Living with the Dell Venue 8 Pro

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Some time ago I wrote about how disappointed I was with the Acer W3 tablet. I really wanted that small form factor device, but the Acer fell short in pretty much every regard. Late last year Dell launched the Venue 8 Pro – the first of the new generation of 8” Windows tablets out of the gate. I sat on the fence for a while, looking at community comments on the the device, then finally ordered one after speaking to Simon May about his impressions of it.

Overall, I think it’s great. In this post I will go through the good and the bad, but overall I’d still be happy recommending it to others, with a perhaps couple of caveats. Competitors are now starting to appear, but the Dell still holds its own, I think. I’ll also mention a few tips that I have found along the way that will help you get the most from your own Venue 8.

Size and shape

The Dell is smaller than the Acer W3 in every axis, and lighter. I find it comfortable to hold in one hand, fingers on one edge and thumb on another. I don’t have huge hands, by any stretch. The back is covered with a lightly ribbed, rubberised material which makes the device easy to grip and comfortable to hold.

There is no Windows button/key on the front of the device. Dell has placed a hardware button on the top right of the device as you hold it in portrait mode, with the power and volume buttons down the right hand edge. In theory this sounds off, but in practice I find it works well. Placing a button on the front suggests which way you should hold the device – I’ve commented before on how Surface compares to iPad in the way the button placement indicates preferred orientation. The Dell is a device you naturally want to use in portrait mode for tasks like browsing,email and twitter. Watch a video, though and you will probably switch to landscape. The Windows button on the Venue 8 works just fine in either orientation and you don’t accidentally catch it with a finger (as I do with my Surface and Surface Pro when in portrait sometimes).

Ports, Connectivity and Charging

This is another area where the Dell might polarise views. There is no external display connector. That’s a little frustrating, as in all other ways the Dell would make a great device to carry and present from if needed. It does support Miracast, and I have tested it with my trusty Netgear Push2TV so you can output to a TV or projector, as long as that device has HDMI input for the Miracast adapter. In practice, however, Miracast and portrait fails horribly. Don’t try to mirror your display because it just doesn’t work. Extend is OK, but that really limits use to presenting.

Is this really a problem, though? Most places I present only offer a VGA connector, even in this day and age. The number of expensive adapters I carry around for Surface, Surface 2 and my trusted X220T is too numerous to consider. That actually means that I don’t try to present form anything but the X220T, which has both displayport and vga output. Until the world catches up with digital inputs a tiny tablet is not going to be a viable ‘only device I carry’.

I previously lambasted the Acer for needing a separate charger rather than using USB. Here the Venue 8 Pro wins, sort of… The Dell comes with a small charger and USB to micro-usb cable to charge the device. Fantastic! I thought, and immediately tried plugging into a USB port on my X220T. No dice.

It turns out that this is not uncommon. The Dell charger has shorted to pins of the USB connector. Unless the tablet detects that when a cable is connected, it won’t charge. The solution, then, turned out to be a simple three-quid cable from Amazon, originally intended for a Samsung tablet, that allows you to switch between ‘data’ and ‘charge’ mode and when connected in line with a standard cable enables charging from a standard USB port. Also useful to know is that the Surface Pro adapter, with it’s built-in USB charging, has the pins shorted and will charge the Dell.

Don’t think about plugging in USB peripherals and charging at the same time, however. I also picked up a USB OTG hub, which I can happily connect to the Dell, attach a USB device such as keyboard or thumbdrive and also plug in the charging cable. The Dell refuses to switch to charging mode, however, and I have not found any existing cable/hub on sale that might address this problem.

Last but not least is a Micro-SD slot. I bought the 32Gb version of the Venue 8 Pro (the 64Gb one weren’t shipping pre-christmas) and am quite happy with it, but have added an SD card to hold stuff like music for long train journeys.

Screen

The display is lovely. No buts. A crisp, clear 800×1280 IPS panel that’s easy to read in ways that the W3 never was. It’s an interesting talking point in the current ‘higher is better’ resolution war – I’m really not sure that I’d notice much improvement if it were, say, full HD or even higher.

I must point out, however, that the as-shipped Venue 8 Pro suffers from a fairly annoying auto-brightness behaviour due to a too-aggressive setting in software. Dell have an update that fixes this. I’ll come back to that…

I use the Venue 8 for web browsing, reading on the Kindle app and doing light work such as email and reading documents. For that, it’s great. The screen is sharp and clear and text is readable without being too small. It does well in daylight, although the glass is quite reflective so it suffers in direct or very bright light

Performance

A quad-core Atom Z3740D powers the Venue 8 pro. It’s a zippy little thing – more than enough for everyday use of store apps and Office. It also makes a reasonable fist of games – Project Spark runs ok (although the back gets a bit hot!), although Halo: Spartan Assault is unplayable due to it not understanding the screen resolution. 2Gb of RAM isn’t enough for running VMs and heavy photoshop work but it’s more than enough for Store apps and Office.

What I hadn’t realised until checking up whilst writing this post, is that the CPU is a 64-bit-capable one that also supports virtualisation. Having recently installed Windows 8.1 Enterprise x86 on mine (see later), I may now have to try again with Windows 8.1 Enterprise x64…

Networking

No physical network (you expected that, right?) But both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz wireless for great flexibility between range and speed. Plug a USB ethernet adapter in and it will happily use that, if you need to.

Touch and Stylus

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Now comes the rub. One of the biggest reasons I bought the Venue 8 pro was because it offered an active stylus rather than the largely useless capacitive ones most tablets are stuck with. The Dell does not use the largely ubiquitous Wacom digitiser, however. This is new technology from Synaptics.

The stylus, and the debate surrounding it, was why I held off from buying the tablet in the first place. Early users posted scathing reviews of the stylus performance when inking in OneNote (my primary use case). Dell quickly issues firmware updates for the digitiser that improved things and this gave me the confidence to move forward. However, as I write this post my stylus, originally due the first week in December, is now not due until late March. I understand that Dell suspended shipment whilst they addressed design issues.

I find this all very disappointing. Dell stole a march on the competition when they were first out of the gate with the Venue 8 Pro, but it’s clear that the new technology they adopted was not necessarily ready for prime-time. I like the Venue 8 Pro enough even without the stylus that I have no intention of ditching it, but it is currently unable to fulfill my primary use case.

Battery Life

It lasts all day. For my actual use, which is intermittent and currently tends to be consuming information via web/email/etc I charge it every three days or so. I’m very happy with that. The datasheet says something like 9 hours and I have to say I think that’s pretty accurate.

The Competition

I have been very surprised that in the months since launch, only one vendor has announced anything that comes close to the Venue 8 Pro. Acer now has the W4 – aiming to right the wrongs of the W3; Lenovo announced a business-focused 8 inch tablet with a full HD scree resolution. Neither, however, has a usable stylus. Only the Asus Vivotab Note 8 offers the same size, performance and an active digitizer (a wacom, this time) and it’s not expected to ship until March. Providing they can sort their stylus issues I think the Venue 8 Pro is still the one I’d recommend to users like me.

The Use Case

Simon May posted an interesting article the other day where he compared choosing the size of device to choosing the size of notepad. I want to be able to use the Dell in meetings to take notes. In all-day workshops where I’m taking lots of notes I will use my Surface Pro and it’s great. For sales meetings, however, I want something smaller and lighter and the Dell fits the bill. I’d love to reach the point where my everyday back is small and light because I only have the 8 inch tablet in it, along with a small charger. If I’m presenting then I’ll take my X220T and for workshops I’ll take the Surface Pro. The Dell is perfect for conference trips, too. I’m hoping that once I get my stylus the Dell will prove a reliable workhorse that may finally replace my trusty moleskin notebooks.

Enterprise Use

The Venue 8 Pro ships with Windows 8.1 (or 9.1 Pro if you go for the fully tricked out 64Gb with SIM slot version). With Workplace Join, new in Windows 8.1 and Server 2012 R2, I could get some of the enterprise access I want, but to get things like Direct Access I need to reinstall with Windows 8.1 Enterprise. Rather than blog on the process for that, I will simply point you at a great set of instructions to do this ‘the right way’. As you can guess, I now have 8.1 Enterprise on my Dell, with full secure access to all the systems I need.

Summary: Great Device, Rushed to Market

Everything about the design of the Venue 8 Pro reflects well on Dell. Lots of things about the implementation, however, do not. Since launch, Dell has released a number of updates to fix problems with the auto-brightness of the screen and the sensitivity of the touch screen and stylus. Whilst most of the specs are in line with the other 8” tablets – memory, storage, CPU – the choice of Synaptics’ technology for the screen and stylus is one where I think more testing was needed. Almost certainly the choice was made because of cost – I’ll bet Synaptics did Dell a great deal to be first adopter compared to the cost of the Wacom digitiser. However, the customer does seem to be paying the price for lack of testing, as shown by the suspension of stylus shipments.

If you don’t want or need a stylus, I can recommend the Dell Venue 8 Pro without hesitation. If, like me, you are a OneNote user looking for that perfect size of device to take notes then you need to sit on the fence until March. At that point, hopefully Dell will have sorted it’s problems with the stylus and a careful comparison with the Asus device can be made.

The Acer Iconia W3: An object lesson in how NOT to design a tablet

As you may have seen from my recent tweets, I was fortunate enough to attend //Build again this year in lovely San Francisco. In what appears to be an emerging tradition, conference attendees received not one, but two Windows 8 tablets: A 128Gb Microsoft Surface Pro with Type Cover, and an Acer Iconia W3 with keyboard dock.

Many column inches have been dedicated to the Microsoft device, which I won’t bother repeating. The Acer, however, is a different story.

I will run through my thoughts in detail. For those in a hurry I will say this: I would never pay for money for the Acer. I agree with Paul Thurrott’s sentiment when he said “The W3 is disappointing enough that I’m probably not going to review it.”

Size and Weight

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It was the size of the Acer that initially got me excited when Steve Ballmer announced that we’d receive the tablet. My Surface RT has been a regular fixture in my rucksack since I got it, but it’s bit big when all I want to do is browse the web or review some documents in a cramped railway carriage or aeroplane. We acquired an iPad Mini for testing work in the office and I was hoping for something similar, but running Windows.

In this regard, I have to say the Acer delivers. It’s about the same size as one of my trusty Moleskine notebooks. It’s definitely portable. Technically, it fits in a cargo pocket of my jeans, but I’d never be mad enough to walk around like that! It’s too big for the inside pocket of my jacket, though.

It’s a bit thick for my liking, compared to the iPad. It’s no thinner than my Surface RT. It’s not that much lighter, either, which I’m less enthused about, but not so heavy that I’d worry about carrying it around.

Overall: Positive

Power Connection

Failure number one: What idiot at Acer decided that this tablet should have a separate charging brick rather than use USB? It’s a small tablet. I’m travelling light and I want to use the tiny charger from my phone, or plug in to my laptop to charge. I don’t want to carry another charging brick around. Points in Acer’s favour for making it a very small brick – no bigger than the Surface RT charger – but many points lost for it being there at all.

Overall: Negative

Build Quality

It’s cheap and plasticky. No VaporMg or machined aluminium here. Honestly, I could live with that. What I can’t live with is the way the screen bubbles around my fingers when I hold the tablet in my hand (and I’m not squeezing hard, either).

Overall: Negative

Camera

Front and back shooters are very poor quality two megapixel shooters. Why bother?

Overall: Negative

Wifi

Wireless is incredibly frustrating. I can understand that Acer were aiming at a price point with the W3 but seriously, 2.4Ghz only – no 5Ghz? more importantly the antenna appears to be shockingly awful. I struggle at home where my old iPhone 3G works fine, my trusty Dell Mini 9 works fine and all my new kit (Surface, Surface RT, Thinkpad X220T etc) work just fine. For most of //Build the Acer failed to access the internet whilst at the conference and struggled in my hotel room.

Overall: Negative

Screen

I could forgive just about everything if the W3 had a good screen. On a small device it is imperative that the display is clear and crisp. Oh dear.

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The resolution is 1280×800. That makes the pixels quite small. It would be OK if the screen was clear but it has a coating that scatters the light coming from the screen, giving a mottled appearance. The photo above looks like it’s poor quality – that mottling is the screen, not the camera! It’s pretty much unreadable for any period of time, and it’s not possible to increase the scaling of the screen other than in desktop mode. I was looking forward to using this with Kindle to read books and documentation. Ah well…

Overall: Shockingly negative

Spec

The W3 is an Intel SOC device so it has an Atom CPU with 2Gb of RAM and a 5-point touch screen. I like that it can run 32-bit Windows desktop apps. I would like it better if I felt it was as quick as the Surface RT. In fairness, it’s quick enough for what I’d use it for. The fact that I can put Windows 8 Enterprise on it and domain join it if I so desire is a big plus. Note that it has no TPM chip, however, so I can’t bitlocker it.

Overall: Positive

Ports

Actually, for a small device there’s a good selection of ports on this thing: Micro-USB (which I thought was for charging until I found the charger), micro-hdmi, headphone jack and a micro-SD card slot.

However (you didn’t think this would end well, did you?) the headphone socket is on the bottom of the tablet, if you are in portrait mode. That’s a pain if you want to watch video or, like me, be foolish enough to want to read an eBook whilst listening to music and rest the tablet on my leg, or somewhere comfortable.

Not only that, but the speakers are on that edge too. If I’m holding the tablet comfortably, I am invariably blocking the speakers. They’re not great anyway, but I’d like to hear something!

Keyboard Dock

I took the keyboard out of the dock. I tried the keys – they’re not bad. I look at the battery compartment (AAA batteries, if I recall correctly. I stopped caring after I noted it needed batteries and wasn’t rechargable), noted the lack of physical connectors to secure the tablet in place or charge it, noted the strange compartment at the back into which the tablet clips and then put the keyboard back in the box.

In fairness, you don’t buy an eight inch tablet for it’s keyboard. I’m sure there are elegant solutions to the small tablet keyboard question. This isn’t it.

Overall: Negative

Summary

If we were looking for an anti-pattern for tablet design, this would be it. If this is the vanguard of the Windows 8.1 small tablet charge then I hope the next wave are better. There’s nothing here that would make me choose it over an iPad Mini or a Nexus 7.

It’s a crying shame that a device handed out to showcase the new small-device experience with Windows 8.1 should be so awful as to potentially discourage me from ever using a small device with Windows 8.1! The new OS has some great features. The Acer W3 should be allowed to die quietly where it can do no harm.

Hopefully Lenovo will deliver a decent eight inch tablet soon. Or Microsoft will launch a Surface Mini… Please…?

Overall: Avoid. I couldn’t honestly recommend this to anybody. Ever.

Fujitsu Stylistic Q550: A Tablet for the Enterprise

Every now and again, whilst I’m away from the office, the gadget pixies visit my desk and leave something interesting for me to play with. It’s a bit like Bagpuss, except stuff works when it arrives and I can never get the guys to wake up when I need them too.

The last time this happened there was a tablet sitting on my desk. I like it enough to write about it.

The Stylistic is never going to win a beauty pageant. Which is a shame, because it has all the features that I usually bemoan the lack of in Windows Tablets. Most of them are designed for the consumer. That’s great, but I get involved in lots of projects these days where the end user wants the convenience of a tablet device but the demands of their IT department make them unusable.

For example, I once visited a site where the IT department had imaged the tablet we were to use and applied their standard group policies. They required a smart card for authentication and forced CTRL-ALT-DEL to logon. You can probably see the problem with that.

It wouldn’t phase the Stylistic.

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Stuff I like about it

  • Removable battery. I’ve played with this for a while now, and I can report that battery life is on a par with the other tablets I’ve played with – four to five hours. That’s good, but not a working day. Being able to carry a spare battery if I need it means that I can be away from a power outlet all day and not worry.
  • Smart card reader. Two factor authentication on a tablet – fantastic! It’s just what enterprises need in order to support these kind of devices. As an IT manager I want to be able to apply group policies to these devices. They are extremely portable so I have to be sure that the data on them is secure.
  • TPM Chip. I can bitlocker the drive on this thing properly. Shame the one I have to play with came with Windows 7 Professional on it. Be careful with this, though: I checked the product information and the TPM chip is an option on the device. I think that’s a mistake on Fujitsu’s part – most organisations won’t check and will probably order the wrong variant.
  • Fingerprint Reader. Personally, I don’t like or trust fingerprint readers for authentication, but I like that I have the option.
  • Matte screen. This is great! Virtually every windows tablet I have seen has a glossy screen. That’s great in the shop window and a real pain in the real world as I can’t see the screen for the reflections. The Stylistic has a matte screen and it’s incredibly easy to read and use.
  • Stylus. It’s much easier to write notes using OneNote than type on a software keyboard. The digitiser on the Stylistic is a dual mode one that works with fingers and a stylus and I like it.
  • Multi-touch. The touch digitiser on the Stylistic can handle four points. It may be able to handle more but I haven’t found any detailed information. Four is better than most windows tablets, however, which tend to deal with only two touch points.

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Stuff I don’t like about it

  • Stylus. Don’t get me wrong – the stylus is great. The fact that there is nowhere to put is is very annoying. It’s a nice stylus, but there’s no clip on it so I can’t treat it like a pen and keep it in my pocket, and there’s nowhere on the tablet to stow it away.
  • Styling. From the front the Stylistic doesn’t look too bad. However, flip it over and it’s been hit with the ugly stick. I realise that Enterprise purchasing teams don’t care about looks but users do. Why can’t it be sleeker. Heck, I’d settle for it simply being all one colour!
  • Fiddly buttons. There are lots of buttons down the side of the Stylistic. One brings up a software keyboard, but it’s not the standard Windows 7 one – it’s a nasty one from N-Trig that crashes a lot. One makes the screen rotate which I view as a bit surplus to requirements – why can’t I simply have a lock rotation button like every other tablet. With the stylistic I must fiddle with a tray app to turn auto-rotate on and off, then poke at the little button to rotate the screen if I have disabled the auto-rotate in an outstanding failure of ergonomic design. There’s also an ‘Alt’ button that I admit to not having figured out.
  • Crazy Gestures. Why do all these tablet manufacturers insist on ‘improving’ Windows 7 with complex multi-touch gestures that nobody can remember and really aren’t useful. I don’t want crazy three- and four-finger gestures. Fortunately this is all software and I can turn it off.
  • 32-bit Only. Why would you release a piece of kit these days that isn’t 64-bit capable? I appreciate that the tablet only has 2Gb of memory (which is enough for most people’s needs) but operating systems are moving steadily to 64-bit and I’d rather not be left behind.

Overall: A Win

Most of the things I find annoying are implemented by software and I can turn them off. The fact that it’s a sexy as a house brick is of little importance to the enterprise market at which it is aimed. Overall the Stylistic has a raft of features that enterprise IT demands but doesn’t sacrifice the key elements of tablet design to deliver them. The Stylistic is not too heavy to hold, is a nice size and has good battery life for a Windows machine. As an enterprise tablet I think it’s a solid choice that supports all the security functionality I would want to enable for such a mobile device.