 weird to use in landscape mode, especially for gaming. There's just so much more bezel on one side.
As for the speakers (there are actually two behind the single grille), I'd say they're average for a tablet, but nothing amazing. Their only real virtue is that they happen to be facing you rather than planted on the back as so many still are. The front-facing camera is, I suppose, fine for a video chat, but don't expect still images to be worth keeping.
The Venue 8 doesn't have any tapering on the edges or other clever design tweaks to make you think it's thinner—why bother? It's already insanely thin. The overall shape is rather boxy with a completely flat back. The microSD card slot is on the right edge. The power button and volume toggle are on the left edge way at the top, which strikes me as a not very convenient location. They are quite tactile, though.
So Many Cameras
HTC has toyed with adding a second rear camera to its phones a few times, but Dell has one-upped HTC with the Venue 8 7000. This tablet has not one, not two, but three rear-facing cameras. The main sensor is 8MP and positioned at the bottom of the rear panel. As with many things about the Venue 8's design, it's a very odd placement. Above that are two 720p cameras that add depth-sensing to the images you capture. This is all part of Intel RealSense. It's very similar to the things HTC did with the Duo Cam, but with a few more effects.
To make use of this system, you need to take pictures with the included camera app. It shows you the feed from the main camera in the viewfinder, but the two 720p feeds are in a small window in the corner. This is just the verify there's nothing obscuring their view. If your finger or some other appendage wanders into the frame, this window will light up red.
The capture speed is very quick, but processing the depth information takes an obscenely long time—you could wait 2-3 minutes for a handful of snapshots to be ready for editing. To manipulate the images captured by the camera, you need to use the included gallery app. It offers post-capture focus, filters that can be applied at different depths, and a measurement tool. The measurement tool seems like a neat idea. Ideally, you could just take a picture of something to see how large it is. In practice, however, it's not very accurate. Check out the images below and note that the Venue 8 says two sides of a poster are different sizes.
That's actually the case with a lot of the camera features in the Venue 8. They sound neat, but the results are questionable. The depth sensing tech works best when you're at least 5-10 feet away from the subject, and even then it seems to get easily confused around the edges of objects. It reminds me of the issues you get with the One M8, so I suppose that third camera didn't do the trick.
As for the actual image quality, it's very poor. Maybe even worse than the average tablet, and Dell's camera app doesn't account for accelerometer data correctly, so some images will come out upside down. Perhaps if RealSense was paired with a nicer sensor it would be worth using, but you need to be in excellent light to take anything even remotely usable with the Venue 8. Indoor shots are universally grainy and washed out. Yeah, tablet cameras are usually bad, but Dell is using this as a selling point. They should not be doing that.
The gallery above doesn't contain anything I would consider low-light. It's all either outdoor, bright indoor, or medium indoor light. Even then the images are mostly worthless.
Screen And Battery Life
To make the Venue 8 as thin as it is, Dell used an OLED screen with a resolution of 2560x1600. At 8.4-inches that works out to a respectable 359 pixels per inch. The display looks fantastic overall. Everything is incredibly crisp and the colors are vibrant without being too over-saturated. Don't get me wrong, the saturation is definitely bumped up from real life, so you won't want to do color-sensitive work on it.
Everything is incredibly crisp and the colors are vibrant without being too over-saturated.
Peak brightness is good enough to be used outdoors, and actually seems better than some high-end AMOLED phones using last generation's screen tech. Additionally, the whites are about on-par with Samsung's newer displays (that's a good thing).
The screen gets very dim, which is nice when using the Venue 8 in a dark room. However, at low brightness the colors are very, very warm. Gray takes on a pink hue and everything seems somewhat more red than it should.
As for battery life, the Dell Venue 8 has above average performance, but it's not going to change the way you think about Android tablets. Dell managed to cram a 5900mAh battery into the Venue 8, which is supposedly good for 10 hours of mixed use. I use tablets intermittently throughout the day for gaming, browsing, and a bit of writing. No one's use case is exactly the same, but I can use the Venue 8 for almost two days without recharging. Screen-on time during that period is somewhere in the neighborhood of seven hours. You could probably hit eight hours or more if you used it heavily over the course of a day.
It's KitKat With More Blue
The Dell Venue 8 7000 ships with a slightly modified build of KitKat, but strangely, Dell added in a lot of blue in certain places. For example, the quick settings have a blue tint, and the settings are absolutely covered in blue gradients instead of the gray ones in stock KitKat. It's as if Dell misses the good old days of holo blue.
Most of Android is untouched by Dell customization, though. There are no changes to the launcher (just KitKat's launcher3), lock screen, or navigation buttons. The Dell gallery and other apps are still holo-styled, but they work well enough and won't make your eyes bleed... probably. Dell also includes some custom quick settings tiles for its Miracast receiver, Dell account support, and the Maxx Audio settings.
As careful as Dell was to not screw up most of the software, the audio settings are a mess. There's a persistent (ugly) notification that lets you enable different EQ modes. The only way to get rid of it is to block the Maxx Audio app from producing notifications. The app itself is a blurry phone app stretched to fit on the Venue 8's crisp display. There's also a legacy menu button of shame. It's one of the most prominent pieces of custom software on the device, and Dell thought this was good enough to ship?
As careful as Dell was to not screw up most of the software, the audio settings are a mess.
As for performance, there's not any lag to speak of when using the Venue 8 7000. It zips around the UI well and multitasking is snappy. I feel like there's a minor problem with frames being dropped from animations, though. You can see it clearly when pulling down the notification shade. The system isn't lagging, but the movement isn't fluid. I'll chalk this one up to an optimization issue. It doesn't affect usability, it just looks janky.
Because the Venue 8 is running an Intel Atom chip, there are still some apps and games that won't work. For example, Microsoft's Office apps on Android don't have support for the x86 architecture right now. I also wanted to play LIMBO on this device to take advantage of the OLED screen's deep blacks, but it turns out the Venue 8 is the only device in my Play Store list that isn't compatible, presumably because of the Intel chip. Things are much better than they once were as far as apps go, but just be aware you might run into occasional compatibility issues. On the upside, the Atom chip doesn't get as warm as I expected it would. Even while gaming it's considerably cooler than a Tegra K1. Of course, so is the surface of the sun... but you know what I mean, the Venue 8 doesn't get uncomfortably warm.
Dell has said a Lollipop update is coming soon. It was originally slated for February, but has since been pushed back to March. I don't know what Dell has planned for the update, but I'll post an addendum whenever it arrives. Hopefully the company will use the extra time to get those stuttery animations figured out. Lollipop makes much greater use of animations and it'd be a shame if they didn't run smoothly.
I find myself torn with regard to the design of the Venue 8. On one hand it's cool to use a device that's almost all screen. As technology advances, I think we're going to be seeing more tablets that have design features in common with the Venue 8. On the other hand, Dell might have made too many sacrifices to earn the title of "world's thinnest tablet." The camera and light sensor are in a weird place and the tablet's weight is shifted strongly toward the bottom. The asymmetrical bezel also makes using the Venue in landscape orientation unpleasant.
Maybe we wouldn't even be talking about the Venue 8 if it were two millimeters thicker, but I can't shake the feeling that I'd like it more if it was a little thicker and had symmetrical bezels.
I'm surprised that Dell did a reasonable job with the software, mostly by leaving it alone. It still ships with KitKat, though, which is getting increasingly annoying. If Dell pushes Lollipop on time, this could be a very good value.
The $399 price for the base model is maybe slightly high in my estimation. It's justifiable if you like the design, though. It only has 16GB of storage, but there's a microSD card slot. It's maybe worth looking at the Venue 8 instead of something like the Nexus 9 simply because the design is so distinct. It's awkward in places, but I applaud Dell for at least pushing the envelope. There are a few more pics in the gallery below.