Dell Tries To Crack The Android Tablet Code (Again) With The Venue 7 & 8

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Dell rounded up a slew of journalists in New York today to show off a number of new gadgets — including some shiny new XPS notebooks and convertibles — but the company is finally making good on promises of a big tablet push. And among that portfolio of tablets are two low-cost options that run Android.

Really, Dell? I spent a little hands-on time with the new $149 Venue 7 and $179 Venue 8, and came away more than a little puzzled.

Dell’s press presentation was pretty light on details, but it soon became clear that the differences between the two were minor. The Venue 7 and 8 feature 7 and 8-inch IPS displays running at 1280 x 800 respectively, 2GB of system RAM, and 4G connectivity options if you’re hard up for some roadside internet access. The only other differences of note were the clock speeds of the Intel Clover Trail chips nestled inside the tablets — the 7-inch model has a processor clocked at 1.6GHz while its big brother features a slightly snappier 2.0GHz chip. Throw in a largely untouched build of Android 4.2.2 and you’re off to the races.

But what was it like to actually use them? Long story short: not bad, but far from great at the same time. They at least feel nicer than you’d expect — I think they’re more comfortable to grip than the Nexus 7 — and they’re fetching in a simplistic sort of way. And thanks to Intel’s chips and the 2GB of RAM, I didn’t have too many complaints as I fired up apps and tried to load some websites either.

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The biggest issue I noticed was a lack of sensitivity on some of the devices while I poked and prodded at their screens: it occasionally took multiple attempts to successfully bring up the App Launcher or return to the home screen. I suspect that’s all because of non-final hardware or software, but it was alarming enough that it managed to sour me on the experience a hair. The Venues’ cameras were awfully iffy too, though that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Images looked grainy and undersaturated, so stick to your smartphone and you’ll be better off.

Those minor misses are either addressable through software or just par for the course for tablets in this price range. The big problem that Dell will almost assuredly deal with is that fact that these two tablets are totally and utterly adequate.

They’ll get the job done, and by all accounts, they’ll get the job with with a minimum of headaches. But for whatever reason, Dell seems to think that a strictly solid Android tablet will be enough to make them a notable player in the space, and I’m not convinced they’re right.

Now it should be noted that Dell isn’t exactly a stranger to the Android tablets either — it launched the Streak 7 tablet back in mid-2011, and I guess you could count the even older Streak 5 as the damage-prone precursor to today’s phablet craze. The market was younger and less crowded then, but Dell still wasn’t equipped for success. And Dell is far from the only PC maker trying to make a splash with a low-cost Android tablet either, since HP outed its cheap (and largely underwhelming Slate) tablet earlier this year. Throw in some forthcoming Tegra 4-powered devices built on NVIDIA’s Tegra Note design, new Kindle Fires from Amazon, and Google’s stalwart Nexus 7, and you’ve got a taste of just how crowded the tiny tablet market is.

I get that Dell is trying to lay a foundation here. If they’re lucky, this Venue business could cement the Dell brand as a tablet player that’s truly worth its salt. And looking past all that “blah” that the Venue 7 and 8 bring to the table, I get the sense that Dell is serious about making a name for itself in the tablet space this time. I’m looking forward to putting the review units through their paces on the off-chance Dell managed to to pump some extra oomph into these things — hopefully they decide to step outside the box for their inevitable followups.