The tablet is dead, long live the tablet!
Tablet sales have dropped in recent months. And depending on whom you ask, this either spells doom for the category or it simply marks a slow period before growth picks up again — a “speed bump” as Apple CEO Tim Cook describes it.
Downward spiral or bump — whatever it might be — it’s not stopping device manufacturers from releasing new tablet models to try and woo new customers with different designs, whiz-bang features and performance improvements. The Dell Venue 8 7000 is the latest example.
Let’s assume for a moment here that you are okay with an Android tablet. If you’re really more interested in an iPad mini but you’re considering this as an alternative, it’s sort of like comparing apples and oranges (no pun intended), because they offer entirely different ecosystems of apps and services. But if you’re looking for a solid Android tablet, read on.
Despite its completely forgettable name, the $399, Wi-Fi-enabled, Android-based Dell Venue 8 7000 offers some unique features that help it stand out from other tablets in its size category, such as the similarly priced Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4. This includes an extremely thin profile, and a camera system that lets you refocus images after they’ve been taken.
But these are not the main selling points of the Dell tablet — quite the opposite, actually. The solid performance, great battery life and premium design are the real stars.
At just 0.24-inch thick, Dell says the Venue 8 7000 is the world’s thinnest tablet. And it is impressively skinny: There’s a 0.05-inch and 0.02-inch difference between it and the comparable Apple iPad mini 3 and Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4, respectively.
Personally, I’ve never given much weight to such claims. To me, it’s part chest-thumping, part marketing ploy, and I’m sure that within months we’ll see another company say the same thing about its new tablet. To me, the more attractive aspect of the Dell tablet is its build quality.
The chassis is constructed from anodized aluminum, giving it a premium look and feel that has been lacking on most Android tablets. The latest Samsung and Nexus tablets are hardly cheap or fragile, but the Venue 8 7000 is more of what I would expect if I’m going to drop $400 on a tablet.
The 8.4-inch, 2,560 by 1,600 pixel touchscreen is also gorgeous. Text looked crisp, and details and colors popped from the screen when I was looking at photos and video. A thin bezel surrounds the top, left and right sides of the screen. Not only does it look slick, but it also makes the tablet narrower than the iPad mini and Galaxy Tab S 8.4.
That said, the thin bezel also presents some problems.
For example, when I was watching a movie in landscape mode, my left hand would sometimes accidentally brush the touchscreen, bringing up the video-player controls when I didn’t want it to. Or my right hand would cover up the speakers located on the bottom bezel. Also, the front-facing camera is now on the bottom left-hand corner of the tablet, which makes for a very unflattering view on video calls.
Hand placement also becomes an issue when using the rear cameras. Yes — cameras plural.
The Venue 8 7000 is the first tablet to use Intel’s RealSense Snapshot Depth Camera, which consists of two 720p cameras and an eight-megapixel camera. They work together to capture depth information, so you can later adjust the focal point of an image in Dell’s photo app. It’s similar to the camera found on the HTC One M8 smartphone, and to the effects produced by the Lytro camera.
Sounds cool, right? Well, it would be if it worked well.
Using the Dell’s Gallery app, I followed instructions by tapping on a point of focus in my photo and then using the slider tool to blur the rest of the image. While the overall effect worked, the edges around the subject came out blurry or jagged. It looked pretty sloppy (you can see an example below), and the software can be slow to apply the changes.
There are other cool effects and tools in the app (for example, there’s one that can measure an object in the photo, and it worked as advertised in my tests), but I wish picture quality was better. Photos taken outdoors looked washed-out, and indoor shots looked noisy. And as I mentioned earlier, you have to be mindful of how you hold the tablet, otherwise you’ll end up with your finger in the frame.
Whether you consider the camera’s shortcomings a deal-breaker may depend on how often you plan to use your tablet as a camera. For me, it’s rare that I use my iPad’s camera — or that I’m ever in a situation where I have my tablet but not my smartphone — so it was less of an issue.
I use my iPad mainly at home, as a reading and multimedia device, and for catching up on emails and social networks while watching TV. And the Venue 8 7000 handled all those tasks well.
The Venue 8 7000 ships running Android 4.4 KitKat, which is one version behind the current Android 5.0 Lollipop operating system. But Dell said an update will be available in the coming months. And it’s largely a stock version of Android, which is cleaner and easier to use than Samsung’s customized TouchWiz interface found on the Galaxy S 8.4.
There are some extra apps preloaded on the Venue 8 7000 for connecting to Dell accessories and services, but not an obnoxious amount. As with other Android tablets, there’s still an issue where many apps aren’t optimized for use on a tablet’s bigger screen. Things are improving, but Apple still does a better job of offering tablet-specific apps.
The Venue 8 7000 comes with an Intel Atom processor, two gigabytes of RAM and 16GB of internal storage with a microSD card slot. Launching apps and general navigation was smooth, and I didn’t experience any issues while streaming movies on Netflix or playing games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
Battery life was also impressive. For my test, I set the screen brightness to high, left Wi-Fi on to fetch email in the background, and played a downloaded video on a continuous loop. The Venue 8 7000 lasted 11 hours and 50 minutes.
In more real-world usage, I traveled with the tablet over the President’s Day weekend, using it mostly for reading an e-book on the Amazon Kindle app, browsing the Web and checking email, Facebook and Instagram, and I went 48 hours before needing to recharge.
The Dell Venue 8 7000’s camera is more of a gimmick than a useful tool, and the thin-bezel design brings some ergonomic challenges. But its high-quality build, great performance and long battery life make it one of the best compact Android tablets on the market today.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.