Whether you like them or not, tablets – more specifically, cheap tablets running Google’s Android operating system – have come to define the mobile computing space. Sure, many users need the comfort, power and versatility that only full-size laptops can provide, but the focus now is on a new class of user who doesn’t care about power or versatility. Instead, they want to be able to check their email and browse the internet. They want to watch video and listen to music. It’s those people who the Dell Venue 8 is made for.
It’s also precisely these users that the $179.99 Dell Venue 8 fails on so many levels.
The Dell Venue 8 is about as basic looking as an Android tablet can be. It’s 8.95mm thin, making it very comfortable in the hand. The edges are softly rounded so that gripping it in the palm of your hands is nice. The entire back is covered in rubberized plastic with a dark Dell logo at the center. The rubberized backing makes it easy to grip, even if it doesn’t make it feel more high-end. A rear-facing 5 megapixel camera sits on the top center of the device, while a front-facing camera stares back at you in a sea of black bezel.
On the right side are volume buttons and the Dell Venue 8’s microphone. The single Micro USB port and MicroSD card slot sit on this edge too. Opposite of it is just blank space. On the top edge is a power button and headset jack. At the bottom is the Dell Venue 8’s only speaker.
If the entire thing sounds pretty basic, that’s because it is. The Dell Venue 8 doesn’t feel premium but it doesn’t have to in order to get the job done. It’s comfortable but not too flashy. Users can upgrade to a red version for $20 on Dell’s website if you need some added style. You’re getting a black box but that’s ok as long as the device can deliver a decent reading, music and video experience.
Performance & Software
To be clear, the Dell Venue 8 absolutely doesn’t deliver on a solid media experience in the slightest. Which is strange considering its pedigree.
Let’s not pretend that users don’t know what they’re getting when they purchase a tablet at $179.99. The Dell Venue 8 won’t win any hardware races. Inside every Dell Venue 8 is an 8-inch IPS FHD display that’s capable of showcasing high-definition content. There’s an Intel mobile processor and 1GB to power the entire operation. That’d be low if this was a Windows tablet. It’s running Android 4.4.
The screen in the Dell Venue 8 isn’t the best I’ve seen in a tablet, but it was certainly nice to look at. Viewing angles were pretty good too. Where the trouble comes is inside. Simply put, the Dell Venue 8 routinely lagged during my time with it. I also ran into crashes on websites that weren’t mobile. This didn’t just happen once. It happened at least once a day.
Part of this, I’m willing to say, has to be Android. Dell seems to have not changed a lot, other than adding support for its Dell Cast wireless display accessory and including the same WaveMax audio technology that it has on PCs like the Dell XPS 13. Still, I found that the Dell Venue 8 just wasn’t stable on websites. Listening to music through my service of choice, Xbox Music, was painless. But browsing websites, and even checking my email on a mobile site, was painful.
Loading any app seemed to take longer than it should for an Android tablet of this caliber. I can’t put my finger on where the performance issues are coming from, but they’re there and it’s hard not to notice them. Even hitting the Home button shows a bit of lag.
I mentioned that Dell mostly left the version of Android running on the Dell Venue 8 alone. Visually, they’re to be commended for their restraint. Where Dell didn’t show as much restraint as I would have liked is when it came to pre-loading apps. The Dell Venue 8 comes pre-loaded with way too many apps that you simply can’t remove.
Some of them are questionable additions. The Dell Cast app I’m willing to understand. But the Venue 8 comes with Dropbox, Amazon, Amazon Kindle, Amazon Local, Amazon Music, Audible, CamCard, Evernote, PocketCloud, Polaris Office 6 and Skitch. You can’t remove any of this and that’s going to rub some people the wrong way, since only 10GB of the 16GB of storage they’re getting is actually usable. You can disable them and add a MicroSD card, but it strikes me as something completely at odds with what Dell should be trying to deliver: a decent stock Android experience.
Camera & Speakers
When you’re watching a video or listening to music, performance matters. After that, it’s all about display and audio quality.
The 8-inch FHD display in the Dell Venue 8 isn’t exactly a show stopper, but I did find that it was usable in day light. Text when you’re reading an EBook was also super clear and crisp. High-definition video ran just fine too. I have to say that even with the special software the single speaker at the bottom of the device didn’t sound amazing. I also found myself covering it up. Volume was fine, but I had to crank it up to get anything audible in my episode of Mad Men. Everything just sounded pretty tinny at that level.
The cameras in the Dell Venue 8 are, I think, the device’s weakest point besides performance. Unlike performance, though, I feel it’s acceptable for the market Dell is out to capture. Video chatting over Skype looked fine but not stellar. The pictures taken with the Dell Venue 8’s rear-facing camera were pretty bad when you compare them to just about anything else. That’s expected – it’s a 5 megapixel rear-facing camera with no optical image stabilization and no flash. In good lighting it’s acceptable but in poor lighting pictures come out grainy and murky.
- 8-inch IPS display (1920 x 1200)
- 2.1 GHz Intel Atom Z34780 Dual-Core Processor
- 1GB of RAM
- 16GB of storage (10GB Usable)
- 2 megapixel font-facing camera & 5 megapixel rear-facing camera
- Android 4.4.4 KitKat
- Red or Black Casing
- 216mm x 130mm x 8.95mm – 338 grams
Like so many other tablets. How great the Dell Venue 8 is going to be for your needs comes down to what you care about. At $179, it’s not a terrible eReader at all. Again, text is crisp and there’s plenty of storage if you ever want to watch a movie.
However, the Dell Venue 8 at $179 is an absolutely terrible way to browse the internet. It’s an even worse way to stay productive. Dell plays around with productivity by giving users a Microsoft Office clone (and wireless charging that they need a dock for), but neither the processor nor this version of Android are up to that task.
Buy the Dell Venue 8 if you’re looking for an eReader, or to act as an entertainment back up on long flights. Don’t buy the Dell Venue 8 if you need anything more than something to supplement your phone or mildly entertain you. There are better tablets, mainly the Nexus 7. It’s $229, but it’s a better experience.
Shortly after we finished this review Dell began deploying a software update that addressed the processing and stability issues cited here. After spending another few days with the Dell Venue 8, I was happy to find that the lag and touchscreen responsiveness issues were gone.
Because of these fixes and the basic price tag, I’m pretty confident in recommending the Dell Venue 8 over the Nexus 7. Just make sure you update you model to get the latest new software.
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