Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Dell Venue 8 Pro Quasi-review. An 8 inch Windows 8 Bay Trail Tablet.

Where do I begin with this? I normally don't cover Windows on my blog much. I do run Windows 7 and 8.1 on some of my computers but I don't use it much by a long shot. Every time I need it, I run it virtualized. But here, today, I have a Dell Venue 8 Pro 8" Bay Trail Windows 9.1 tablet. Let's rewind a bit.

Back in 1997, I had my first taste of an ultra portable Windows machine, the Philips Velo. This was my introduction to "Pocket Windows." I progressed throughout most of the late 90s to the mid 2000s with various Windows Mobile devices.

10 Years ago, I spent close to $1,000 on Dell's latest and greatest pocket wonder, the Axim X50v. It was a 3.5" Pocket PC VGA device that was top in in it's class. I spent $500 or so on the PDA and another $700 in accessories from extended batteries, a GSM cellular CF module, CF/SD cards, GPS dongle, keyboards, video,  and numerous docks. At the time, I wanted to run "Windows" in my pocket. Pocket PC was the closet thing with Pocket Word, Outlook and Pocket IE. I've owned practically every high end Pocket PC/Windows Mobile devices from the late 90's up to 2007. I've probably spent close to over $10,000 on various Pocket PC devices and accessories. You have to remember people were spending hundreds and thousands of dollars on flash storage back then.

I stopped my crazy buying spree right after 2007. That is when the iPhone happen. Then the iPad. The rest was history. Mobile computing changed dramatically after 2007. The whole ultra mobile UMPC, netbooks, and uber expensive librettos are long gone.

Fast forward 10 years from 2004, I now have another Dell marvel of Windows miniaturization. It is not quite the top-of-the-line class mobile device they have. Rather, it is one of the cheapest offerings on the market, the Venue 8 Pro.

Now read on for my take on this.

Unlike the Dell Axim X50v, this thing actually "runs Windows." Yep, it can run Adobe CS Lightroom. I can even load up 32bit MySQL on this. 10 years is an eternity in technology. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on obscure techy high-end gadgets, normal consumers can easily pick one of these up at Walmart. It is fairly cheap and comes in 32 and 64gb configuration. You get a run of the mill 1280x800 8" screen. Sure it isn't a High DPI retina type screen but it s a far better cry from my previous 480x240 Philips Velo, 640x480 Axim, 800x600 EeePc, and even 1200x600 Dell (Mini 9) netbooks. Basically, everything is better than some of the expensive exotic $2,000 UMPC (Ultra Mobile PCs) from the mid-2000s. Quad processing, 2GB of RAM,etc. It is indeed marvel and a sign of technical progress. I won't go into the specs much here.

This blog isn't about a detail review as you can find thousands of technical reviews on the internet and they all pretty much come to the same conclusion. The Bay Trail SoC is pretty fly. You get good performance and battery life compromise. You still can't boot and replace Windows with Linux on it like the older Clover Trail generation tablet that this replaces. This review is just another user's take on this. My premise is pretty straightforward, "how does this behave as a portable desktop!"

Another popular Windows tech journalist/blogger,Paul Thurrott, eloquently puts it, there will be people out there (me) who will try to contort this device into what it wasn't designed for. His conclusion wasn't so clear cut in the end. Is this a device you can recommend to friends? Not with extreme prejudice and caveats.

As a consumption, leisure, casual device, I personally would not recommend this device.  If you block out the fact it can run x86 Desktop 32-bit apps and comes with free Microsoft Office (home and student edition),  it fares poorly as a stand-alone tablet.

The Windows  8 ecosystem is pretty sparse. There are zero apps that interest me. I was looking for a Metro 8 MySQL client that supports SSH tunnels and couldn't find a single one. The Netflix app didn't have Chromecast support found on both Android and iOS tablet versions. Overall, I wasn't impressed with the App selection. I'm not expecting hundreds of thousands of apps, I just want a handful of good ones for my use case. Browsing with Metro Internet Explorer is pretty mediocre as some sites do not work well with it. There are some JavaScript idiosyncratic stuff like navigation and toolbars that don't work with Metro IE.  You have to resort to the desktop version of Internet Explorer most of the time. If you ever have to go to the Desktop, then you can see that the Metro side is pretty half baked. You have settings in both Metro and Desktop mode which is inconsistent. Seriously, you can't access VPN settings without going to Desktop mode? There are dozens of inconsistencies in the UI which makes it frustrating to use.

Like many of the public reviews out there, I think the Nexus 7, Kindle Fire, and iPad mini are better tablets. If you are using this as a "casual" media entertainment tablet, wouldn't you want one with a better screen and a wider gamut of app/game selection? I would. I tried watching a MKV movie connected to a 2.5" USB NTFS portable drive and while it was cool to say you can do that, the whole experience was un-pleasurable. Watching movies, you can see how poor the screen is. There are no reasons whatsoever manufactures should still be producing low resolution screens. Back in 2004, this would have been fly. In 2014, it is stale.

(Pictured: this could be a really cool Lightroom portable
workstation but in reality, it isn't worth the hassle.)

The allure of running x86 applications.

Now, on the flip-side, if you want a device that you can contort to your whim, then this device "could be" really cool. I hesitate  and add that qualifier because if you know what you are getting into, you may really enjoy this device. In short, this device can run from the hundreds of millions of old legacy 32-bit Windows .exe applications. Ideally, this sounds really cool and worthwhile. It is tempting with so many possibilities. Hence, this was the only reason why I got this tablet.

I have the 64gb model along with another 64gb micro-sdhc card. As you can see from my first picture, I have a Bluetooth folio case along with a bluetooth Windows 8 gesture mouse. Add yourself a OTG cable, you can make this into a small portable workstation. In fact, I did just that. I installed Lightroom, a database server, Apache,  VMware player, and a host of other work-related apps I would be using for work. It is one of things you can say you can do just for the thrill of it.

However, there is a big caveat to what you can and want to do with this tablet.  2GB of RAM and a 32-bit architecture is going to limit what you can do. Then reality also set in after 2 days. Just because you can say you installed Lightroom on a portable 8" tablet doesn't mean you should. First of all, it was painfully slow. Secondly, forget about using the touch panel. This picture exemplifies the problem. There is no way anyone can adjust the slider controls with a finger/thumb. Even with the DPI set to 125%, clicking on menus are clumsy in Desktop mode.

I really, really wanted to love this device. I installed VMware and tried to run a few Linux VMs like CentOS and Debian. Unfortunately, I was really frustrated. For example, getting the cursor lock in-and-out of guest and host is a chore. There is no way around it, you need a physical keyboard to escape the cursor lock. If you are the type who likes to use their tablets "without" an external keyboard, forget about it here. It also ran really slow even for a console only 512MB VM that I just resorted to using my iPad (and SSH) if I really wanted to work in Linux remotely.

Bottom line, Windows Desktop mode is and was never designed for multi-touch. You need a stylus or some other physical pointing device. A micro track-ball like some of the uber expensive UMPCs in the past solved this problem.

Furthermore, running Desktop apps will kill your battery. Forget about the advertised 6-8 hours of Bay Trail of you plan to be running multiple server daemons and background processes on this tablet.

Setting up the Venue 8 Pro as a Desktop.

Well, some of my readers will still insist on running this tablet as a quasi desktop. This is what you are going to need to accomplish it: an OTG cable, USB hub, a USB ethernet adapter, a USB displaylink adapter along with a monitor, keyboard and mouse. I happen to have those items and tried it.

First, you won't get power and OTG at the same time. I've read various reports but it is still inconclusive. Secondly, you won't be able to run too many devices simultaneously as it will strain the USB port. Forget about attaching a portable 2.5" in hard drive. Some drives drain too much power. You may be lucky to run just one drive without any other accessories. USB VGA will lag like hell. Forget about what you see on youtube, it lags. I have a new USB 3.0 HDMI displaylink and it lags beyond acceptable. Pictured below is for your enjoyment. My contorted Dell Venue 8 Desktop set-up. This is complete with Gigabit ethernet and a 1080p display through a slow USB 2.0 socket despite the fact everything you see below are USB 3.0 products. Depending on the power draw, expect devices to disconnect randomly. You might have better luck with a "powered" USB hub or USB port replicator to assist in powering those extra devices.

If this had a separate  power and separate USB, it would have made all the difference in the world! I would think about using it as an always-on 24/7 cheap iTunes music server or low-end non-transcoding Plex server. But, somehow all the 8 inch Tablet makers decided they didn't want to add another port.

My other thoughts on this.

For over a week, I don't think I've ever used the touch-screen on this device. I continue to play with this device as it is fun when I have some spare time just to mess around. However, I am not using it as it was designed for. I still relegate myself to my iPad or Galaxy Tab for media consumption. Furthermore, I prefer using my Chromebook for most Internet related things over this device.


Back in 1997 when I had my Philips Velo 1 mobile Pocket PC handheld computer, I was in South East Asia travelling with it as my only companion. At that time I just watched a Pierce Brosnan James Bond flick and he had a similar HP Jornada or Nokia Symbian based HPC.  I thought I was peering into the future of computing. It was the pinnacle vision of gadgetry.  Fast forward 14 years to 2014, I realize now that having a Desktop OS in a hand held device is not the nirvana of computing I once lusted after. It is clear that computing paradigms must change for the different form factors. I'm reading reviews and blogs about how people love to contort this device. I'm seeing all sorts of YouTube videos of people contorting this to be what it wasn't designed for. I'm sure they're happy and enthusiastic because they can say they hook up 4 monitors through displaylink USB or the fact they're running Visual Studio and coding away. I'm sure those example make good chat fodder but in reality, no one is going to be using this as a primary device. Tablets will always be a companion device. If you have a reasonably good desktop/laptop computer that can run Lightroom and Photoshop, why even try to run on this? Why would anyone would even want to waste a good, expensive software license key on a 2gb 32-bit tablet with 32/64gb storage? Well that person may be me. I know this is a crappy tablet vis-a-vis the competition but there is a fun, entertaining fact that I can run 32-bit desktop Windows application just for the sake of it. Now, the question is, are you the type of crazy person who will ignore the fact that this is a so-so mediocre tablet just to say you can run a Desktop version of Microsoft Word and Excel? If so, this tablet is for you. For everyone else, look elsewhere.


  1. This "quasi" review is the reason why the generation fortysomething is still blamed for not being techsavvy. First of all this is not a review at all. It's the ranting of an old man (actually I'm probably older than you ;) about windows in general and as a portable os in particular. C'mon bashing windows 8 is old news. Even the younger ones acknowledge that windows 8 is on a good path.Is it perfect? Nah. So is not ios or android. Every os serves a slightly different purpose and none of them is a jack of all trades. I own a nexus 7 2013, an iPad 4, an Acer W700 and obviously I just bought the venue pro. I love the nexus 7 with its wonderful screen. Chromecast is amazing and the gaming capability is great. Nevertheless the surfing experience is not smooth and it takes a lot of work and tuning to make android enjoyable. But hey that's not the fault of this beautiful piece of machinery. Enter the iPad. An almost perfect experience in every way and if it comes to versatility this machine wins hands down. So why is it not perfect? it is but iOS isn't. Apple gives you the best user experience but due to the closed operating system it's not the best device for work. Surfing the web is amazing, fast and smooth, making music is awesome, video and photo editing is as close as it gets to a desktop and gaming is as good as android. But if it comes to compatibility with windows programs there is almost none existing. Pages is also nice but compared to Word even on an 8inch device can be painful and unsatisfying. Same applies to Numbers. You don't believe me? Try to open a word document with normal formatting (or an excel sheet for that matter) on an iPad or even worse on an android device.
    So what's the reason to buy an eight inch device like the venue pro with windows 8.1? If you're a gamer you shouldn't. Windows gaming apps are bleak in comparison to their ios and android counterparts. (although there are some videos on YouTube that show that you can play some desktop games like WoW, half life 2 and Crysis on the venue) if you want a multimedia device buy an iPad mini. If you like gaming and want an inexpensive all round device go for android. But if you REALLY want to work with your portable device, open light weight desktop applications or enjoy fast and really smooth surfing, try a windows machine. This is where the fullblown os really shines. Everything else is possible too but not as satisfying a with the other operating systems.

    One last thing: if you are going for the dell venue pro, buy the stylus. The new version is hasslefree and almost as good as Wacom tablets. It enhances the windows experience and even makes the desktop on a smallscreen device almost enjoyable. Cheers...

    1. Yep. This 40yr old doesn't do windows.I much prefer *NIX operating systems - Linux, OSX, FreeBSD, Irix. You'd know that if you are a regular reader of my blog.
      I don't do Microsoft Office so none of the Word stuff matters to me. What matters to me is being able to VPN into my servers, firewalls, and run console apps and my iPad does that just fine. The Ipad works great in a Linux DevOPS environment; very good for provisioning servers, managing VM clusters, handling databases all due to the app ecosystem.
      When I'm not working, I like to edit 1080p home videos on my tablet on the go and do consumption things like watch Netflix or my PLEX.