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Dell's Venue 8 7000 tablet reviewed

x86 Android goes on a crash diet
— 3:11 PM on February 16, 2015

All too many headlines about Dell's Venue 8 7000 tablet focus on the device's slender profile. I suppose that's to be expected given the tech industry's obsession with slim devices, but I can't help but roll my eyes. The Venue shaves a mere 0.1 mm off thickness of the second-gen iPad Air, making its "world's thinnest" billing a technical distinction rather than a truly meaningful advantage.

Don't get me wrong. The Venue's lithe frame is pretty amazing. However, its external dimensions are impressive not because they're the smallest, but because of what Dell has managed to squeeze within them.

Inside the Venue's machined aluminum body sits a Moorefield-based Atom processor with quad x86 cores and PowerVR graphics. That SoC combines with an Intel RealSense camera to enhance 2D stills with 3D depth information. Then there's the high-PPI OLED display framed by remarkably narrow bezels, the Micro SD slot, and the mostly stock Android install.

Fitting all those elements into a headline would be difficult, but they're far more important to the Venue's appeal than its ability to slip into a slightly smaller dress size. They also raise an interesting question: if Dell managed to cram all that inside the slimmest tablet around, what—if anything—did it have to give up? We've put the Venue 8 7000 through the wringer to find out, and you might be surprised by what we've learned.

Ignore the screen's purplish tint; the white balance was set based on the backdrop rather than the display

An unabashedly premium Android slate
Dell designed its Android flagship to be a premium tablet capable of going toe-to-toe with the best in the business. The Venue's $399 starting price puts the device squarely opposite the Nexus 9 and iPad Mini 3, as does its 8.4" display diagonal. In a lot of ways, the Venue is a noticeable step up from both of those alternatives.

Check out our discussion of the Venue 8 7000 on the TR Podcast

One of the biggest upgrades is the thin frame around the "infinity" display. The screen stretches nearly to the device's edge on three sides, making the tablet's footprint smaller than one might expect given the display size.

Such skinny bezels make the Venue a little complicated to hold. The tablet is best grasped by its fat bottom lip, which can be pinched in both portrait and landscape orientations. Portrait works best for most tasks, I find, and the keyboard is especially easy to use when double-fisting in that mode. While a teenager would still smoke me in a thumb-typing contest, I can confidently bang out paragraphs on the Venue with surprising speed and relatively few typos.

At just 305 grams, the Venue is light enough to cradle comfortably in one hand. Its well-balanced body weighs 35 g less than the Mini 3 and 120 g less than the Nexus 9. The Venus is thinner, too; it has 1.4 mm on the Mini and 2 mm on the Nexus. Here's how it compares to the Shield Tablet, which is 3.1 mm thicker (and $100 cheaper).

The Shield Tablet (left) and Venue 8 7000 (right)

Although the differences in thickness are noticeable, I think we've passed the point of diminishing returns. Cutting the z-height further buys little beyond the initial gee-whiz factor, an admittedly important aspect for device makers trying to give folks reasons to upgrade from older, thicker tablets.

Shaving millimeters can have some unintended consequences. On the Venue 8 7000, for example, the shallow sides can be difficult to pinch when lifting the tablet off a flat surface. Squared-off edges are part of the problem, as are my thick, sausage-like fingers.

Thinner devices can also be a bit flimsy, especially the featherweight ones. Rigidity isn't an issue here, though. The Venue's construction feels incredibly strong, as if the entire tablet were chiseled from a single slab. The tablet doesn't droop at all when it's held horizontally by one corner, and the frame barely flexes when it's twisted in my hands.

The Venue's overall build quality appears to be exceptional. The in-hand feel is comparable to the iPad Mini 3—if not better—which puts it miles ahead of the Nexus 9. Much of credit goes to the aluminum shell, whose solid feel exhibits none of the give present in the Nexus' squishy posterior. If the Venue's edges were sharpened, I'm pretty sure you could take someone's head clean off with the thing.

Even the buttons are well done. They protrude just enough to catch the fingertips, and they're backed by a satisfying click. Contrary to the norm, though, they're all on the left side of the case. Weird.

The Venue 8's aluminum shell is smooth and cool to the touch. Gaming and benchmark sessions cause it to warm noticeably, with most of the heat concentrated in its lower half. Still, temperatures stay low enough that the tablet remains comfortable to hold even after hours of looping the Epic Citadel demo. Basic tasks like web surfing and email barely produce any noticeable heat.

Most of the tablet's back is clad in machined metal that resists visible smudging. Unfortunately, the plastic strip at the bottom is a magnet for fingerprints and unsightly smears. The marks are a little difficult to photograph, but you can see them if you look closely at the picture below.

I've never understood why device makers put glossy finishes on surfaces that are constantly touched by oily digits. There's a random glossy panel on the power adapter, too, but at least it's confined to an area users are less likely to grasp. The glossy strip on the tablet is basically right one would grip it. Even more frustratingly, the other side of the plastic lip has a matte finish.

The front-facing portion of this grip area is perforated with tiny holes for the integrated speakers. Their sound quality is surprisingly decent for a device this size, and the pre-installed MaxxAudio Waves software provides multiple profiles with extra volume and low-end grunt. Just be careful not to muffle the speakers while holding the tablet. A poorly placed thumb can have a big impact on the character of the sound.

Dell Venue 8 7000
Model v8TBL-7840BLK
SoC Intel Atom Z3580
Display size & resolution 8.4" 2560x1600
System RAM 2GB LPDDR3-1600
Flash storage capacity 16GB internal
Up to 512GB via Micro SD
Cameras 8/6MP Intel RealSense (rear)
2MP (front)
Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac 2.4GHz + 5GHz
Other connectivity Bluetooth 4.0, Miracast
I/O ports microUSB, 3.5-mm headphone
Battery 5900 mAh, 21 WHr
Dimensions 8.5" x 4.9" x 0.24"/216 x 124 x 6 mm
Weight 10.7 oz/305 g
Operating system Android 4.4.4 KitKat

We'll cover the finer elements of the Venue over the next few pages, but it's worth picking off some low-hanging fruit before we dive into the display, SoC, and other components.

Right now, the Venue 8 7000 is limited to 16GB of internal storage, only 9GB of which is available to the user. That's a little low-rent given the device's premium aspirations, but Dell tells us a 32GB variant is on the way. Expect it to arrive "in the coming months."

Thankfully, the storage capacity of the existing model can be expanded dramatically via Micro SD. The Venue supports memory cards up to 512GB—a higher capacity than any other tablet we've encountered. Good luck finding a Micro SD card that large, though. Full-sized variants hit the 512GB mark last year, but I haven't seen any Micro versions beyond 128GB.

A pin must be inserted into the chassis to eject the tray, which makes card swapping a little cumbersome. The tablet doesn't come with the requisite tool, but a safety pin or bent paper clip will do in a pinch.

Unlike on some Android devices, SD cards behave much like conventional storage in the Venue 8. There are no issues writing files and folders directly with ES File Explorer, my go-to file management app. Performing the same tasks on the Shield Tablet produces errors, but at least that device has a Micro SD slot. Expandable storage isn't available on any iPad or Nexus tablet.

We normally frown upon pre-installed applications, but ES File Explorer or some other file management utility would be a welcomed addition to the default Android install. As it stands, the system has a relatively light payload comprising Polaris Office, McAfee Mobile Security, a couple of Dell apps, and the aforementioned MaxxAudio software. The bloat is minimal, with no skins or alternative launchers to pollute the otherwise pure Android experience.

The Venue 8 7000 runs Android 4.4.4 KitKat, putting it a little behind the curve. A Lollipop update is due in "the coming months," and the extra development time is unrelated to the Venue's x86 underpinnings. Dell told us it has set a high bar for the overall user experience; OS updates won't be released unless they're "flawless."

The experience with KitKat is close to perfect, with snappy load times and responsive touch feedback throughout. The UI animations are generally smooth, too, but some whole-screen transitions hitch every once in a while. This stuttering is too brief and infrequent to be problematic, but it stands out because everything else is so fluid.