The new dark horse of the mobile tech world

From tablets to laptops, an unexpected contender is emerging as a maker of sleek and desirable devices. What if it were to tackle smartphones next?

Dark Horse

As we gear up for 2015's first Season of Device Launch Insanity, I find myself thinking a thought I never thought I'd think (take a minute and wrap your head around that): 

Man, I wish Dell were among the companies with a new Android phone to show off this spring.

It's an absurd-sounding sentiment, I realize. One that would have caused me to laugh maniacally if you'd suggested it a few years -- or, heck, a few months -- ago. But stick with me for a minute. It makes more sense than you might think.

Mobile tech has been in a bit of a rut for a while now. Sure, we've had some great devices over the past year, and sure, there's been no shortage of compelling products to buy. By and large, though, most manufacturers are shelling out more of the same -- the same sorts of tablets and phones they've released before, maybe with bigger screens (don't get me started...) or beefier processors (ah, specs). The legitimately interesting and different devices are few and far between.

Dell, a company whose very name seems to inspire yawns, is the unlikely candidate that's been shaking things up lately. The company's been stepping up its game and delivering some electrifying products in categories that desperately need jolts of energy.

Take the Venue 8 7000 tablet, for instance. Despite its silly name (c'mon, Dell), the device is hands-down the most interesting and distinctive Android tablet to come along in quite some time. It may not be perfect, but with its striking design, premium build, and stunning display, it stands out impressively in a sea of uninspired if perfectly functional sameness. There are always Android tablets that are good enough to buy, but when's the last time one has actually been exciting?

Dell Venue 8 7000 Android Tablet

The awkwardly named but admirably executed Venue 8 7000 tablet

Dell's doing something similar in the land of laptops with its lust-worthy new XPS 13 Windows Ultrabook. Lust-worthy, Windows, and laptop in the same sentence -- what?! I can't even remember the last time looking for a Windows computer was anything more than a chore. The XPS 13 is a genuine object of desire, which is something you don't see often in the PC realm.

Dell XPS 13

Watch out, Timberlake: The XPS 13 is bringing sexy back

So back to smartphones. The last time Dell tried its hand at phone-making, the results were dismal ("an embarrassment to Android," as I said at the time). But a lot's changed over the past five years. The company has evolved and its products have started to progress from "fine enough" to "desirable." More broadly, Dell's started to develop a sense of style and design -- not to mention taste and restraint -- which are qualities far bigger fish still struggle to master.

If the Venue 8 and XPS 13 are any indication of the direction Dell's heading, I'd love to see what sort of splash it could bring to the Android smartphone ecosystem. Diversity and choice are among Android's greatest assets as a platform, and Dell -- crazy of a notion as it may have once seemed -- could be just the catalyst we need to break up the status quo and keep things interesting.

Forget the past: In 2015, Dell has become the dark horse in the ever-changing mobile tech race. If it plays its cards right, this might be the year it steps out of the shadows and trots into the light.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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