With the new Dell Venue 8 Pro, we're finally seeing a full-blown Windows 8.1 tablet for the masses. And when I mean the masses, I don't mean people willing to pay $900 and up for a tablet, or $1,000 and up for a combo tablet-ultrabook device. I mean people who can afford $300 for a well-made 8-in. device with a very good screen, a surprisingly powerful processor, and Office as part of the package.
The Venue 8 Pro is thin, light and feels right in your hand. And even though the screen is smaller than the 10.6-in. display that comes with Microsoft's Surface Pro 2, you don't feel like you're missing much when you run Windows 8 apps (that is, apps previously called Metro apps and now sometimes called Modern apps or Windows Store apps).
Hardware and software
The Venue 8 Pro has some drawbacks (which I'll go into in a minute), but they're far outweighed by what Dell did right. To begin with, even though the tablet sells for only $300, Dell didn't skimp on either the design or components. It is a simple black slab with a circular grooved pattern on its back that provides enough grip to make it easy to hold, with a solid feel despite weighing only 0.87 lb.
And it's surprisingly fast. The Venue 8 Pro boots quickly and apps load quickly, and you can easily switch among them with no delays. That's due to the Intel 1.8GHz Atom Z3740 quad-core processor, more commonly known as Bay Trail. It comes with what has become the standard 2GB of RAM, but in my testing, I never felt the need for more, whether watching videos on Netflix, playing games, drawing or anything else.
The screen is a beauty, even if the specs don't sound particularly overwhelming. The display has a garden-variety 1280-x-800-pixel resolution that on paper doesn't match up to competitors such as the iPad Mini's Retina screen. But in actual use, I found the screen bright, vivid and responsive. I missed nothing watching Netflix or videos in other apps, and it shone even in paint programs.
However, I strongly suggest changing an important setting to make sure the screen always stays bright. By default, in order to improve battery life, the Venue 8 Pro's screen dims or brightens according to the light you're viewing it in. In practice, I found that the screen was frequently too dim. So I turned off that feature (by selecting Settings --> Change PC settings --> PC and devices --> Power and sleep, and in the Brightness section at the top of the screen, moving the "Adjust my screen brightness automatically" to off). That may have cost me some battery life, but it was well worth it.
The Venue 8 Pro comes with 32GB of storage (you can configure it with 64GB for an extra $50), but it also has a microSD slot, which makes it easy to add more storage via an SD card. Beyond that, the ports are limited. Unsurprisingly, there's a micro-USB port rather than a full-sized one, so if you want to connect USB devices, you'll have to use an adapter. And since you use the micro-USB port to charge the tablet, you can't charge it and use an external device at the same time, unless you want to buy a special adapter. In addition, there are no ports for connecting to an external display.
The device also comes with the usual power button, which is located on the right side of the tablet between the micro-USB port and volume rocker (assuming you're holding it in portrait mode). The headphone jack is at the top of the device. The non-removable battery is rated by Dell at 9.9 hours of life per charge.
The built-in mono speaker (for stereo, you'll have to plug in headphones or speakers) can play surprisingly loud -- and without distortion. Some tablets have a hard time generating high volumes, which can be problematic when watching TV, movies or video. That's far from the case here.
The tablet offers a 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera and a 5-megapixel rear-facing one. They both seemed par for the course, which means they were usable but didn't take overwhelmingly great photos.
In addition to Windows 8.1, you get a free version of Office Home & Student 2013, which is a nice extra.