Dell Venue Pro 11 – hands on review
April 29, 2014 3 Comments
One of the requirements from the team who asked for the devices was that they run Microsoft Office; immediately that rules out iPads (without upgrading staff to the paid A3 plan at least, more on that another time) and Android devices so we looked at the selection of Windows 8 devices on the market to find something suitable.
The 8″ tablets such as Dell Venue 8 Pro, Toshiba Encore and Lenovo Tablet 8 are very portable, which ticks one box but aren’t really suitable as they can’t have a keyboard attached and also don’t come with the nice extras such as a full-size USB port, which can come in handy from time to time. On top of that using an 8″ screen for large amounts of text entry isn’t going to be an enjoyable experience for many people so we needed to look at something larger.
Moving onto 11″ devices and the obvious choice was the Surface range. However, Windows RT is too restrictive if we need to run classic “Desktop”software (more than likely) which includes simple yet important applications such as VPN clients. In addition the ARM-based OS seems to be on a one-way trip to oblivion anyway so it didn’t seem a sound investment at full-price rather than the bargain-basement £199 RT giveaway Microsoft made last year to clear their unsold stocks.
The original Surface Pro is currently on offer at a good price for students \ education but it’s a bit too bulky and battery life not really that great. The Pro 2 addresses some of those issues but comes at a price; the i5 CPU is really overpowered for most of the tasks we have in mind for it so doesn’t make sense to pay for power we won’t use.
Lenovo impressed me with their Thinkpad 8 but right now a 10\11″ version is nowhere to be found, with that in mind we have to pass them by for now although will definitely revisit in the coming months if \ when they launch a suitable product.
Finally step forward the Dell Venue 11 Pro, a tablet I first saw at the BETT show after mistaking it for a Surface, such is the similarity of design when viewed from a distance. Microsoft don’t seem to like people keep referring back to the Surface range when talking about “Windows 8 tablets” but until something else comes out with that same “wow” factor in terms of design and build quality it’s still the point of reference (imo). When up close the curved edges on the Venue Pro give it away, as does the soft-touch rear cover vs the Surface’s magnesium case.
What’s so interesting about the Venue Pro 11?
What sets the Dell apart from Microsoft’s range is the offer of what I feel is the sweet spot of an 11″ device, running the full version of Windows 8.1 but at a more affordable price point thanks to the offering of Atom and i3 CPUs alongside the flagship i5. It’s something I’ve been going on about ever since the first Surfaces were released so good to see an OEM stepping up to the mark to cover the ground Microsoft didn’t want to. I’ve heard good things about the Bay Trail Quad Core Atom so didn’t have any reservations about its suitability, unlike previous devices from last year where the last-gen Atoms weren’t really up to task.
Dell also offer two different keyboard options that give the option of turning the device into a pseudo-laptop, along with Office and classic “Desktop” software it means users can get real work done out on the road. The Venue Pro also comes with a built-in digitiser and thus supports an active stylus for those who need the additional accuracy such a peripheral offers.
After much to-ing and fro-ing with Dell we eventually got hold of an evaluation unit. At the time no keyboards were in stock (I believe due to a recall and re-design of the keyboard magnets which caused early units to lose their connection to the device). We’ve since received 4 sets of keyboard and stylus as part of a further order and all seem to be working OK.
Design and practicality
I regularly use a Surface RT for note-taking (OneNote) and general Internet browsing so many of my observations are based on comparing the two. Weight-wise the Venue Pro is slightly heavier, sitting somewhere between the RT and Pro. In an ideal world it’d be the same weight as the RT but battery life and full Windows 8 make that extra bit of weight worthwhile, although hopefully something that will be addressed in time.
The charger port uses a standard Micro-USB lead rather than the more funky (some might say awkward?) magnetic arrangement on the Surface range, other than that expansion is standard fare. That aforementioned USB port means additional storage is just a USB stick away. We’ve added a memory card to our devices as a cheap and easy way to extend the on-board capacity in case photos etc. need to be stored on a regular basis. Yes it won’t be as fast as the built-in SSD but for storing data it doesn’t need to be and works out much cheaper than buying the larger capacity models.
The removable battery sits behind the soft touch plastic rear cover, which can be a bit fiddly to open (my ID card works well for popping it open!) but means servicing a worn-out battery will be a simple task if it needs to be done in the future.
Keyboard cover \ stand
Unlike the Surface the Venue Pro has no way of standing up on its own so you’ll need either a 3rd party cover or the Dell keyboard cover to use it in “laptop” mode. We opted for the Slim keyboard as we needed to keep the overall size / weight of the device down, again comparisons with the Surface crop up.
The keyboard also doubles up as a cover, with a fabric front embossed with the Dell logo and a holder for the stylus at the rear. Time will tell how well the latter stays there but initially it seems OK, the only thing to watch out for is the pen buttons getting pressed when you put the device down, probably won’t do it any harm but better to just twist it round for safety’s sake. It would be nice to have the pen recessed into the side of the device like Lenovo did with their Tablet 2 but space constraints may prevent this I suspect.
The keyboard attaches in a similar way to the Surface, using magnets to hold securely in place. Putting the cover into stand most requires a few moments’ thought and a bit of origami, you fold part of the stand around to make a triangular support then a hidden magnetic fixing holds it in place. Depending on which way you fold the stand you get two different screen angles. Once set the stand is steady and held in place securely for touch input etc. It’s not quite as slick as the kickstand design Microsoft use but still perfectly usable and is the price you pay for the removable battery (given the choice which would you prefer, comment below!)
Whereas the Surface keyboard uses keys that have a mechanical travel to them the Venue Pro is more reminiscent of the ZX Spectrum-esque membrane keyboards from back in the day. For some of you that reference may fill you with dread and horror but fear not, it’s not that bad! The initial sensation is a bit strange as you realise there’s no real key travel but after slightly adjusting your typing style you can hit with decent accuracy and surprisingly quickly. One thing I did notice is that the hardware keyboard doesn’t deactivate when the cover is flipped back, hopefully that’ll be fixed in a BIOS update so the on-screen keyboard takes over as per the Surface’s default behaviour.
The touchpad is much larger and easier to use than that on the Surface, definitely a plus point for the Venue Pro when using older, non-touch oriented software.
In an ideal world I’d mix the two designs to make the ultimate slim keyboard; Surface keys with the Venue Pro’s touchpad but as it is the design is an acceptable compromise. Initial feedback from the users was good which is promising.
Stylus and Windows 8.1
We also took up the optional stylus as it could help with taking digital signatures, which could help avoid a bit more paperwork when out and about. The stylus needs 1xAAA battery to operate but being part of a proper digitiser is recognised immediately by the OS and as such works slickly in apps such as OneNote. Reaction time is impressively quick, although I remember old Windows XP tablets (OK huge 15″ laptops with a touchscreen!) that worked similarly well but it’s good to see the technology finally getting a platform where it feels more at home.
As with other active stylii you can hover over the device without pressing on it but for general Windows 8 navigation I actually prefer a standard capacitative pen then use the stylus for more fine grained input. The reason for that some of the Windows 8 gestures don’t seem to work when using an active stylus, in this case it seems to be treated more like a mouse, hence for 99p or thereabouts on eBay mix and match the two depending on application.
On a related note I find that when navigating Windows 8 by touch I very rarely use my finger; having the extra reach via a stylus feels more natural and avoids stretching to interact with the device, which may be an RSI time-bomb waiting to happen.
Although they’re a love \ hate thing for many people the gestures used in 8.1 do become quite natural after a while on a touchscreen device, particularly the ones that manipulate windows into split screen mode and pulling out the Charms bar to share information to OneNote and suchlike. On a desktop \ laptop I don’t use them at all and rely much more on keyboard shortcuts to avoid dragging my mouse right across the screen to activate hot corners.
Screen quality & performance
The screen itself is a quality 1920×1080 IPS panel, when running at full brightness it’s definitely a match for that on the Surface. Colours look bright and vivid, text is easily readable and so on. The Venue 11 does seem to dim its display more often than the Surface though, something which could do with tweaking as it’s not so impressive at lower brightness levels.
When Windows tablets are reviewed many people often suggest that the Atom based models can be sluggish but our units seemed to run well during testing. OK it’s not going to cope well if you hammer it with Photoshop and video editing but using a tablet for those sort of tasks seems to be the wrong answer to the wrong question for all but the most niche use cases in my opinion.
Boot times felt suitably slick, something Windows 8.1 does very well generally and opening Office applications, web browsers and so on all zip along without any noticeable lag.
The Venue 11 Pro offers a viable alternative to the Surface range whilst providing a choice for potential buyers to match CPU, memory, storage and accessory options to their needs.
The Asus Transformer T100 is probably the closest competitor in the full Windows segment of the market and which one you go for probably comes down to whether you’re willing to pay a bit extra for the higher resolution screen, slightly faster Atom chip and option of having a slim keyboard to save weight rather than netbook-sized one on the Asus.
At the time we paid £329 (ex VAT) for the tablet itself which, for the Atom model is pretty competitive. The prices seem to be changing quite regularly, although there’s still a sub-£350 offer on Dell’s site here but educational users should be able to get a chunk of £££ off via the Shape the Future programme.
Overall then, a solid effort from Dell and along with Windows 8.1 (and recent updates) makes this Windows tablet a viable proposition for students and staff alike.
Improvements for the next revision
If Dell continue with the Venue Pro branding I’d like to see a few improvements for the next version. Fingers crossed they’ll take them into account…
- shave 200-300g off the product to bring the product into Surface RT weight range (or lower).
- revise the slim keyboard to give a bit more key travel, basically Surface key action with the Venue Pro’s large touchpad would be ideal
- reduce the price of the keyboard accessory, the markup on these items (Microsoft guilty of it too) must be obscene!
- find enough room to make the stylus fit inside the tablet’s chassis aka Lenovo Tablet 2 rather than sitting on the outside of the keyboard cover
If Dell can do that they’ve pretty much made my ultimate Windows 8 device, challenge accepted?