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Dell Venue 11 Pro review

Highs

  • Nice 1080 IPS screen
  • Solid feel
  • Very configurable
  • Good battery life

Rating

Our Score 6
User Score 10

Lows

  • Much pricier than the 8-inch model
  • Heavy for a tablet
Dell’s Venue 11 Pro is more configurable and business-friendly than most tablets, but the Atom-based entry-level model is expensive for what it offers.

PC makers seem convinced that there’s a substantial market for big-screen Windows tablets that can essentially become laptops or desktops with the right accessories. HP has their ElitePad 900, with various feature-adding jackets, Lenovo outed their upcoming, keyboard-toting Miix 2 11 at CES 2014, and Dell debuted their Venue 8 and Venue 11 Pro tablets (the latter of which we’re looking at here) at an NYC event this past fall.

We think there’s potential in the idea of a Windows tablet that can be docked or attached to a keyboard. But given the fairly high-profile disappointment of Microsoft’s original Surface, it’s a bit surprising to see so many competitors attempting to succeed where the makers of Windows 8 have–thus-far, at least—failed.

The Venue 11 Pro is much more configurable than most tablets.

Dell’s Atom-powered entry-level Venue 11 Pro feels well-built, and sports an attractive and bright 10.8-inch, 1080p IPS touchscreen, pretty good battery life, and business-friendly features like a removable battery. At $499, it’s also priced at a level that’s in-line with the competition. However, its accessories like the keyboard and desktop docks that make the device much more interesting. Add one or two of those into the mix and pricing looks less appealing for an low-end Atom machine when Lenovo is expected to sell their similar Miix 2 11 with a much more powerful Core i5 chip and a keyboard for $699.

The real issue with the Venue 11 Pro extends to all dual-purpose Windows tablets. While Windows 8.1 was a significant improvement, and Windows is still great for desktop work, 8.1 still lags far behind both iOS and Android when it comes to providing a good touchscreen tablet experience. Everyone knows that, though its getting better, app selection is a problem.

Solid feel, but heavy

The Venue 11 Pro both looks and feels like a solid business-class device that’s built to handle heavy use. It’s certainly better built than lower-cost alternatives like Asus’ T100. However, Microsoft’s second-generation Surface, with its magnesium-alloy shell, still feels better.

Port selection is also pretty good. On the upper-right edge (in landscape orientation), you’ll find the power button, right where you’d expect it to be. On the right edge, there’s a MicroSD card slot and Mini HDMI. And on the left edge sits a headphone/mic jack, a Micro USB charging port, and a full-size USB 3.0 port.

Dell Venue Pro 11 right side

While the tablet does charge via a standard-looking Micro USB cable, the charger that Dell provides outputs 19.5 volts. So if you try charging the tablet with another Micro USB charger, the device either won’t charge at all, or will charge very slowly.

Business users looking to extend the longevity of their devices will be pleased to hear that the Venue 11 Pro has a removable soft-touch plastic back that gives you access to an easily replaceable battery—something that isn’t very common with tablets (or Ultrabooks).

We certainly welcome the user-replaceable battery. But it, along with the layout of the other components, may be contributing to one of the problems we had with the tablet. Dell says the Venue 11 Pro’s weight varies by configuration, but starts at 1.57 pounds. Given that the Atom-based model we’re looking at here is the entry-level option, it should weigh about a pound-and-a-half, slightly more than the Surface 2, and a half-pound heavier than Apple’s iPad Air.

But to us at least, the Venue 11 Pro feels heavier than that. We’re not sure why this is, but we can say that the tablet feels heavy when holding it with one hand for even a minute or two, and doesn’t feel comfortable to hold for long periods with even two hands while reading. To be fair, that’s also true of Microsoft’s 2-pound Surface Pro 2. And as much as we like battery life and high-powered components, for a tablet really to be comfortable to use as a tablet (for things like reading in bed or while commuting), we think its weight has to lean closer to a pound.

The tablet’s stereo speakers, which fire out of either side of the tablet, are a step above what’s found in most tablets, with good volume. There’s little in the way of discernable bass, and there’s some distortion when the levels are cranked all the way up. Volume controls are located on the left edge (in Landscape mode).

1080p and IPS doesn’t disappoint

One of the chief reasons to opt for the Venue 11 Pro over lower-cost options with similar internals, like Asus’ T100 or Dell’s own Venue 8 Pro, is this model’s 10.8-inch IPS screen. It’s certainly a nice panel.

In our Datacolor Spyder tests, it maxed out at 337 nits of brightness. That’s brighter than most laptops and many tablets, though not quite as bright as the screen on Asus’ $1,500 Transformer Book Trio (365 nits) or Dell’s high-end XPS 15 Ultrabook (400 nits).

Aside from its brightness, the Venue 11 Pro’s screen also delivers good contrast. And in our testing, it was able to display 99 percent of the sRGB spectrum, which is better than most screens you’ll see outside of good-quality desktop monitors.

We did see some light uniformity issues in our testing, with the bottom corners of the screen varying as much 23 percent. But in regular use, we didn’t notice the issue until we went looking for it, and even then it’s hard to see. Overall, the screen is one of the best features of the tablet and, along with the speakers, make for a good overall media experience.

Win 8.1 works well, but we still need more (and better) apps

Most of what we said about the limitations of Windows 8.1 on Dell’s smaller Venue 8 Pro holds true for the larger model. The OS works well at a basic level as a tablet OS, giving you a now-familiar tiled interface that hosts your frequent apps, while all other programs and apps are just a swipe (up from the bottom) away. Multitasking also works better here than on smaller tablets, with the ability to snap multiple apps to separate portions of the screen, or swipe in from the left to quickly cycle through open apps.

The touchscreen side of the OS also feels far-less mature than what you’ll find from devices running Google or Apple’s mobile OS.

The real problem is that old Windows 8 refrain: the lack of apps in the Windows Store. Granted, app selection has gotten much better in the last year or so, and big-name apps keep arriving here and there. Many popular apps, like Flipboard, Facebook, Twitter, Mint, Netflix, and YouTube, are now available. But as we reported last November, app development for Windows 8 seems to be falling, rather than rising. The current count of something above 125,000 available apps is a far cry from the more than a million apps available on both Android and iOS, with notable absences like Gmail, Instagram, and many touch-based games.

Of course, because the Venue 11 Pro runs the standard version of Windows, it can also run most traditional Windows software. That’s definitely a plus for the tablet (and Windows slates in general). However, having millions of non-touch-optimized programs available is not the same thing as having a modern app store full of appealing apps – particularly for a tablet. Windows still has a long, long way to go before its app selection looks anything like the competition’s.

Numbers aren’t everything, either. Windows 8 apps don’t appear to get updates as often as their counterparts on other operating systems. As a result, apps like Windows 8 Facebook look dated, and many others lack the stability or features of found on other operating systems.

The camera isn’t bad

We weren’t impressed with the 5-megapixel rear-facing camera on Dell’s Venue 8 Pro. But the 8-megapixel shooter on the back of Dell’s larger tablet delivers noticeably better pictures. We still think anyone taking snapshots with a large tablet looks silly, and you should only do so as a last resort. But in a business environment, the camera should do a good job of grabbing a quick shot of a whiteboard or other data you want to quickly digitize. There’s also a 2-megapixel front-facing camera for video calls that works well enough, but produces grainy images in low light.

Dell Venue Pro 11 back camera

The good news is, we didn’t notice any of the slow-loading images when perusing our snapshots as we did with the Venue 8 Pro. Perhaps Dell opted for faster internal storage for this larger, more-expensive model.

Specs & performance

The Venue 11 Pro is much more configurable than most tablets. The base model Dell sent us for review has a 64GB SSD, 2GB of RAM, and an Intel Atom Z3770 quad-core CPU. That’s mostly good enough for basic tasks, but models with Core i3 and Core i5 CPUs are expected to be available by March, paired with up to 128GB of storage. A maxed-out model will set you back $849, which is a lot to pay for a tablet. But then again, a similarly configured Surface Pro 2 is priced at $999 from the Microsoft Store.

The Atom-based $499 Venue 11 Pro is best suited for media consumption and basic productivity tasks. Its main limitations are its 2GB of RAM and 32-bit OS, which will keep you from running some programs, particularly media creation software that demands lots of memory to work with large files.

The screen is one of the best features of the tablet and, along with the speakers, make for a good overall media experience.

The tablet’s Creative Score mark of 1,313 in PCMark 8 is the lowest we’ve seen since we began using that test. We couldn’t even get the test to run on the smaller Venue 8 Pro. Dell’s 2013 XPS 12 scored 2,340 on the same test. The good news is that Dell seemingly didn’t skimp by dumping slow storage into this tablet. The Venue 11 Pro scored 4,277 on the PCMark 8 Storage test. That’s far from the best score we’ve seen, but it’s actually better than the score we got when we ran the same test on Dell’s XPS 15 (4,169).

Given what we’ve seen from Intel’s Bay Trail processor, battery life on the Venue 11 Pro is better than you’ll get with most laptops. In our heavy load Battery Eater test, the tablet lasted 3 hours and 23 minutes, or nearly an hour longer than Dell’s Inspiron 14 7000 Series laptop (2 hours, 27 minutes). In the less-demanding Peacekeeper battery test, the tablet lasted 6 hours and 16 minutes, slightly better than HP’s Spectre 13 x2 managed with its two batteries (6 hours, 4 minutes).

So long as you aren’t frequently taxing the CPU heavily (which the Atom chip isn’t designed for), you should have no problem getting through a full workday without needing a charger. And if you crave more battery life, you can opt for the keyboard dock, which Dell says adds 50 percent to the tablet’s battery life. At $160 directly from Dell, It is pricey though.

Conclusion

If you’re keen on the idea of picking up a Windows 8 tablet that can be used as a laptop (if you grab the optional keyboard dock) for basic tasks, Dell’s Venue 11 Pro is a solid option with a nice 1080p IPS screen and good battery life. Its swappable battery and line of accessories (there are two different keyboards and a desktop dock to choose from) also makes the Venue 11 Pro more business-friendly than most tablets.

Still, it’s heavier than we’d like for it to be, and $499 feels like a lot to pay for a tablet that can’t handle more-demanding software (or at least can’t handle it well). The Venue 11 Pro is a lot more interesting when paired with the keyboard dock, but that pushes the price up to $659, which definitely feels expensive considering the Atom CPU’s performance limitations. This point is magnified by the fact that there are similarly sized convertible laptops available with more powerful CPUs and built-in-or-included keyboards at about the same price (or less). For example, Lenovo’s new 11-inch Yoga 2 starts at just $529, though it lacks a 1080p screen. The Venue 11 Pro makes more sense with Core i3 or Core i5 processors, where its price undercuts Microsoft’s Surface Pro by a fair amount.

If all you need is a Windows tablet for basic tasks, we’d suggest opting instead for the smaller Venue 8 Pro. Sure, the screen is a couple inches smaller, and the resolution is lower, but it’s currently selling for as low as $200, and it runs a similar Bay Trail Atom CPU with the same amount of RAM. Performance between the two devices, should be rather close, which makes the $300 difference between Dell’s 8-inch and 11-inch tablets hard to justify.

Highs

  • Nice 1080 IPS screen
  • Solid feel
  • Very configurable
  • Good battery life

Lows

  • Much pricier than the 8-inch model
  • Heavy for a tablet