Dell’s latest 8-inch Android tablet is a statement product. Hey world, it says: remember that company that made crappy laptops you hated seven years ago? Well, it can make great things now. Beautiful things. Thinner-than-the-iPad things. Things that redefine what a tablet is for, that add something to your life other than just another screen.
This tablet, the Venue 8 7000, is designed to make an impression, to wow you the minute you take it out of the box. Then, with its fancy new Intel processor, its unique accessories, and its three-camera array that can see the world in strange new ways, it’s supposed to blow you away with what it can do.
Well, Dell nailed at least one thing: it’s beautiful. Big, clunky name; thin, sleek device. At 6mm, it’s impossibly thin, even thinner than the iPhone 6. And at just over a half of a pound, there’s a distinct feeling to the Venue 8 7000 that you’re just holding a screen in your hand. It’s even more impressive that the tablet feels sturdy despite such waif measurements; the sharp edges and rounded corners of the aluminum body are strong. Even when powered off, the gray and black rectangle looks good just sitting on your desk.
That screen-in-your-hand feeling only becomes more pronounced when you turn the thing on. The Venue’s 8.4-inch, 2560 x 1600 OLED display is crisp, clear, and bright, even if it does have that Alice in Wonderland oversaturated look to it. Even more impressive than the ridiculous resolution or eye-popping vibrancy is that there are basically no bezels around the screen. Big bezels usually make a screen feel smaller and more cramped, but these slim ones make everything feel more immediate. It’s gorgeous, even if I would prefer something with a little less pop and a little more color accuracy.
One of the four bezels sticks out, though. And I mean that literally; this thing has a chin like Jay Leno. Makes sense—you have to put all the camera parts and wireless radios somewhere—but Dell made some serious sacrifices in the name of tiny bezels. It’s not just the ugly asymmetry, either: since everything is crammed into that one strip, you’re almost always covering either the front-facing camera lens or the impressive front-facing speaker when you hold the device. The screen rotates to any orientation, so you can theoretically hold it however you want, but you basically have to grip that side, since everything else is just screen. In portrait mode, you can just dig it into your right palm and it mostly works, but it’s still awkward.
Still, I can’t deny the Venue 8 7000 exhibits some smart industrial design. It is every bit as impressive as the top tier tablets like the iPad. The tricky part is convincing tablet buyers that their $399 is not only better-spent on the Venue than on the iPad, but also other, cheaper Android tablets as well.
The Venue 8 7000 is the first tablet to use Intel’s RealSense technology, the hardware/software combo that can sense your motions and emotions, recognize powerful gestures, and even 3D-scan people and things.
Dell’s answer: the three cameras. The Venue 8 7000 is the first tablet to use Intel’s RealSense technology, the hardware/software combo that can sense your motions and emotions, recognize powerful gestures, and even 3D-scan people and things. We’ve seen RealSense program a drone to fly itself, and enable a jacket to alert its blind wearer to danger nearby. The technology is impressive, its implications are huge. And its execution here, in the form of the RealSense Snapshot camera system, is totally boring. On Dell’s tablet, all the cameras allow you to do is refocus an image after you’ve shot it, a la Lytro’s lightfield cameras, or HTC’s Duo Shot. It’s also able to measure the height and width of objects within a photo, which is really cool but only useful in incredibly specific instances. The refocusing works OK, except for all the shots that are too noisy to tell anything’s in focus at all. There are a lot of those on this 8-megapixel camera.
Dell’s other big idea is accessories, specifically the $80 Dell Cast dongle that plugs into anything with an HDMI port and turns that screen into a monitor and the Venue 8 7000 into something like a laptop. It’s a clever idea, and does sort of work. I can see it being useful in a conference room. But it’s not something most people will need. It’s slow, too, which is the real problem. The lags and stutters that are acceptable on a tablet become totally unbearable when I’m sitting at a monitor with a mouse and keyboard. At one point, I started shaking the mouse furiously, hoping something will happen.
The Venue runs the latest, cutting-edge Intel processor—one with a PC architecture too, theoretically making it a perfect processor for a PC-style setup in a tablet form factor. The chip is fast as hell on paper, and promises to be both efficient and powerful. The first is true: I got days and days of heavy use from the tablet before it died. In regular use (meaning I’m not flying or playing FIFA for eleven straight hours), it’s more like a week. But during all that time, there are a number of places where the device just doesn’t work right. It’s always small things: the multitasking menu stutters open, or a game will default to much lower graphics. But it happens enough to make me worry.
Dell’s best chance to solve this problem might be giving the Venue the software update it already desperately needs. For such a world-beating design, it’s frustrating to boot the Venue and see Android 4.4 KitKat, not 5.0 Lollipop. This is very much your father’s version of Android, and it’s missing a lot of Google’s latest functionality and design. Android’s tablet app selection is still a long way behind the iPad’s, but the software itself is terrific—Dell couldn’t keep the software current, but at least it kept it clean. Dell says an update is coming, but that knowledge and a quarter will get you… whatever a quarter buys.
In general, though, the Venue 8 7000 runs fine. It’s a solid, but not perfect, Android tablet. For its screen and hardware design alone, it’s among the best Android tablets you can buy, even if that’s somewhat faint praise.
What it doesn’t offer is a good argument for spending your $400 on a Venue 8 7000 instead of a Nexus 9, a Galaxy Tab S 8.4, or an iPad mini. (It’s actually $100 more than the iPad mini 2, which is probably the best choice of the bunch.) It’s thin and nice, but so is the iPad. Intel’s RealSense software might someday be a real advantage, but not yet.
Still, it does one of the jobs Dell needs it to: serve as a reminder that this company can make really nice things. Dell can make thin devices, and it can make beautiful devices. But nothing here indicates Dell has figured out the future of tablets, the next thing we’ll all do with these huge screens in our hands.