Testing: Dell Venue 8 7000 Tablet

By Norman Chan

Under its striking design is a really interesting hardware for an Android tablet. Here are some early testing thoughts.

Last week, I wrote about some of the products that we missed seeing at CES, but would get hands-on time with to test soon. One of them was Dell's new Venue 8 7000 tablet (terrible name, agreed), which attracted a lot of attention for its thin-bezel design and use of Intel's latest Atom processor to run Android. This tablet was actually released alongside CES, and I received mine late last week. While I'll be using and testing it for several more weeks before we shoot a video review, I wanted to share some initial thoughts, as well as get some feedback from you guys who also use Android tablets.

So first, the design of this tablet. Ever since the very first iPhone was released in 2007, users and device designers have been trying to figure out what to make about the bezel around a touchscreen. It's generally considered that the narrower the bezel around a screen the better, though the absence of a sizeable bezel changes the way you can hold a phone or tablet. Case in point, the slimmer bezels on the iPad Mini change the practical ways to comfortably orient and grip that tablet as compared to the full-sized iPad. With the Venue 8 7000, Dell's designers have decided that an 8-inch tablet can work best without much bezel on three of its sizes, and an extended "chin" to pack hardware at the bottom. It's a striking design for sure.

Compared to the iPad Mini, the Venue 8 7000 looks futuristic. The 8.4-inch 2560x1600 screen has a 16:10 aspect ratio, so it's actually less wide than the Mini's. Even including its left and right bezel, Dell's tablet almost fits within the confines of the Mini's screen. The "forehead" bezel of the Venue is the same width as the sides', and the uniformity of bezel space around the top of the tablet is very visually pleasing. While reading a Kindle book, flipping through photos, and browsing webpages, I felt a little more connected to the content on the Venue than on the iPad--the tablet feels more like a window for digital content than any other smartphone or tablet I've previously used. It's a peculiar distinction, but that's the psychological power of thin bezels.

Ergonomically, the Venue 8 7000 is comfortable to use, too. I was afraid that the thick "chin" at the bottom would limit how I could hold this tablet--and it does, in that it's best used in portrait orientation with the fat bezel at the bottom. But its size and weight made holding the tablet with one hand or gripping with two at the bottom very usable. At 6mm thick and .66 pounds, it's very comparable to the iPad Mini--the slight thickness advantage isn't all that noticeable. The only complaint I have so far is that gripping the bottom of the tablet, as when for thumb typing, can obscure part of the speakers--which aren't great to begin with. The headphone jack is on the bottom left, which is what I used for most of my time with the tablet so far.

Weight and ergonomics are important to the Venue 8 7000 because its display is such a high-density panel. 2560x1600 is the pixel resolution of your typical 30-inch desktop monitor, so imagined that crammed into the space of an 8.4-inch OLED panel. It's not the highest PPI display being used--5.5-inch 1440p phones still top it--but the high resolution is absolutely noticeable in everyday use. This is an OLED panel, so all the familiar caveats apply: contrast and colors look really good, but direct daylight use is limited and I could definitely see non-RGB subpixel arrangements when scrutinizing text. The pixel density is high enough that it doesn't matter--this is a crazy beautiful display.

Pixel density only becomes a problem occasionally in web browsing, since Chrome mobile doesn't render websites with 1:1 scaling. For this tablet, Chrome has a pixel scaling ratio of 2, which means websites think that the browser is 800 pixels wide instead of 1600. For some responsive webpages--Tested included--this squishes UI elements together. Its technically an oversight of the web designer and can be corrected in CSS, but I'd wish Chrome mobile would let users adjust pixel scaling.

Another interesting thing about the Venue is that it's running Intel's Atom Z3580 mobile processor, the quad-core version of Intel's Merrifield chip, dubbed Moorefield. It's a 2.33GHz part, with graphics running on PowerVR's 6430 GPU. Interestingly, that PowerVR GPU is also what Apple used for its A7 SoC, but clocked higher here. It also runs on 2GB of RAM, and comes with 16GB of built-in storage, of which about 10GB is available to access. Thankfully, there's a microSD card slot.

These specs aside, I was interested in seeing how Android app run on x86, and so far, haven't run into any performance hiccups. Every app I've installed so far has run smoothly, as does Chrome with numerous tabs open. My other Android tablet is the Nvidia Shield Tablet, so I'll be doing further comparisons in games and process-intensive apps to see how Intel's "binary translator" (ARM emulator) performs.

I'm not 100% sold on x86 compatibility, so please let me know if there are apps you'd like me to test or check on the Venue 8. So far, the only major Android app that I'm aware isn't x86 compatible at all is Microsoft Office--there's no definitive list for compatibility, since Android apps are technically supposed to be processor agnostic (as run though the Dalvik VM). Penalties for running through Intel's emulator could be in the form of performance, power consumption, or both.

But if battery life is what's affected by app emulation, it's something I haven't noticed in use. In fact, battery life so far has been pretty great. The Venue came fully charged, and I've been able to use it for two full days of video watching and web browsing without fully draining it--it's currently at 25% capacity. The battery does get warm when I'm running games or watching video, with heat localized to the lower back of the tablet--unfortunately where my fingers usually rest. It hasn't got hot to a point of discomfort, and a thermal camera image of the tablet under load showed the hot spot at 82 degrees as opposed to the 77 degrees of the rest of the device.

On the camera side, I'm not terribly impressed by the depth-sensing feature. Three cameras on the back work together to take a photo with depth information, which allows software to adjust focus after the fact. The quality of the 8MP rear camera was underwhelming, and the focus adjust shots I've done so far look glitchy. The depth information also supposedly helps with post-processing filters and allows smart measurements of your subjects (eg. the relative dimensions of objects in the foreground and background), but those apps haven't been released yet. I'll wait for updates before more experimenting here.

Also, this is a Dell product, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised to see the Venue 8 7000 pre-loaded with bloatware, including McAfee, proprietary media apps, a sound processing app, and other partner programs (like Dropbox). This isn't terribly egregious, since I can force stop and disable what I don't like in settings, as well as use my own launcher. My worry is that Dell's software could slow down the turnaround time for Android updates; this tablet ships with Android 4.4.4 and Dell has promised a Lollipop update soon. We'll see about that.

So far, between the physical design, screen quality, web performance, and battery life, I'm really pleased with the Venue 8 7000. Unlike the Shield Tablet, it doesn't feel like a device that wants to do everything--be a gaming tablet, streaming box, digital notepad, etc. This is a beautiful device for content consumption, and as long as further testing shows that it doesn't noticeably suffer for running x86, it could be the best mobile device Dell has released in a long time.